“She was wearing a skirt and a big-shouldered jacket of a royal blue that was fashionable in France, a blue-and-white-striped silk blouse, and electric-blue lizard pumps with white calf caps on the toes.” This could be a review of Nicolas Ghesquière’s Louis Vuitton AW19 show, but it is, in fact, a line from The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s 1987 tale about greed and consumption and Americana. Its “hero”? Sherman McCoy, a Wasp bond trader who, in the film, lives in a “16-million- plus-dollar apartment” with “11 telephones in 14 rooms”.
From jumbo lapels and boxy power shoulders at Louis Vuitton, double-breasted suits and chalky pinstripes at Gucci, and puff-ball shoulders at Jacquemus, to Dallas bows and ruffled layers at Alexandre Vauthier and tan leather gloves and oversized trench coats at Acne Studios, the 1980s dominated catwalks again. Perms even made a comeback on the models at Celine and Gucci, and Lycra shorts made strides at Chanel. The trickle-down effect is already in full motion. In May, H&M launched their Netflix- hit Stranger Things capsule collection – a 1980s-infused poolside line. From Off-White to Burberry via Topshop and Zara, the 1980s trend lives on. Poster girls Rihanna, Kaia Gerber and Hailey Baldwin are infrequently out of huge shoulder-padded blazers and ugly workout trainers from Balenciaga – think Joan Collins in Dynasty meets Jane Fonda’s workout. The former uniform of golf-club wives and socialite heiresses has taken centre stage at a time when celebrating those motifs seems so incongruent with current Western politics.
Ironically for most of the models walking the shows, and anyone of my age born on the cusp of the 1990s, the 1980s is not a period we can claim any nostalgia for because, well, we weren’t there. At seven years old, in 1997, I came downstairs, woken up by the sound of my mum sobbing in front of the TV. Princess Diana had died in a car accident. A new sun rose over the Tellytubby hills of New Labour. With Diana’s passing, the 1980s officially came to a close. My childhood was pure Big Breakfast, Buffalo shoes, ladette culture and, quite frankly, a rejection of the 1980s. On the whole, we and our parents agreed that the whole thing had been in “bad taste”. Smooth rock was replaced with Britpop, shoulder-padded tailoring with loose-fitting charity-shop finds, chrome with light wood flooring, and aerobics with Ibiza all-nighters.
Of course, some things come full circle. It is impossible to discuss the 1980s without talking about Donald Trump, a cartoon epitome of the times, who by the mid-1980s, was busy buying up real estate and casinos and renaming them things like Trump Taj Mahal. It wasn’t just Wolfe who was tracking Trump and his coterie. His type was also chronicled by Bret Easton Ellis, who became synonymous with documenting the rise and crashing burnouts of the 1980s’ rich-kid elite, bloated from their own consumerism.
In Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, American Psycho, its protagonist Patrick Bateman, a 1980s Wall Street banker, is a huge fan of now-POTUS Trump. Bateman even attends a U2 concert because he knows that Trump is a fan, and cites Trump’s how-to book The Art of the Deal when a detective is questioning him about the disappearance of one of his victims. Throughout the novel, women are framed as objects for display or consumption and nothing in between.
“‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out and talk to her and be real nice and sweet and treat her right.’ I stop and finish my J&B in one swallow.
‘What does the other part of him think?’ Hamlin asks tentatively.
‘What her head would look like on a stick.’”
Easton Ellis – who recently published a book with the sinister name White – has been speaking out against both pussy-grabbing Trump and the Millennial “snowflake” culture. However, he will be forever remembered for creating Bateman, an anti-hero so consumed with consuming that he has surpassed his fictional status to resemble an almost-real depiction of 1980s New York. In Mary Harron’s 2000 cinematic retelling, starring the gleaming and terrifying Christian Bale as Bateman, his uniform of white and white-collar shirts and expensive tailoring became a symbol of power and violence and would not have looked out of place on the catwalks of last season.
The 1980s were a decade that championed the great white male. The whole western world, for a moment, rotated on the axis of Wall Street and the Upper East Side. Being a yuppie caught on. Looking rich, white and powerful became the aim, and women were told they could become more powerful if they, too, bought powerful clothing. Power dressing has to be the most proselytised trend to have been born out of that particular decade. Women were supposed to feel grateful for the armour-like effect that masculine suiting suddenly allowed them. Designers still talk of how we can expect to transform into Grace Jones, via a process of something like osmosis, when we don a big-shouldered suit, echoing the silhouette of our oppressors.
