Sweet Dreams, The Story of the New Romantics, a new book by Dylan Jones, Editor-in-Chief of British GQ, documents a phenomenal moment in fashion history. It charts the British culture explosion that happened in the ten years from 1975-1985 and, in particular, the rise––and fall––of the New Romantics. As a music and fashion movement, loosely known in the US as the Second British Invasion, it spawned globally renowned names including Sade, Spandau Ballet, Boy George, Eurythmics and Duran Duran, all of whom are interviewed within the book. Keanan Duffty who was also a central figure of that scene, and now teaches Fashion Management at Parsons, is pictured below next to singer Marc Almond (who was about to shoot to stardom with the global hit “Tainted Love.”) Interviewed for Jones’ book, Duffty, also pictured below wearing red, reflects on the experience of being a New Romantic, or Blitz Kid as the Londoners were named, with FashionUnited.
What in your opinion made the New Romantic period so special?
As Dylan Jones’ wonderful new book highlights, the New Romantic movement has been savagely maligned as a shallow, self-obsessed, and meaningless youth cult. And in many ways, it was, and that was the point. Rather than wallow in the pessimism of post punk, Blitz Kids chose to focus on positivity, fun, fashion, dance music, and self-expression, though it was only a matter of time before it imploded. The whole New Romantic story is so entrepreneurial and aspirational, even though 1979-1981 in the UK, and in New York for that matter, were pretty challenging times for college graduates and those who were looking to create a better, artistic life. A bit like right now.
What brought about its demise?
Within a year, it was all over. The point was to fail magnificently, thereby creating the ultimate success. Here was a training ground for fashion designers, film makers, musicians, DJs promoters and also drug dealers. New Romantic clubs were a nightlife laboratory where like-minded souls could meet and make plans for their future. Club culture evolved from a series of small independent ‘one-nighters’ beginning 1979/1980 that created a model which exploded by the end of the 80s with Acid House, rave culture and the super clubs like Ministry of Sound.
How long did it take to get dressed in the morning and where did you find your clothes?
Putting a “look” together for a big night out took all week. Scouring vintage clothing shops, military surplus stores or making clothes from exotic but cheap fabrics was the only way to go. London stores like Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End, or PX in London’s Covent Garden, were expensive and even though there were shops in provincial towns like X Clothes in Leeds, it was beyond most people’s budget. In any case, making a look was much more creative. It would have been abhorrent to wear a “label.” The likes of Gucci, YSL or Chanel were for the blue-haired posh ladies of Knightsbridge. The New Romantic badge of honor was being creative and unique, a do-it-yourself aesthetic.
Viewed through a contemporary lens, the eccentricity of the looks can border on costume. Was society just more accepting back then or was the youth more adventurous?
I had to put up with howls of laughter and disapproving barbs from the neighbors every time I waited at the bus stop looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy in crushed velvet, make-up, and Cuban heeled winkle pickers. I didn’t care. Where Punk had aspired to chaos, New Romantics dreamed of couture. In my mind I was prowling a catwalk, not the village street. For the New Romantic movement every day seemed like a voyage in a parallel universe, an escape from the suburban gender stereotypes with a strange bunch of style misfits all fleeing the mundane: male nuns, Cossacks, Che Guevara lookalikes, blokes wearing wedding dresses.… It was all about creating a fantasy and dreaming our way out of suburbia.
Could a movement like the New Romantics happen today?
Subcultures were tribal in the 1970s and 80s and the gang you belonged to denoted the music you listened to, the clothes you wore, the places you went. That really died with the internet and social media. Today you have access to everything, all the time. During the 70s and 80s you had to search for everything; clubs, music, style and your “crowd.” It was joyfully naïve. Anything seemed possible. We have come to an impasse and the vacuous nature of the contemporary celebrity era makes the New Romantics seem like giants. It is appalling to see the sheer lack of subversion and provocation, the hideous outfits on near naked celebrities at New York’s Met Ball. But I believe that every generation’s creative force is able to conjure the Sex, Subversion and Style that Malcom McLaren preached. My hope is that future underground cultures can happen globally today in, for example, Thailand, India, Shanghai, away from the media microscope, if that is possible. Then something can grow undisturbed, like a subculture petri dish.
The New Romantics championed gender nonconformity decades before the fashion industry finally embraced it. Why do you think its influence was so fleeting in that area?
We are taught to conform to established gender stereotypes by society, from a very young age. It can be hard to break away from that depending on where one grows up. The British writer Jon Savage coined the term “Gender Bender” in an article for The Face magazine about David Bowie who had blazed a trail for gender nonconformity in the 1970s during the Glam Rock period. New Romantics certainly embraced that stance and in the wake of Punk they were able to wear their androgyny in public, which had been more difficult earlier in the 70s. Simply put, there was safety in numbers. By 1982 global beauty and haircare companies were advertising make-up and hair dye for men. But corporations had missed the target and their campaigns looked dated and silly. Youth culture had moved on.
The movement centered around music, in particular London club the Blitz, leading some to make comparisons with the phenomenon of Studio 54 happening around the same time in NYC. The former was patronized by milliner Stephen Jones and a young John Galliano, the latter by Halston and Calvin Klein. Do you find the comparison accurate?
Studio 54 was so glamorous and unreachable and a celebrity’s status gained them access beyond the velvet rope, but the New Romantic clubs like the Blitz were cheap. The only currency for entry was style. New Romantics in their pomp were on a mission to avoid the drab conformity of their English towns and live like it was Studio 54, but with thrift store chic and cut-price sartorial style. When Stephen Jones, John Galliano, Sade and many others went to the Blitz they were poor and unknown. Calvin and Halston, by contrast, were hanging out at Studio 54 in the height of their fame. New Romantics acted like they were living the lifestyles of the rich and famous. They were willing themselves into their future destiny.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos provided by Keanan Duffty