Well I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor: Talking To MAC’s Terry Barber About His Club Kid Days

On the eve of the V&A’s big fashion exhibition of the summer, Club to Catwalk, I talk to someone who was actually there

Do you remember the first time? The first time you went clubbing, I mean. I was a pretty late starter, only going to my first indie clubs when I went to university in London – before that, it would have been impossible to get home because the trains back to my bit of suburbia stopped running at midnight and I was far too square/sensible to ever stay up all night in grubby old Waterloo waiting for the first train in the morning – gross!

So I discovered the thrill of sticky dancefloors, vodka and coke in those neon plastic glasses and ‘interesting’ club toilets when I was 18. It was a revelation, as I suppose it is for everyone discovering for the first time that there’s a place that plays ALL your favourite songs, where no outfit or make-up look is too outlandish and you can dance with your friends, by yourself, or with some cute corduroy-flares-wearing indie boy. Bliss.

My clubbing outfits usually involved pink fishnets over red tights, two-tone eyeshadow (pink and pistachio I seem to remember) and a mangy vintage parka for the loooong nightbus ride home. This seems rather a feeble effort compared to the spectacular ensembles worn by the original – and best – club kids of the '80s, whose style was so influential that the V&A has devoted its new fashion exhibition to them.

In Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s the V&A presents the clothes worn by the original club kids, who included among their number several designers, hair stylists and make-up artists who would go on to stellar careers in the fashion industry.

The likes of Stephen Jones, John Galliano, Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood dressed their contemporaries - the boys and girls of clubs like the Blitz and Taboo, pushing the boundaries and refining their skills before moving from the underground club scene and onto the world stage.

Many different tribes and subcultures mixed and overlapped in the clubs, their individual uniforms both distinct from and influencing each other. Goth, new romantic and punk allowed the club kids to experiment with their identity through their clothes, hair and make-up in a safe space where no-one was judged (except the boring.)

I asked Terry Barber, MAC’s Creative Director of Artistry, what it was like to be a club kid in the early ‘80s. He described how their entire aesthetic was created to look good at night – the ghostly pallor (achieved with talc or Rimmel’s foundation ‘Pale Biscuit’) and how “There wasn’t really a ‘day’ version.”

“We didn’t dress up to be sexy, just unconventional. We thought we were beauty, anything conventional was ugly. It was that punk attitude – the Sex Pistols summed it up perfectly when they sang ‘We’re so pretty, oh so pretty...’”

But what I loved most about his description of the style of that time was his summary of its influence: “Club kid style has always been a big influence in Britain, it’s part of our fashion heritage. In Paris they have Chanel and Dior, here our fashion and beauty heritage comes from street tribes - that’s our attitude. It’s not necessarily about beauty that’s meant to be luxe or expensive, but about swagger. It’s the ‘walk of shame culture’ that we have – like you’ve been up all night partying.”

This is why that era, though it may seem dated to us now, is so incredibly important. Because the British approach to clubbing is so different to the Eurodisco glam across the channel, or the super-sexy, booty-shaking style in the US – we just want to look weird, and different, and be with other like-minded freaks – it’s not about hooking up, or looking ‘pretty’ – and I think that’s a pretty powerful and amazing legacy that the club kids passed down to us.

But what I really want to know is: when was your clubbing era, and what did you wear? Share!

Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s runs at the Victoria and Albert museum from 10 July 2013 to 16 February 2014. Visit vam.ac.uk for more information and to book tickets.