It was maybe why Donna Karan’s 1992 fabled In Women We Trust campaign incited such interest. It featured a “female president” – a working mum in a well-cut suit – and came with a mission statement: “You’ll look chic, sophisticated, and as authoritative as any man in the room. Only you’ll look like a woman.” It sounds antiquated and superficial in 2019, but remnants of that kind of sentiment live on. In hindsight, power dressing and the designers peddling it were not mirroring any real progress for women in or outside of the workplace (please see The Wolf of Wall Street). On average, women in the US still earn about 80% of the amount their male counterparts do. If you’re an ethnic minority, that gap widens. Only 33 of the 500 largest corporations in America have female chief executive officers. In other words, only 6.6% of those businesses are led by women.
In 1979, the American feminist Betty Friedan wrote of the “superwoman” trap, an idea that suggested women were now being oppressed by the things they’d fought to win, namely the workplace. Friedan saw a new league of young women stifled by the pressure to perform at work, which was in turn forcing them to reject domesticity and family life. “Indeed, some of the choices women are supposed to have won by now are not real choices at all,” she wrote.
But where do we stand with depictions of women in power now? If you are congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you will have to defend your choice to wear red lipstick and gold hoop earrings, as she did for her swearing-in ceremony earlier this year, on January 3, despite teaming the above with a crisp white suit (which was more than a little 1980s in influence). The Bronx native explained her sartorial choices were a homage to Sonia Sotomayor (the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic and Latina justice). “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman,” she tweeted the next day. It’s too simple to suggest that dressing like a man means people take you more seriously, but it’s not an understatement to suggest dressing like a “woman” might not propel you into political success. The furore over Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe choices is just one of the many ways in which women are policed – from our salaries to our lipstick – and now also our reproductive systems in places such as Alabama, where abortion is illegal, except when there is a serious health risk to the mother.
Within pop culture we seem to be faring better. Individuals such as Solange are borrowing from and reinterpreting the 1980s on their terms. For her latest album, When I Get Home, a litany of images appeared online. The Texas native appeared clothed only in an arrangement of huge powder-white cowboy hats. To overlook the symbolism would be short-sighted. A movement around the reappropriation of Americana by black communities has been coined on social media as the “yeehaw agenda”. In our collective imagination, the cowboy is a lone figure, a colonialist, a hero – a white man. This John Wayne image eclipses a more diverse chapter in American history of the black cowboy, a passage that’s now being jubilantly revisited among a new cohort of pop stars and rap artists, through fashion, by the likes of Cardi B, Kelela and Mitski. Salvatore Ferragamo dressed Solange for this year’s Met Gala in a python-skin long-sleeved body and matching thigh-high boots – her Instagram is littered with images of her dressed in silver cowboy boots and white leather gloves. This is not a coincidence.
In the 1980s, designers gave lip service to the idea that clothes could give women power, that fashions that parroted menswear – but were in effect sexed-up versions of a pinstriped suit, worn with “fuck-me” stilettos and a pencil skirt so tight it was impossible to walk down the street – would make the difference in the boardroom. Now, designers are using 1980s references in complex ways.
One brand doing a lot to create a new-fangled uniform from the tropes of old is the counterculture, young, black and proud, New York-based Telfar, which is going hell for leather on the Bible Belt references. Stars and stripes adorn white boxer shorts, denim chaps abound and vintage Budweiser advertisements hem flares. The images take on new meanings – this, they seem to be saying, is what American power looks like now. Telfar Clemens, the Liberian-American founder of the brand, thinks American design has lacked satire for too long. To quote him: “You get so much flak for trying to be conceptual in America, whereas it’s celebrated in Europe. But I don’t know […] I would just be putting out stupid shit if it actually wasn’t a conceptual brand.”
The subversion of the costume that’s become culturally synonymous with a backwards-looking “white America” by small, artistic, politically energised groups and designers feels particularly exciting and refreshing. Similarly, Rihanna, one of the most influential and powerful black women in America, equalled only by Michelle Obama and Oprah, has just released her first full fashion line with the backing of LVMH. And the whole collection is a homage to the 1980s. Blush-pink double-breasted blazer dresses, off-the-shoulder puff-ball blouses, extra-large loose-fit beige suits.
Now in 2019, when designers and retailers are being held so much more to account, women are more able to buy clothes that are both powerful and comfortable, flattering or bulky. My generation feels that we cannot derive power from the things we buy when the bodies we put them on remain manacled to a system that places us at fault for our gender and sexuality. We might long for a time pre-Instagram, but we do not feel nostalgic for the justice systems of yesteryear, or for the tyranny of the POTUS of now. The return to the 1980s could mark an unhealthy lack of progression, even a return to oppression. But what could genuinely be more liberating than to ignore the tropes of that time and instead encourage women to move past a packaged-up false liberation sold back to us in the form of uncomfortable clothing? It’s time to move forward both literally and metaphorically, in our fashion and life choices.
Taken from Issue 14 – MONIED, SOCIETY, SUBMIT – on newsstands now.