There was more to UK Garage than the music, UK Garage was a whole way of living. It was about splashing the cash; wearing high end fashion and drinking champagne in the club. Even if it meant spending all your wages on just one night. At a garage night in the nineties, you couldn’t move on the dancefloor without knocking someone wearing head to toe Moschino, Versace or Iceberg. The Garage Girls and boys not only knew the meaning of ‘dressing up for the weekend’, they were it.
In this spirit of extravagance, high end Italian labels garnered the most preference with the culture; it was all Gucci loafers, Moschino prints, and Versace Versace Versace. Garage raves were places you went to see and, most importantly, be seen. Which explains some of the more outrageous prints on the scene at the time. You know the ones we mean. The now iconic gold link chain print on all the silky Moschino shirts floating around the club. The bold typeface printed across every t-shirt/jacket/trouser combo.The Gucci loafers, oh the loafers.
Let’s start with Moschino and Versace. By far among the most popular brands to be seen on the dancefloor in, Moschino in the 90s garage scene was typified by their colourful, silky, print-laden shirts, with Moschino written all over them. Versace also had the prints, the colour and that same brash, ostentatious style. The bold colours and prints typify the essence of garage fashion. The bolder the better. Everything was a status symbol; it showed you had the money and you were living the lifestyle that all the MCs were singing about. That you belonged in that club, at that time.
Iceberg History was slightly different. While the colours were still just as bold, Iceberg is best remembered for its Looney Tunes printed jackets. The famous cartoon characters adorned the inside and outside of jackets alike. Many of their denim jackets were lined with Looney Tunes cartoon print; when you rolled those sleeves up, the brand you were wearing was instantly recognisable. Subtle yet obvious, something that could only be pulled off by Iceberg. Iceberg embodied the slightly more whimsical side of the genre, it was a way of not taking it all too seriously, whilst still making a serious style statement.
Garage girls were almost a culture all of their own. A subculture within a subculture. Garage girls were strong, sexy, sure women. They knew what they wanted, and they could speak the language that they needed to get it. Female artists did not allow themselves to be pigeonholed or put into a box, with many of them making their names by pushing their labels to remix their songs to the 2-step beat. The female MCs of the nineties paved the way for many female artists we recognise today. The strength they held was personified by their fashion choices. They were out there, having fun and looking great in printed tops and mini skirts. And they were not to be messed with. Just because they were wearing heels and a dress, didn’t mean they would allow themselves to be portrayed as weak, meek women.
Now, any self respecting girl moving in garage circles during the nineties knew about Morgan de Toi - the Tottenham Court Road shop that sold anything you would need to look good at a garage rave.
For garage girls, it was all about being sexy, whether that was through your dancing, or the strappy dress you were wearing. There was an emphasis on wearing clothes that were typically ‘girly’; it was strappy tops and mini skirts, or strappy dresses and heels. There was obviously still the heavy focus on prints, and showing that you had the right labels. As Nina Manandhar (author and curator of the book What We Wore) recalls over-hearing while she worked in Morgan de Toi: “I’d rather starve than not look my best”. That says it all, doesn’t it?
While the boys of the time were peacocking around with their Mosch shirt, Versace jeans and Gucci loafers, the girls were on a bit of a lower key style. Their clothes were still branded, don’t get me wrong, but there was less of the head-to-toe aspect in their fashion. They had the printed trousers, but paired them with a simpler strappy top. Or the Morgan de Toi logo-covered top paired with a mini. Their style was preened, girly, glamour.
The opulence of garage fashion emulated the escapism of the lyrics. Being in the garage scene of the late nineties to early noughties meant living the ‘champagne lifestyle on a lemonade wage’. People went to the clubs and raves to escape the drudgery of their everyday lives. They lived like kings for the weekend then went back to reality come Monday morning. It’s understandable, a wave of optimism was sweeping the country at the time when garage became big. New Labour had just been elected after nearly two decades of Tory governments, and all the austerity and cuts that went with them. Along with the new millenium, and the feelings of starting fresh, this was reflected in the beats and fashion choices of an entire subculture. Garage has a celebratory feeling to it, the fashion, the lifestyle and the music was all about going all out, being fun with it and looking good whilst you were doing it.
Perhaps this is why we are seeing a resurgence of garage fashion. Last year, there were multiple exhibitions showing off what garage style was, and what it meant to its people. We’ve also had successive governments who have made the poor poorer and the rich richer, not listening to the younger generations, and generally making a mess of things. Maybe we need a bit of fun too.
To paraphrase two of garage’s greatest, DJ Luck & MC Neat, with a little bit of luck, we can make it through the times ahead.
By Joan Crowley
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