In Whit Stillman’s film “The Last Days of Disco”, set in the 1980s, the lead character, Des, worries about virtue and authenticity. Should he really follow the Shakespearean admonition, “to thine own self be true”, if his own self is a pretty underwhelming entity? The spangled zone under the glitterball invites such self-reflection. In the haybarn, you take your partner by the hand. Across the ballroom, the man leads and the woman follows. Inside the tango hall, two bodies slide and grind in a crypto-sexual contact sport. In the disco, we dance alone. We dance with ourselves. This, of course, is one of its attractions. Nobody is subservient. Nobody touches. As in the convent, the dress code is often white. And there’s something else that’s worth decoding. The old dance halls were crammed with young workers who needed to press close together and inhale, because back home were mum and dad, and damp washing drying by the fire. The space between disco dancers measured their socio-economic status. It showed they had places to go back to. So – how do you take your coffee?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566
We’ve all seen this guy. Some of us have been him. Graceless after a skinful during the wedding speeches, capering against the flow. We can’t blame him for the monster codpiece: it was the fashion in Bruegel’s day. (Bagpipe Man is similarly on fleek.) We might, I suppose, ask him to keep that priapus under control. But follow the gaze of his left eye, returning the glance of his partner. She looks less than horrified. Perhaps she’s relieved to have escaped the man in the pinkish jerkin, peering diligently at his feet, as if he were at home, considering whether to darn his socks.
All that glitters
Embroidered bodysuit, Elisabetta Franchi, £1,400/$1,800. Denim shorts, Levis, £50/$65. Silver leather boots, Giuseppe Zanotti, £1,205/$1,555. Silk twilley (as bracelet), Hermès, £130/$170. Earrings with Swarovski crystals, Shourouk, £170/$220. White Burmalite cuff in rhodium silver, Burma, £3,500/$4,500. right Sequin bomber jacket, Garçons Infidèles, £830/$1,070. Cotton shorts, Acne Studios, £150/$190. Gold leather boots, H&M, £110/$140. Barrette with Swarovski crystals, Shourouk, £172/$220
Embroidered bodysuit, Elisabetta Franchi, £1,400/$1,800. Denim shorts, Levis, £50/$65. Earrings, Shourouk, £170/$220. Cuff in rhodium silver, £3,500/$4,500. Ring in rhodium silver, £2,000/$2,600. Bracelet, Hermès, £130/$170.
On the night of April 13th 1926, nearly 700 dancers jostled on the boards of the White Star Majestic, the world’s largest steam-powered ocean liner, in Southampton. “The whole ship”, reported the Daily Express, “has been converted into a super-dance hall.” The beat went transatlantic. On B-Deck, a floral barricade in front of Leonard Pilbeam’s Band concealed a pair of microphones connected to the BBC transmitter in Bournemouth. In New York, the music stopped at 10pm. In Hampshire, they danced until three in the morning.
America brought the jive to Europe. It came with gum, the Marshall Plan and film noir – and like those movies it was thrillingly violent. Too violent for governments in Russia’s orbit. These German jitterbuggers are doing their tuck turns on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain. For the gdr, Swingheini was a psychological weapon “designed to deaden the minds of the masses”. Better to work off energy clearing rubble. Perhaps the authorities were right to fear the power of rock. You may remember that when the Berlin Wall fell, David Hasselhoff serenaded the crowd from a bucket crane.
You Should Be Dancing
Polyester jumpsuit with sequins, Martin Grant, £1,320/$1,700. Tights, DIM, £5/$7. Hair bar, Shourouk, £170/$220. Glasses, TOMMY x ZENDAYA, £150/$200. Ring in rhodium silver, Burma, £2,200/$2,900. PVC shoes, Christian Louboutin, £650/$850.
The Twist 1964
Jill St John looks elated. She should. At this moment, she has a Golden Globe nomination, an $86,000 divorce settlement from a Woolworth’s heir, and the press considers her “Hollywood’s most irrepressible redhead”. The twist was not for the repressible. In 1960 it burst from the tiny dance floor of the Peppermint Lounge off Times Square in New York. Then the Chubby Checker record made it the dance of a new, more democratic America. “It was Chubby Checker’s mission”, declared Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther party, “to teach the whites, whom history had taught to forget, how to shake their asses again.”
Studio 54 1977
It began in April 1977 when a steakhouse owner and a doctor of jurisprudence filled a former theatre at 254 West 54th Street with disco lights. It ended 33 months later, with IRS staff pulling bin liners of cash from holes in the ceiling. In between, Studio 54 defined post-Pill and pre-AIDS New York hedonism. Glitter was strewn on the dance floor, cocaine on other surfaces. Bianca Jagger appeared on horseback. Curtis Mayfield, of Super Fly, is caught here doing that Marvin Gaye hitchhike move. Donald Trump went to the opening night. He didn’t dance.
Off to the ball
Polyester bodysuit, £110/$140. Silver leather trousers,£430/$555, both by Tommy x Zendaya. Silk twilley, Hermès £140/$180. Leather belt, Mac Douglas £210/$270. Suede strass bag, Christian Louboutin, £3,275/$4,225. Gaïa brass earrings with Swarovski crystals, Shourouk, £220/$280. Yellow and white Burmalite rings, Burma, £1,640/$2,115 and £2,000/$2,600
On a roll
left Wool sweater with crystals, Ermanno Scervino, £3,565/$4,600. Yellow tights, DIM, £5/$6.50. Pink tights, Le Bourget, £13/$16.50. PVC roller skates, Impalla Rollerskates, £85/$110. right Purple tights, Dim, £5/$6.50. Blue tights, Le Bourget, £13/$16.50
Empire Roller Disco, Brooklyn 1979
Popular culture understands its own cyclical nature. Many early cinemas were converted from roller-skating venues, but some owners left the sprung floors intact, just in case. At the end of the 1970s, disco brought its beat to the roller rink. Here, a high-velocity Cher hurtles over the 36,000 square feet of the Empire in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But the movies propelled her there. In 1979, she sang “Hell on Wheels” on the soundtrack of “Roller Boogie”, a dance-on-wheels romance starring Linda Blair from “The Exorcist”. It flopped. Now it’s a cult classic. What goes around comes around.
Disco has always been a queer enterprise. The Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan was a club for gay hustlers. Studio 54 declared itself “a mixed salad”. (During a police raid, non-contact dancing is safer than a waltz.) When Belgrade had its first Pride march in 2001, it ended in violence. But a Serbian drag collective Efermerne Konfesije (Ephemeral Confessions) has created a defiant environment under the lights. Markiza de Sada is your hostess and the name of the venue is a kind of mission statement. It’s called the Centre for Cultural Decontamination.
Sequin jacket, Elie Saab, £1,000/$1,300. Viscose shirt, Garçons Infidèles, £300/$390.
Jacket, shirt and trousers, Celine by Heidi Slimane, POA. Cellulose glasses, Jacquemus, £260/$340. Necklace, Francine Bramli Paris, £125/$160. Cotton socks, Le Bourget, £10/$13. Shoes, TOMMY x ZENDAYA , £170/$220.