Blog post by Victoria Pietsch (’19)
Think of the ‘80s. What do you see?
I posed this question to ten people, including peers, friends, friends’ parents, my immediate family, and even a few people from Cornell’s Costume and Textile Collection.
- Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ (1983)
- disco clubs
- permed hair
- Jamie Lee Curtis
- rock bands like AC/DC and Guns ‘n’ Roses
- Madonna and her ridiculous fashion statements
- bold design, bright colors, and big hair
- workout videos with side ponytails, scrunchies, and colorful leggings
- paisley prints, white socks and white nikes, and afros
- shoulder pads, mile-high eye shadow, matching mother-daughter Laura Ashley dresses, stonewashed denim, licensed clothing, and anything seen on MTV
I’ll close the results of this brief social experiment with my personal favorite response, given by my father: “your mom’s hair when it looked like Olivia Newton John’s.”
From my perch, atop a lifeline that began in 1996, I have only worn an imagining of 1980s: neon-colored Decades Day clothing at high school spirit days, complete with leg warmers and bright scrunchies. Now, with my near- two years of college experience, I can add the common “Aspen in the ‘80s” frat mixer theme to my repertoire of ‘80s dress-up. But when the Cornell Costume & Textile Collection recently acquired over 50 articles of BodyMap and B-Basic clothing from the 1980s from Fiona McCracken, I realized the fashion trends of the period were much more diverse than I had imagined. I decided it might finally be time to do some research to better understand the absolute mess of trends that constituted the ‘80s.
And, messy it was.
Yet, with strategic organization and innovative design Stevie Stewart and David Holah, two graduates of the Middlesex Polytechnic Institute, founded BodyMap in 1982. They collaborated with textile designer Hilde Smith, who’s distinctive prints accentuated Stewart and Holah’s fresh, experimental silhouettes. By re-shaping, re-mapping, and re-configuring the body, BodyMap clothing shifted perception through layered prints and unstructured shapes.
The designs garnered most popularity among the London club scene in 1983, a time when young men and women were interested in the exposure and rebellion conveyed through the clothing. Black, white, and cream designs were most common, although vivid, highly saturated hues appeared as well. Often it was the combination of contrasting values and/or hues that accentuated the textile prints and body shaping.
An example of this is a black-and-white printed keyhole one-piece bathing suit. Placed on both front and back sides, the keyhole highlights the navel as well as the lower lumbar vertebrae. These are interesting snippets of the body to reveal, playing into ever-changing, shifting erogenous zones. In this look, I’ve paired the leotard with pants of the same print. The material is a viscose-lycra blend, a fiber combination that BodyMap pioneered with the help of an unnamed “Swedish sportswear company” (“Club to Catwalk,” 2013). The pants are stretchy and form fitting, with black stirrups that match the pants’ waistband and the cross-over straps of the bathing suit top. To display how an excess of print like this might be paired with a bright, solid color for contrast, I added a purple knit cape with a hood and finished the look with octagonal sunglasses featuring BodyMap’s signature black star icon on one lens and a black circle on the other, both embedded in a translucent, gold background.
As evidenced by the bathing suit, clubwear was both daywear and eveningwear – although more elegant ensembles could be formulated using BodyMap’s collections. One look, sported by McCracken herself for a formal event in New York City, was featured in Women’s Wear Daily in 1983. Hilde Smith’s textile designs, animated by Stewart and Holah’s unique pattern cutting, fill out the form of this skirt in ways that rival how an actual body might. A dip at the center front of the skirt once again challenges acceptable exposure and ideas about perfectly horizontal waistlines; however, the length of the garment, combined with its aesthetic appeal and form-fitting quality, ensure its contextual flexibility: it can be both formal and casual. When paired with a black terry-cloth crop top with an overlapping structure (one that matches the structure of the front of the skirt) the prints, materials, and color in this ensemble convey balance, spark visual interest, and show off the wearer’s stylistic prowess.
BodyMap was not exclusively devoted to women’s wear; on the contrary, Stewart and Holah also designed menswear and embraced androgyny. For example, the black satin men’s suit is as shiny and visually interesting as any of the women’s clothing. Charged with the vividness of a bright red, long-sleeved shirt, this ensemble is designed to catch attention and keep it. Through BodyMap’s silhouettes, the male torso is exaggerated through the form-fitting quality of the shirt as well as the detailing of a tight, ribbed waistband at the base of the jacket. Finally, a unisex belt made of toile, with silver buckles and loops, accents the sleekness of the other garments in the ensemble and conveys a note of the edgy style that was so popular among BodyMap’s consumer base.
The vibrant energy and revolutionary vision of BodyMap also manifested through spectacular runway shows, comparable to rockstar videos. One show in 1985 featured cross-dressing models of a variety of ages and sizes, latex wigs, and ample amounts of exposed skin. BodyMap’s seasonal collection shows included models changing ensembles in public on the sidelines of the catwalk, the use of designers’ mothers as models; they truly aimed to turn the fashion world of the ‘80s upside-down. Wearers of BodyMap could be described as “a trendy hothouse of hot young things,” and the clothes themselves were seen as “wild, young and unconventional” (Almond, n.d.).
BodyMap expanded into other lines, including a more affordable line of clothing known as B-Basic, and a luxury Red label. Despite its earnings through the popularity of the expanded options, BodyMap began struggling in 1986, a year after these lines were launched. The B-Basic line was no longer manufactured in the U.K. but in the United States, and the brand suffered: the quality was not as good as that of the original BodyMap brand, and the products lacked the impressive silk screened designs by Hilde Smith.
Here, a red, terry cloth cropped top with a cowl neck is paired with a black velour skirt. These two simple pieces, while easy to match with various garments to create several looks, lack the attention-grabbing quality of Hilde Smith’s textile designs. The black-and-cream cardigan, however, still displays the lifelike form emblematic of BodyMap: the use of line and square forms mimic a spinal representation; the weight of the sweater draped on the body allows the figure to appear fluid, mobile and lifelike; the puffed-out black segments on the sleeves imply that the body is growing, moving, and breathing. So, while B-Basic may have stayed true to the physically inspired ideals of BodyMap’s designs, it still faltered to rival its original intrigue and uniqueness in the quality of its most basic garments. Despite the struggles BodyMap faced with these lines, the B-line of clothing continued to sell at Camden Market in London until the 1990s.
While BodyMap is no longer available for retail, it left a profound impact on the decade that shaped it – or what arguably can now be seen as the decade it, quite literally, shaped. By accenting unflattering areas of the body and challenging preconceived notions of acceptable fashion and beauty, BodyMap empowered its supporters to challenge the structure of their own lives, both physically and metaphorically.
Although I may not be able to say I would personally love to don a keyhole cut-out just above my bellybutton, or wear a bathing suit to a nightclub, I can fortunately say my knowledge of the ‘80s now extends beyond the image of my mother’s Olivia Newton John-esque hair. With the knowledge and confidence I can now adequately dress myself for the London club scene of the 1980s, I move forward with gratitude for the stylistic visionaries of the past – and for those people who chose to phase out stirrups on pants.
Victoria Pietsch (’19) is an undergraduate Research Assistant in the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection majoring in Fashion Design Management. She is especially interested in fashion journalism and history, and enjoys working in the collection as a means to foster both passions.