Putting on the Blitz

Putting on the Blitz

Taking their cues from David Bowie and Tudor royalty, London’s Blitz Kids made fashion history by transforming fantasy into reality. Learn the story behind the New Romantic movement that inspired Mario Testino and Amanda Harlech's September fashion extravaganza

Taking their cues from David Bowie and Tudor royalty, London’s Blitz Kids made fashion history by transforming fantasy into reality. Learn the story behind the New Romantic movement that inspired Mario Testino and Amanda Harlech's September fashion extravaganza

Text: Derek Blasberg

The legend goes that Mark Vaultier, the feared doorman, would stand outside Taboo, the famed nightclub, holding a hand mirror. When a hopeful patron wearing an undesirable frock would hustle to the front of the queue, he’d place the mirror in his or her face and say, “Look at yourself. Would you let you in?” For a particular generation of Londoners who had grown weary of punk, idolized androgyny, and were disillusioned with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s regime, what you wore was beyond costume. “Every youth movement has its drug. The punks took speed, hippies smoked marijuana. Our drug was fashion,” remembers milliner Stephen Jones, who was at the center of the sartorial storm that is referred to as the New Romantics. “And we were mainlining it.”

It began in 1979, and David Bowie was the patron saint. The look was Queen Elizabeth meets Blade Runner on a pirate’s shipwreck. Straight men wore makeup, women dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and it seemed that nothing was too over-the-top. Traditional, mainstream fashion—what you’d see in magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—was scoffed at. “If you wore a designer outfit,” Jones says, “we’d wonder, Couldn’t you think of something yourself?” They started as the Blitz Kids, named after the Tuesday night party club promoter Steve Strange created for people to let their freak flags fly high. They’d spend the rest of the 1980s traveling to all manner of club nights, squats, warehouses, and makeshift discotheques around London, leaving an undeniable imprint on fashion and pop culture in their wake.

Photograph by Martin Bradling

Julia Fodor, known as Princess Julia, was a friend of Strange’s and worked with him as a door girl, promoter, and DJ. (Boy George ran the coat check for a time.) “We aimed for über glamour and warped perfection,” she says. “We devoured art history, fashion, film, music, and previous creative movements. We put on our own spin and lived out these fantasies in real life. As I always say, it wasn’t fancy dress, it was dress fancy—a notion I live by to this day.”

For Oriole Cullen, the Curator of Modern Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, what’s most remarkable was how much was created with so little. “They didn’t have a lot of money. Many of them lived in squats and survived on student grants. But, though they were young and penniless, they were fabulous, talented, and they were going places. Dressing up in lavish outfits was a statement of intent.” Princess Julia remembers spending a day sitting in front of her portable sewing machine, transforming her bed sheet into that night’s skirt because she couldn’t afford to buy fabric.

Amanda Harlech, the close collaborator with Karl Lagerfeld and muse to Mario Testino, among others (Harlech styled the photo shoot by Testino in V's September issue), remembers the aesthetic: “There were no jobs, no money. Meretricious consumption and Thatcher’s power dressing was ousted for the integrity of dressing as you. Dressing up meant dressing to be who you dreamt to be. Bits of jumble sale, bits of vintage, bits of something you made, and makeup—and the freedom to voice it all on the dance floor.”

An image from Mario Testino and Amanda Harlech's "New Romantics" story in V103

The prevailing attitude was that it didn’t matter who you were as much as how you dressed. Strange famously refused entry to Mick Jagger because “he didn’t like his clothes,” according to Kim Bowen, a stylist and writer who was an integral part of the crew. Her forthcoming book, The Lies, the Witch and the Wardrobe, chronicles these misdeeds and misadventures. Princess Julia adds, “Steve insisted on 100 percent effort. And, actually, if you got in and you hadn’t put your all into your look, you’d feel left out.”

Bowen remembers the abandoned building on Warren Street that she turned into a squat for friends like Jones, Boy George, and the music producer Jeremy Healy. “Getting dressed was communion. In this huge squat, we’d be running back and forth, stealing makeup, doing one another’s hair. Boy George was a terrible makeup thief, always after my purple eye pencil.” But it’s a mistake to mention the New Romantics only in the context of nightclubs because, as Jones points out, their ensembles were not exclusive to late hours: “We looked like that all the time. It was a way of life.” And Bowen remembers that she didn’t think twice about wearing a full Thierry Mugler look straight off the Paris runway to go grocery shopping on Oxford Street.

The Blitz’s biggest contribution to pop culture was bringing the street into the mainstream. Jones, who now designs hats for Christian Dior and other major fashion houses, remembers the first time he brought his creations to Vogue—they were unimpressed. “They said, ‘Sorry, this is street fashion. This isn’t real fashion.’”

But all of that changed when the Blitz Kids grew up. There was Vivienne Westwood, today an icon of British style, and John Galliano, who arrived on the tail end of the Blitz, but thrived in the following worlds that were created by the likes of nightlife legend Leigh Bowery. In 1982, the fashion label BodyMap was founded by David Holah and Stevie Stewart, who were also members of Bowen’s Warren Street squat. (Testino shot BodyMap’s first ever campaign in the 1980s, and this shoot features vintage pieces from the brand.) The choreographer Michael Clark and the filmmaker John Maybury emerged from this movement, too. The artist Grayson Perry was a member of the Neo Naturists, which was a collective at the time that went out completely naked, dressed only in lavish body paint.

Image courtesy David Johnson/Shapersofthe80s.com

“You must remember that the Blitz and the first wave of New Romanticism predated AIDS, and we were still innocently experimenting with everything in a rather fay, narcissistic way,” Jerry Stafford, a Paris-based writer and creative director remembers of the evolving ethos of this generation. “Another seminal club that followed the Blitz was the aptly named Hell, where ecclesiastical drag became the dress code. By the time Taboo opened [in 1985], we were disaffected and angry. Dressing up and performance were more about reclaiming the body and about redressing a personal identity than simply fashion.”

For these young people, it was much more than just drag, though. “It was a way of belonging and being part of something,” Cullen says. The outside world was ugly—“We were growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, and there was a no more hellish place to be,” says Bowen—but in the moment of this movement, before the 1990s brought with it grunge and a new minimalism, everyone was rich and everyone was beautiful. “We were our own creative force field,” she continues. “A post-punk explosion of youth, beauty, sexiness, arrogance, and fabulous taste. Our looks were our wealth.”

UP NEXT

Petite Meller on Her Historical Approach to Aesthetics