Midge Ure & Billy Currie for Rage in Eden album booklet, by Trevor Key 1981

I Blame Ultravox

I have a confession. Over the years I’ve thought about where my love of the ‘30s and ‘40s came from, and although it’s true that, as a child of the 80s (I was born in ‘74), a decade steeped in nostalgia, there were a number of things it could have been attributed to: Bugsy Malone, Force 10 from Navarone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, even Back to the Future or Stand by Me (although these were more ‘50s). However, I managed to trace it back to one defining moment: that moment was Top of the Pops 14th August 1980, the first appearance of Ultravox, with their new lead singer James ‘Midge’ Ure.

Whilst, in hindsight, it was nothing particularly out of the ordinary, the sight of Mr Ure with his Errol Flynn pencil moustache, white shirt, white linen trousers and green square-ended bow-tie (un-tied and hanging louchly around his neck, naturally) was in stark contrast to the fashions and styles of any other media star I’d seen up until that point (although remember, I was only six). The music was also like nothing I’d ever heard before either and conjured up waves of atmospheric imagery. When they followed this up a few months later with their first promo video for the song ‘Passing Strangers’, this imagery was backed up with visuals – in Film Noir-esque black and white – I was hooked and have been a life-long fan ever since.

Vienna album booklet, shot by Brian Aris 1980

Although their music was technologically groundbreaking, and their lyrics equally up-to-date with mentions of Europeanism, walkmans, and synthesisers, it evokes the seedy, dark corners of Noir, or the covert goings on of cold war style espionage. It’s unfortunate that Ultravox often get lumped in with the burgeoning ‘New Romantic’ scene of fashionable London of the time, their style wasn’t the high-fashion, anything goes, mix of post-punk meets 18th century romanticism of contemporaries like Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, but the perfect accompaniment to the imagery brought forth by their music. Ultravox, and Midge Ure in particular, wore tropical evening-wear, 40s suits, tweeds, plus-fours, spats, trench coats and fedoras… Midge was the first person I ever saw wearing a pair of Hollywood trousers (see last issue’s ‘A
Stride Forward’).

Vienna album booklet, shot by Brian Griffin 1980
Vienna album booklet, shot by Brian Griffin 1980
Rage in Eden album booklet, shot by Brian Griffin 1981
Rage in Eden album booklet, shot by Brian Griffin 1981

It was years later, having read Midge Ure’s autobiography that I discovered more about how this style came about, and it makes so much sense. He called it ‘dead men’s clothing’ and it was born out of necessity. The band were basically broke, in fact they recorded their first album with Ure, ‘Vienna’ (they’d had three previous albums with another singer) in a rented flat above a shop using borrowed or cobbled together equipment. They brought their clothes from charity shops, looking particularly for those clothes donated by house clearances or the bereaved to evoke that classic Hollywood look.

And isn’t this exactly what we all do right now, 36 years later?

What’s interesting is that it’s quite obvious, looking back over their promo-videos, that they had a very slim wardrobe and mix-and-matched the few pieces they had constantly to create new looks.


This concept has got me thinking a lot about my own wardrobe recently and how the previous owners of the clothes contained there-in probably had a lot less to work with than I do – three shirts: one to wash, one to wear, one for Sunday-best, a day suit, an evening suit (if they were lucky) and the ubiquitous Sunday-best again, perhaps two pairs of shoes or maybe a pair of shoes and a pair of boots – they found variety in accessories, knitwear and combinations of different items.

So this is how I’ve decided to approach my wardrobe from now on, pair it back to my favourite pieces, get rid of anything I don’t feel 100% comfortable in (not including items which need altering to fit) and try and combine and mix, only adding in items when I find them that complement or have an additional purpose. I’ve already started by separating and storing seasonal wear. My lighter weight clothing is currently stored for warmer weather and I only have heavier weight items, such as woollens and heavier cottons and rayons to choose from. If you follow me on Instagram (@southernretro) you’ll see I’ve already been having fun with shirt/tie/knitwear combinations.

Now if this article has got you thinking about your own overflowing wardrobes then why not do the same? Instead of hoarding clothes that you don’t wear, set them free so that others can enjoy them.

Lads, do you really need those four tweed suits? Wouldn’t just the one do? Okay… perhaps just a single breasted and a double.

Ladies, do you really need more than three day-dresses?

“But what of Ultravox?” I hear you cry! Well if you’ve never heard any other track than the song ‘Vienna’ I urge you to give them a listen. That particular track is not particularly indicative of their style. And did you know that before Midge Ure joined he was the tour guitarist with Thin Lizzy? Or that he was in the Rich Kids with ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock?

Vienna album booklet, shot by Brian Griffin 1980
Vienna album booklet, shot by Brian Griffin 1980

Mathew Keller is a graphic designer, photographer, writer, husband, father, modernist, history enthusiast, lover of pre & post-war design, collector of inter-war furniture & clothing and advocate of the retrospective way of life. You can follow his #retrospectivelife on Instagram: www.instagram.com/southernretro