Why Elton John Is This Season's Unlikely Style Icon

Artwork: Meg O'Donnell
As party season kicks off, we can always expect a little extra sparkle in the lead-up to the end of year festivities, but over the past few months you may have noticed that glitter and glamour have seriously swept fashion into a flurry of excess.
We're referring to the inescapable return to the '80s as a source of inspiration for designers, art curators and TV producers alike. “With the resurgence of '70s and '90s eras in recent years, it was only a matter of time before the '80s took its turn,” Katie Smith, Retail Analysis and Insights Director at EDITED, a fashion and retail technology company, explains. “Partially, this is simply the natural cycle of trends and fashion’s relationship with nostalgia.”
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Of course, this nostalgia has been felt throughout culture for some time. Just look at the popularity of Stranger Things and the collective obsession with Barb’s frill-necked pussybow blouse and oversized specs, or more recently Netflix's GLOW, all pastel power suits, branded bombers, statement belts and thigh-high leotards.
Then, just two months ago, a major Basquiat retrospective opened at the Barbican, celebrating the artist's punk, political, graphic and graffiti-esque work. Basquiat, an important fixture on New York's underground art scene, gained attention from the wider art world after an '81 Artforum feature. Alongside his artistic legacy, Basquiat, his collaborator Andy Warhol, and then-girlfriend Madonna were regulars at the legendary Studio 54, the hedonistic and glamorous playground of musicians, models, artists and socialites. It's impossible to extract his work from the context in which it was made. Similarly, last month, an homage to Grace Jones – as adored for her eccentric, powerful style as for her '80s new wave music – came in the form of Bloodlight and Bami, a compelling documentary about the icon.
In August, the world focused on Princess Diana, as 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of her death. Along with the countless shopping stories celebrating her personal style, Off-White’s Virgil Abloh showed a collection at Paris Fashion Week directly inspired by the Princess of Wales, with Naomi Campbell leading 36 models donning pearls and polka dots, cycling shorts and ruffles. On the subject of cycling shorts, global fashion search platform Lyst reports that searches for the '80s item rose 79% this year, in part thanks to Abloh.
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It may be true that trends are recycled every 20 years, but it’s the grunge attitude and high-end minimalism of the '90s that has dominated fashion for so long. So why has the colour, camp and extroversion of the '80s come back around now? Perhaps it’s a result of the current socio-political situation. “At a time when the global political climate is fractious, there’s comfort in a certain kind of nostalgia. The '80s were a time of economic boom, when fashion and lifestyles were fast and frivolous,” Smith says. “With millennials delaying home purchases and starting families, they have disposable income which revisits some of that '80s hedonism. The '80s is somewhat akin to pure escapism from the harsher realities of life.”
And who embodies the maximalism of the decade more than Elton John? Since the '70s, the singer has taken stage costumes to new heights, with legendary costume designer Bob Mackie (a.k.a. The Sultan of Sequins) behind many of his most memorable pieces. Whether it’s the fringed rhinestone jacket and pink geometric sunglasses he wore when performing at Madison Square Garden in 1986, the star-spangled velvet jacket (with matching earrings) when on stage in Sydney the same year, or the wide-lapelled brocade duster coat he wore around Hollywood in ‘87, Elton championed outlandish and extraordinary dressing throughout the era.
Photo: WWD/REX/Shutterstock
Photo: WWD/REX/Shutterstock
How does the musician’s vivacity translate today? One look through Gucci’s SS18 offering and you’ll see how creative director Alessandro Michele has made the decade’s euphoric aesthetic at once nostalgic and contemporary. The brand’s iridescent jumpsuit emblazoned with colour-pop musical notes? It’s Elton on stage 30 years ago. Its equally '80s silk polka dot one-piece with billowing sleeves and ruffles around the neck? We’ll be wearing that to the office tomorrow. According to Vogue, Michele drew direct inspiration from his friend Elton’s costume archives, with more than one look a reference to recognisable pieces worn by the icon. The designer even embroidered Elton's initials onto the back of jackets and tees. Sequins dominated the 108-look-strong collection, with a kaleidoscope of colour glistening down the catwalk – ‘80s hedonism indeed.
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Another designer bringing the exuberance of the ‘80s sequin into 2017 is Michael Halpern. The London-based Central Saint Martins graduate has been championed by everyone from Donatella Versace to Sarah Mower, celebrated for his dazzling glamour and sequin-showered pieces. Sure, he may draw inspiration from Studio 54’s ‘70s heyday, but styled, as it is in his AW17 lookbook, with a pink satin jacket, complete with razor-sharp shoulders? It’s the ‘80s through and through. From Saint Laurent’s sharp, structured shoulders, ruffled cocktail dresses and glittering gowns, to Haider Ackermann’s purple reign and Isabel Marant's ruched lamé dresses, through to Mugler and Jil Sander’s shoulder pads, sartorial signifiers of the decade of decadence permeated the shows of AW17.
“We have seen a real return to glamour with a revival of sequins and sparkle from brands such as Halpern, Attico, Osman and DVF,” Natalie Kingham, Buying Director at Matches Fashion notes. “There has also been an emergence of luxurious fabrics such as jacquard and brocade in metallic, or with lustrous accents from designers such as Gucci, Peter Pilotto, Carl Kapp and Rochas.” Reiterating Smith’s point about escapism, Kingham advises buying into the fantasy and frivolity of the decade: “Investing in luxurious clothing doesn’t always need to be about simple timeless pieces, there is something decadent and glamorous about investing in a strong sequin look from Michael Halpern to cheer yourself up and add some flamboyance to your wardrobe.”
High street favourites are tapping into the decade of decadence, too. By analysing retail trends, Smith can measure the growth in demand for ‘80s pieces. “Ruffled items are up a stunning 181% this fall compared to last, whether it’s down the sleeves of a sweater or blouse, across the hem of a skirt, or on the neckline of a jumpsuit. One-sleeved and asymmetric ruffled styles pack the most '80s punch,” she states. “Exaggerated sleeves were popular through the summer and returned during autumn on statement jumpers in bold poster paint palettes. We’re seeing dolman, batwing and lantern sleeves, which, when paired with an oversized silhouette or a dramatic roll-neck, look like they stepped straight out of the '80s.”
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High street favourites like ASOS have embraced the return of the decade, going all-out for party season with glitz, glamour and extravagance. “Chandelier earrings, power shoulders and cocktail dresses are the perfect way to celebrate the Christmas season,” ASOS Womenswear Head of Design, Sian Ryan, tells Refinery29. “The '80s oozes glamour and decadence...exaggerated shoulders and sleeves, metallic fabrications, dramatic embellishments and silhouettes – all of these elements encompass the party.” Her advice on styling the trend? “Mix it up, don’t be too literal, have fun with luxe fabrics and elaborate silhouettes. Enjoy the opulence, it’s Christmas after all!”
Photo: Courtesy of ASOS
Their sparkly suitability for the party season doesn’t mean the '80s are going anywhere fast, though. Topshop’s SS18 press preview revealed white dresses with red polka dots, puffball skirts, batwing sleeves and, you guessed it, more sequins. Is the decade here to stay? “While the '80s trend has had a strong impact over the last couple of years, it’s too strong an aesthetic to have an enduring influence on fashion,” Smith notes. “However, next season will certainly still be influenced by the '80s, as the SS18 designs have attested.” Whether you go for Princess Di-inspired sports casual, with bumbag, pearls and cycling shorts at the ready, or all-out Elton with glitzy and glamorous hedonism, it’s time to flash back to the '80s.

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