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New Fashion for the 80s

Start Date 16 May 1987
End Date 02 August 1987
Venue National Gallery of Australia
Location Kamberri/Canberra, Australia
Curator Robyn Healy

For centuries clothing fashions in Europe were launched by royalty and the aristocracy at court. The wearer created the style and the tailor or dressmaker who made the garment simply interpreted the patron’s ideas. In the late nineteenth century this tradition was overturned when Charles Frederick Worth (Great Britain, France, 1825-1895) took control of the total design process. He conceived the design, chose the fabric and executed the garment, which was then presented to the customer. Worth became the first known fashion designer, and haute couture — exclusive dressmaking — was established as the basis of twentieth-century clothing design.

From this foundation the concept of fashion as art has developed. The skills of the fashion designer — the use of tailored construction, manipulation of shape, colour, texture and pattern — are now recognized as an art form that expresses the designer’s artistic and aesthetic ideas.

The exhibition New Fashion for the 80s focuses on international fashion, and the sixteen ready-to-wear designers represented are the major contemporary exponents of innovative forms of clothing. The costumes and accessories we have selected for the exhibition are those that alter popular fashion concepts and initiate changes in style. They reflect the major directional shifts that have taken place in fashion design this decade.

The type of clothing on display is known as prêt-à-porter or ready-to-wear clothing — garments that are made in standard sizes, rather than tailored to fit a particular client. The prêt-à-porter designer presents his or her creations to the public twice a year — in March, as the Autumn/Winter collection, and in October, as the Spring/Summer collection. The collections are shown in fashion parades attended by the press and interested buyers and manufacturers. Most of the designers are based in one or more of the major world fashion centres — Paris, Milan, London, New York and Tokyo. The worldwide media coverage of these biannual events brings this clothing to the attention of a wide audience, and consequently influences universal patterns of style.

The 1980s has seen the emergence of a number of trends in world fashion, and no distinctive style or particular designer has gained prominence. However, a new approach to clothing design has developed, which goes beyond the traditional forms to experiment with unexpected combinations and juxtapositions of shape, colour, texture and pattern. This sensibility is expressed in a variety of forms ranging from asymmetrical, asexual designs to austere, clinging body shapes.

To complement the garments on display, photographs, drawings, magazines and videos have been included in the exhibition. We have selected a series of photographs from Australian fashion magazines to demonstrate their role in the exposure of international fashion to the Australian public.


The beginning of the 1980s witnessed the birth of the ‘New Dressing’, a style of fashion created by the revolutionary Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. The New Dressing is an original approach to clothing design which presents an alternative to the traditional forms and constructions of Western clothing. These designers perceive the body as a form on which clothing may be draped, wrapped or hung, rather than a shape around which material is tailored. The garments feature minimal applied decoration, their main adornments being created by the fabric, through the interplay of texture, tone and layering. An unusual characteristic of this style of clothing is that there is no distinction between evening and day wear.

One of the earliest costumes in this exhibition, Rei Kawakubo’s jacket, singlet and skirt, of Spring/Summer 1983, features extreme asymmetrical lines and layering of textures. The jacket and skirt have been made with holes, intended to reveal the fabric or skin underneath. The garments by Issey Miyake reflect the subtle use of texture as decoration. His jacket, blouse and trousers, of Spring/Summer 1985, combine linen, cotton and rayon fabrics of different weaves and surfaces, to produce contrasting layers of texture. Yohji Yamamoto’s jacket, skirt, hat and shoes, of Spring/Summer 1986, mix vibrant colour and contrasting pattern with irregular detailing. The jacket has three buttonholes and one button, to allow the garment to be fastened in varying degrees of irregularity. The skirt is tied in the manner of a sarong and also hangs unevenly.

A more traditional approach to clothing design is shown in the work of the Japanese designers Kenzo Takada and Mitsuhiro Matsuda. Texture is an important component of their designs but is offset by a classic cut and pattern. Matsuda’s jumper, of Autumn/Winter 1983, has a rough textural quality, achieved by weaving a combination of wool thread and bast (a flexible fibrous bark) into a pattern of large diagonal blocks.

The Japanese designer Tokio Kumagai takes a fashion accessory — the shoe — to extremes of fanciful decoration. The Mouse shoes, of Autumn/Winter 1986, realistically represent the characteristics of these animals in a wearable form.


British designers produced some of the brightest and most imaginative designs of the 1980s.

In 1984 the British fashion industry revived London Fashion Week. This forum, which provides local designers with the opportunity to exhibit their collections and receive international press coverage, launched the eccentric style of Body Map.

David Holah and Stevie Stewart of Body Map produce a range of separates which are worn in layers. The garments reinterpret basic garment styles and feature synthetic fabrics and sombre abstract prints. The dress, of Spring/Summer 1986, celebrates the return of Halley’s comet, the nylon fabric being decorated overall with astral motifs. A similar theme is explored in the jewellery of Andrew Logan: the Cosmic egg brooch, 1986, represents a fragment from another planet.

London has been famous for its street fashion since the 1960s, especially the style of the cult groups that frequent King’s Road, and this has had a marked influence on the work of British designers, in particular Vivienne Westwood. This inventive designer creates extreme alternative fashions. Her Mini crini skirt, of Spring/Summer 1987, is reminiscent of the skirt worn by the cartoon character Minnie Mouse, and was derived from the crinolines of the nineteenth century. This outfit heralds the return of a more feminine, although impractical, silhouette.

The London milliner Stephen Jones uses colourful and eccentric themes for his hat collections. The Deep vibes hat, of Spring/Summer 1985, was inspired by the magic of Venice. The hat comprises a turban wrapped in multi- coloured raffia and surmounted with a cascading raffia switch.


The French designers Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaia and Thierry Mugler represent the antithesis of the Japanese approach to design. Their styles focus around the shape of the body.

Gaultier designs clothing in unconventional forms, in the tailored mode. He mixes various styles, fabrics and patterns to create stimulating and often provocative garments. His three-piece suit, of Spring/Summer 1985, combines elements of male and female dress, a style the designer refers to as ‘cross-dressing’. The trousers of this suit are tailored so that one leg hangs normally while the other leg is cut twice as wide to overlap like a skirt.

The austere garments by Alaia celebrate the female form. Intricate cutting techniques are employed to accentuate the outline of the body. The garments are made in plain fabrics, with the only decorative devices being the cut of the fabric or the clever use of fasteners such as zippers or lacing. His dress, of Spring/Summer 1986, is made of denim, which is literally sculpted to the wearer’s body with a series of industrial zippers.

The manipulation of fabric in this manner is also evident in the jacket and skirt, of Spring/Summer 1987, by Mugler. The jacket, with a peplum at the back, is worn over a tight-fitting skirt and creates a soft silhouette.

In contrast to Rei Kawakubo’s earlier designs, the dress and skirt, of Autumn/Winter 1986, have a distinctly solid form, and express a severe beauty. The mannered control of shape and detailing are a major departure from the layered, androgynous look of her earlier work.

The new fashions on display highlight the diversity of styles that have emerged in the last seven years. The pioneers of fashion in the 1980s could be the classicists of the 1990s; only time will tell.