Getting Back on Beat

Les Child and his dazzling gaze in a publicly shot for Michael Clark, 1985. Photographed by David LaChapelle.

When the pandemic ends and we emerge from our COVID-induced slumber, fashion needs to learn a lesson. Luckily, the answer lies just one sashay away.

“[Michael Clark] was rehearsing [for Nureyev] in calf length Doc Martens, Bodymap sort of leggings, I think, and a holey Bodymap jumper. And Nureyev was just like a giggly child. Loved it, just loved it,” recalls Les Child, dancer for both the Lindsay Kemp and Michael Clark companies in the 1970s and ‘80s respectively, and a frequent collaborator and lifetime friend of Bodymap.


Nureyev wasn’t the only one enamored with Bodymap: “I remember meeting David Bowie in Bodymap, and he couldn’t take his eyes off what I was wearing, which was very flattering.”

The androgyny, the freedom, the audacity, the audaciousness, the confidence and the underlying sexuality, it was everything

In this picture, Lindsay Kemp ensnares in his performance of Salomé in full Gloriana wearing a feather headdress and a porcelain face of makeup, 1978. Photograph by Reg Innell.

Child met Stevie Stewart, part one of the Bodymap design duo, when she was in her third year of college at Middlesex with part two, David Holah. “I actually met [Stevie] when I was with an all-male black dance company called Masai, and through Mikel Rosen [a founding member of London Fashion Week]; we did this whole dance piece wearing her collection.”


It was at the beginning of the 1980s AIDS crisis that Bodymap burst onto the UK design scene. A renaissance of dance had begun in the decade earlier, christened by Lindsay Kemp, whose androgynous performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in 1972 brought a transgressive new wave of physical expression to dance.


This was the world of dance into which David Holah and Stevie Stewart of Bodymap were introduced early on. “The person who introduced David to Nijinsky was somebody who died of AIDs, called Michael Dillon,” explains Judith Watt, fashion historian and Pathway leader of BA Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins.  


Kemp’s Salomé constructs a sexual power around dance and the clothed body, his language of the physical body through pantomime, adorned in campy feathers and makeup, screams “Gloriana!” Critics (American puritans) were naively trying to figure out who was a boy and who was a girl, instead of paying attention to the redefinition of the human form in front of their eyes... typical!


AIDS loomed over the gay community like a drunken uncle: you never knew when it would strike and ruin the party. But that was precisely why dance became an embodiment of sexual liberation. Yes, the fear was palpable - Watt recalls “the hit and miss quality of [AIDS], because of course it was passed through sex; nobody knew that at the time. We didn’t know.” But in the face of this game of Russian roulette, people got on with it, and Kemp’s lyrical embrace of the body in motion would come to epitomize Bodymap’s impact during this time of crisis.


A movement of the body, bursting forth in distorting prints which caressed the curves of the wearer, fabrics in jersey and lycra cut to emphasise erogenous zones á la Enrico Job, the Italian artist whose re-assemblages of his body in photographic form “seemed to sum up [Bodymap's] approach to pattern cutting,” (as Holah told The Face in May 1985) - redefined the human form as the bounds of society grappled with a redefinition in its own right.


Throughout our collective digital experience of fashion over the last 9 months, stagnant messages of camaraderie and contrived efforts at relatability in the at-home-age feel overdone to say the least. Even worse, design has been an assortment of bad, meh, and halfway decent collections which either feel too expensive for their visual appeal - á la Celine (see Emily in Paris) - or out of touch - one look at Chanel’s packed SS21 audience speaks for itself, and Maria Grazia Chirui’s attempt at the medieval vamp was less convincing than Twilight’s plot line; just ask Kristen Stewart, because she had to sit through both.


A mixed bag of digital presentations ranged from good to bad: Grace Wales Bonner’s poetic exploration of fashion narrative contrasts Gucci’s masturbatory attempt at an arthouse fashion series, otherwise known as Overture of Something That Never Ended, which upon watching, one wishes never began in the first place. Yet still, no language - in messaging or design - aptly reflects the time.

I think today people are afraid to take risks. I’ll get on board with [a project] and they’ll start. And I just think ‘oh my god, I’ve done this before’

Michael Clark poses for “our caca phoney H.our caca phoney H.” in sensually wrapped and revealing Bodymap costuming, 1985. Photographed by Richard Haughton.

As brands today take a look around, there is much to respond to. From racial injustice to the pandemic, which is ravaging the globe, uncertainty lies in waiting, but fashion has the opportunity, as it did in the 1980s, to create a different reality. Yet collection to collection, it remains contrived.

And why is this? Child has the answer. “I think today people are afraid to take risks. I’ll get on board with [a project] and they’ll start. And I just think ‘oh my god, I’ve done this before'".


Dance doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither should fashion. “We looked to the past with great passion, learnt the past, and applied it to our everyday experiences: reinterpreted it," says Child. "Whereas I don’t know if they do that today."


In their time, Bodymap lead the charge away from the “old guard,” a contingent of increasingly stuffy and tired names including Oldfield, Rhodes, and Bellville Sassoon amongst others. What they lacked in, well, interesting design, they made up for in clientele. Princess Diana was the common thread, and though this celebrity status helped embolden their careers, being out of touch with the everyday experience of fashion had its consequences.


But at Bodymap, that was the opposite. “We wore it all the time, I remember we just lived in Bodymap. And when you’re young, cute and everything you could get away with murder...” says Child. He does, however, assure that no murderous acts were perpetrated in Bodymap.


The threads of sartorial liberation have been spun by dance. But great fashion design comes from an ability, through stitch, drape and hem, to exemplify the zeitgeist on the body. Watt concurs, “You know [Bodymap] was one of the first bunch to do this, and such an antidote to what had come before; the Bruce Oldfields. But was it influenced by AIDS? How couldn’t you be?”


The message to fashion-at-large is simple: in crisis, design for the body and design together. It becomes the last vestige of comfort, the only thing that is sure in life. “Dance seems to manifest in a time of despair,” notes Watt. “Maybe it’s about the idea of the body, getting out and going into another sphere.” This is what Bodymap did on high. They were the moment.


As we wait for the world to wake up from its COVID-induced slumber, Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring reminds us that our reawakening comes at a cost; his sacrificial maiden now potentially our economy, social structure- you name it. But if there is anything to be learned from Bodymap, it is that in crisis, clothes become a sanctuary for the body, transcending the world on which we walk and allowing the mind the precious space of fantasy. For all good clothes evoke fantasy. And in dance, fantasy is but one sashay away.

Read more on Bodymap here.