The New Romantic movement grew out of a time of social and economic challenge, but also a time of great joy. Joy to be young and to dream of an escape to a creative life. From 1979 to 1980, London’s Blitz nightclub was the breeding ground for soon-to-be-famous names like Sade, John Galliano, Steve Strange, Tracey Emin, and Boy George.
British GQ Editor-in-Chief Dylan Jones documents that halcyon moment in fashion, music and ‘designer’ culture in his new book “Sweet Dreams – The Story of the New Romantics.” In a series of interviews with the movers and shakers of the era, Jones chronicles the decade between the birth of punk and the global spectacle of Live Aid.
In 1980, I was a teen punk rocker (and David Bowie fanatic) and lived in the Northern English town of Doncaster. I performed with my band Sordid Details and sewed clothes on my mother’s Singer machine. I also nursed ambitions of studying fashion at Central Saint Martins in London. In the wake of Glam rock, the British punk movement began in 1975 and channeled the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and Warhol’s Factory. 1977 was the most explosive year in British popular culture. Overnight, punks appeared on every UK street. Androgynous girls in striped mohair sweaters carried kettles as handbags, boys wore tight plastic trousers, ripped T-shirts, plastic sandals and dyed cropped hair. The cultural clicker changed the channel from Black & White to Technicolor. Anything seemed possible.
However, by 1980, Punk had become a caricature and we were ready for the Next Big Thing. In London’s Bowie/Roxy Music-fixated Blitz club, gender fluid fashion students and nightlife reprobates who were soon to be christened New Romantics. Where Punk had aspired to chaos, New Romantics dreamed of couture, albeit on a Salvation Army budget. I formed an electronic synth-twiddling group called Wonder Stories. We were a dandy band in frilly shirts and suede pixie boots. One member had actually visited the Blitz club, passed the style test enforced by the promoter Steve Strange and faced down the catty remarks and aerodynamic hairstyle of coat check (Boy) George O’Dowd. We were in our pomp and on a mission to avoid drab conformity, living like it was Studio 54 with thrift store chic and a cut-price Kraftwerk soundtrack.
The New Romantic crowd contained a strange bunch of stylish misfits: Cossacks, Che Guevara look-alikes, fellas in nun’s habits and future characters from ‘Game of Thrones’ all fleeing suburban mundanity. The movement has been maligned as a shallow and meaningless and in some ways, it was, but that was the point. Rather than wallow in punk pessimism, Blitz Kids chose to focus on positivity, fashion, dance music and the joy of self-expression. Like many of these cultural moments, it was only a matter of time before it imploded. By Charles and Diana’s Royal wedding in May 1981, it was over. “Sweet Dreams – The Story of the New Romantics” tells the whole story.
Pictured (top): The Wonder Stories.
Keanan Duffty is an award-winning British fashion designer, musician, educator, and CFDA member. Duffty is the author of “Rebel Rebel Anti-Style” (Rizzoli/Universe, 2009).