The New Romantic movement began in London and Birmingham nightclubs in the late 1970s. It was characterized by androgynous, flamboyant, eccentric fashion inspired by the glam rock era coupled with the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th century. It was a reaction to the anti-fashion stance dominant in the punk movement. Icons such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Roxy Music were also influences. Its proponents were referred to as Blitz Kids (Blitz being the name of a venue), New Dandies and Romantic Rebels by the press.
The video for David Bowie's 1980 UK number one single Ashes to Ashes included appearances by Steve Strange with three other Blitz Kids and propelled the New Romantic movement into the mainstream.
It was primarily a fashion movement but several British acts became associated with it after adopting the style such as Visage, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls and Boy George. These acts helped develop synth-pop in the early 80s which combined with the New Romantic aesthetic lead to the Second British Invasion of the U.S. charts. In 1981, Spandau Ballet were flown to New York to play a live show at an underground event that included a fashion show by the Axiom collective of designers.
Other inspiring elements to the look included Russian Constructivism, Bonnie Prince Charles, French Incroyables, 1930s cabaret, Hollywood starlets, Puritans and the Pierrot clown. Fashion designers Jane Kahn and Patti Bell in Birmingham helped develop the look along with Helen Robinson’s Covent Garden shop PX. The Duran Duran song Khanada is about Jane Kahn.
Blueprint design magazine had this to say about Kahn and Bell in 1988:
“Kahn and Bell had particular impact. Holding court at the Zanzibar, resplendent in leopardskin and padded shoulders, dripping diamonte with leather devils' tails hanging down between their legs, they looked on good nights like Egyptian Queens, like Ancient Babylonians. On not so good nights, they resembled brasssaï’s Moma Bijou -"fugitives from Baudelaire's bad dreams", and even then they looked magnificent. For Kahn and Bell and those who followed their lead, identity wasn't something you nailed yourself into in late adolescence. It was a trick of the light, and if you were to avoid burning yourself out (a real risk this, when you sold clothes all day and promoted them all night), then you simply let the flames lick over you and turned the ashes into kohl.”
Magazines such as i-D and The Face reviewed what was being worn in clubs and thus the movement started to influence major fashion collections. It coincided with Vivienne Westwood’s Pirate collection which was promoted by bands Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants. Many acts including Japan and Soft Cell denied at the time and in the years since any involvement in the movement.
The movement dissipated rather quickly but many of the artists involved went on to enormous commercial success for the remainder of the 80s.
New Romantic had a big effect on mainstream 80s fashion for occasion wear which adopted a glamorous, romantic over the top aesthetic of its own. Lace, Basque waists, luxurious fabrics, statement collars, lavish adornments and oversized clothing were in.