If I were asked to name the biggest contribution to fashion history the 1980s gave us it would have to be stretch. Stretch dresses and crop tops, stretch workout wear, even stretch unitards — stretch everything. Yes, there were stretch fabrics before the ’80s usually found in the form of casual T-shirts and sweats, scratchy double-knit polyesters or slinky-shiny-stretchy disco dresses leftover from the heady ’70s.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that designers and textile manufacturers began to use Lycra fabrics in high-fashion, often mixing it with other fibres like cotton, wool and silk. This gave designers a new alternative. They’d been creating body-hugging clothes for ages, using complex pattern-making and structural draping techniques. But this was different.
Now you could have the tightest dress in the most comfortable fabric. You could move. I loved it and called it innovation. My mother called it slutty (though she probably used a more tasteful word like, distasteful).
Bodycon dressing in the ’80s was the ultimate marriage of class and trash, and as I moved into my later teens it was just what I was looking for.
It was a combination of those newfangled stretchy clothes and going to the clubs that pushed me out of my big tops-over-leggings look and into Lycra. I remember especially a short, black Lycra dress I owned. It was short — very short — with long skinny sleeves and a narrow mock-turtleneck collar. I wore it was stretch lace leggings, black riding boots and a tailored man’s vintage tuxedo jacket in deep green and black velvet. There was jewelry involved, too: big silver hoop earrings and a giant layered 1960s silver necklace I still have.
My mother thought I looked cheap. I had to disagree. That was the first outfit I remember truly feeling sexy in — and powerful. I wasn’t showing tons of skin (in fact, I was quite covered up), but I was showing off in a way I hadn’t in the past.
I never took to the Lycra dresses with the cut-outs or tight, crop-tops, but I loved a little touch of stretch in my increasingly sophisticated wardrobe.
Stretch is an everyday thing today, but I’ll always remember that first time, wriggling into that black dress and the feeling that came with wearing it.
1. Irving Penn for Vogue, December 1987. Clothing by Donna Karan.
2. Rifat Ozbek, Vogue, March 1988. Photograph by Steven Meisel.
3. Oliviero Toscani for Elle, September 1987. Clothing by Azzedine Alaia.
4. Denis Piel for Vogue, December 1987. Dress by Giorgio di Sant’Angelo.
5. Necessary Objects, Taxi magazine, November 1987. Photograph by Andrew Southam.
6. Complice, Elle, October 1987. Photograph by Marc Hispard.
7. Yes Clothing, Elle, August 1988. Photograph by Philippe Berthomé.
8. Gitano, Elle, April 1988. Photograph by Andrea Alberts.
9. Gilles Bensimon for Elle, February 1988. Clothing by Jean Paul Gaultier.