Musings on New Romantic on the New Frontier


Of all the youth subcultures New Romantic is the most arbitrary. It began in the London night club Blitz in 1979. It was a predominantly gay club that played a mixture of electronic pop and disco. The attitude of the patrons was that unlike punk it was important that you did 'something'. Such as write poems, write songs or (because of the proximity of the pre-eminent Fashion College; St Martin's) design clothes. At some point in the year the theatrical costumier (who supplied all the theatres in London) Charles Fox had the crashdown sale of it's long history. Consequently that week Blitz patrons came dressed in a mix of retro styles that spanned a thousand years. Chain mail, doublet and hose, ruffs and uniforms loyal to every flag. In one night New Romantic was born.

Blitz had been Billys, it became Satellites and I believe by the late '80s was called Shroom. This was where, perhaps, Detroit Techno begat Acid House in Britain. As, much to the point, it was named for magic mushrooms. Every time the fashion changed the drugs did. Punks drank beer and took amphetamine sulphate wheras New Romantics drank cocktails and took heroin. This was no bonanza for the club owners, mind you, as a smacked out room drank less than a speeding one. The relationships between clothes, drugs and music were so much clearer for this movement because it's notable members were sometimes not musicians. They were club impressarios, or personalities and even when, later on, they became pop stars they would still return to the club. In other subcultures, which were more focused around bands, the lives of the musicians were so different from their fans. They wore different clothes, took different drugs and listened to different music.

It was possible for out of town fans to follow the new fashion through magazines like The Face and ID and ultimately by going to the club itself because it called the time. As Le Kilt gave way to Club for Heroes and the lines got longer and longer Steve Strange took the whole charabang to Camden Palais which was many times larger. It heaved with suburban supporters, the bar began to really make money and everybody was happy.

For the bands making the music was straightforward enough. A drum machine, a sequencer and a vocalist who could manage a cod croon. But that night at Blitz had set the bar so high that provincial clubbers could not fully participate in the fashion.

I remember going to a club in Brighton where the bouncers refused entry to a couple of lads in jeans saying; "Not tonight son, it's tablecloths and rugs night." Once inside the memory of a 300 pound plumber from Hastings dressed in green tights with a feather in his hat still flickers.

Unlike Skinhead where a turn up on a trouser might make all the difference who could say which was better an Elizabethan hose or an Edwardian jodhpur? Only Adam Ant seemed to have a handle on the hilariousness of the situation as his various looks were so pantomimic. At a concert for his 'Kings of the Wild Frontier' tour at Oxford Town Hall an altercation between some over enthusiastic fans made the local paper. The police said it was the first time they had had to call an ambulance for a tomahawk wound (some said that it was actually stuck in his head)

There were those who were either rich enough to afford New Romantic fashion sold in stores like Axiom and PX in London or Kahn and Bell in Birmingham. Or those who had the time and ability to make the clothes. For everybody else club night was like a kind of non gothic Halloween where every week costumes evocative of ancient regimes could be put together from whatever was around the house. This created a rift between those who could and those who couldn't in a feeble parody of the kind of feudal systems that New Romanticism often alluded to. Eventually the poorer less design capable punters came to resent their betters and the fashion changed.

Perhaps New Romantic really was a fashion moment from the future. Going into a London club on the right night could be like going onto the set of one of those episodes of Shatner-period Star Trek* where the Enterprise lands on a planet that is stuck in a previous Earth time period (only in this case multiple ones simultaneously). Digital advances make short runs on many previously mass produced articles more possible. Eventually in H&M or its equivalent one might see a line of affordable cod-pieces, dawdling on a hanger next to some Tricorn hats. (There is a reference to Falstaff's tatty codpiece in Henry IV Part II. A fashion that had all but disappeared from polite society in the Elizabethan period had ended up amongst the hoi polli as hand me-downs.) In other words, the dream of mixing retro fashions hundreds of years apart may become a reality for all of us. And very funny that may well be. - Milree Hughes

*Gene Roddenberry's pitch to the network for the show suggested that they could save on sets by employing whatever was being shot on other stages at Universal to play as other planets.

Mr. Hughes was born in North Wales in 1960, son of an Anglican priest. He began making art on the computer in 1998 in NYC.