The Girl Who Only Dressed in 80s-Era Madonna Attire

Of course, Madonna has many sartorial phases to choose from. There was the whole 90s bondage look, the Kabbalah meets Hindu goddess (complete with henna), the ghetto fabulous vibe of the Music period, and, more recently, the effortless slapping on of an eye patch. But for Isla Lambert, it was always the 80s era of Madonna that remained most appealing. She knew she was not the only one, and that envisioning Madonna in this incarnation was almost annoyingly cliche. Yet something about the romanticism of the time–pre-internet, pre-smartphone, pre-“drugs are bad for you”–drew Isla invariably to the Madonna aesthetic of this decade, of excess. Or maybe it was an attraction loosely based on her name being Isla and Madonna having a song called “La Isla Bonita.” Whatever the “core reason,” the fact of the matter was, she only dressed in 80s-era Madonna attire, starting from her teen years.

At that particular moment in time, Madonna was especially out of fashion to openly worship. After enjoying a reign of supremacy for the bulk of the 80s and up through 1991, the public had grown tired of her oversaturation, and the reminder she served as part of an age when Reagan was trying his best to suppress (dress to suppress, not impress being the Republican motto), to bring back a “modern version of the 50s”–an oxymoron if ever there was one–with black and Hispanic people lightly incorporated. Asians, slightly more so. Mainly because they were “light enough” to the conservative eye. In any case, while Madonna might have been one of the few sources and indications of liberation in the 80s, it was as though audiences suddenly didn’t want to be reminded of her any longer as they transitioned into the final stretch of the twentieth century, naively believing in some “wondrous” future to be beheld in the twenty-first. Fools all. How could they ever think there was going to be a higher apex than the 90s? That much should have been clear with the start of the 00s resulting in the false election of George W. Bush, which everyone suddenly seemed to forgive him for, among other things, when a worse successor eventually came along.

In Bush’s time, Madonna, too, suffered from the bane of “uncoolness” as she did when Isla was first adopting her 80s guise. For it was at this time that her persona became inspired by Che Guevara and military fatigues. It’s not the easiest or most fashionable genre of clothing to don, further detracting from M’s “cause” and the brief bout of popularity she had enjoyed circa 2000. But again, that wasn’t really the reason why Isla was fondest of the 80s-era Madonna look–though the ease of re-creating it was undeniable. It had more to do with the hardened edge it lent her, imbuing her with a jolt of chutzpah that she did not have the gall to exude in ordinary, dreary ensembles. To boot, the more the years went by, the more facile it had become to obtain an array of “ready-made” costumes, if you will. In other words, there was a variety of “80s pop star” and “80s rocker diva” Halloween costumes–because, so long as you had “creative” a.k.a. “legal action sidestepping” copy, you could offer up any Madonna outfit from the 80s imaginable. From the wedding dress of Like A Virgin to the Desperately Seeking Susan look, there was no shortage of choice, and Isla was certain she had bought at least two versions of them all.

In the 90s, her gravitation toward this aesthetic made her the target of much bullying and criticism. She was called irrelevant, a loser, a lesbian and–what was meant to be the worst insult of all–a Madonna lover. It took until roughly the 2010s for her (and therefore Madonna’s) aesthetic to come back into vogue (no pun intended). By this time, Isla was in her thirties and living in Los Angeles. She still could pass for about twenty-eight in the right light. And L.A. was nothing if not filled with the right light. After the harrowing existence she endured in Nebraska during her adolescence, making her way to the City of Angels felt only right. Just because she dressed like Madonna didn’t mean she thought New York was worth a damn, or moving to.

The Golden State beckoned instead and, eventually, with a lot of thankless jobs and painstaking scrimping and saving, she secured enough capital to open her own vintage shop on Melrose near N. Martel–right near Wasteland, sure to get uppity about its latest competition. And right away Isla’s store, which she chose to call Borderline Fashions, was generating publicity for being a “Madonna-centric wet dream” (per one write-up’s assessment). But Isla had made one fatal error despite her years of exposure to that legal sidestepping expertise of the copy on the Halloween costume packaging. She didn’t sidestep enough. So it didn’t take long for Madonna herself to hear about the store’s existence, what with her frequenting the area whenever she was in town (which was more and more as she came to see that New York was a shithole even when you lived on the Upper East Side).

Yet, upon learning of its existence, Madonna was not exactly “charmed” by the similarities the mannequins–styled by Isla herself–bore to her 80s self. So not charmed, in fact, that she proceeded with an injunction on the store, which she felt did not have a right to be named after one of her songs as it touted mannequins and product designs modeled after her likeness. All at once, Isla seemed to get a taste of what Maripol must have endured when she was effectively put out of business once Madonna decided to change her look the first time around by shedding all the bracelets and the surfeit of crucifixes and other jewelry. In the same sense, Madonna had cut off Isla’s own livelihood. At least until she could find a way to rebrand. But by then, she imagined, she would be bankrupt, and it would be too late. Starting over yet again is just another luxury of the rich.

She didn’t begrudge her sartorial inspiration of decades. Then again, there must have been a subconscious motive for her decision to start dressing primarily in the potato sack-like cloth pieces masquerading as fashion that were sold at Target. She told herself that bidding adieu to her 80s flair wasn’t related to anything Madonna did. Yet, now, every time she passed an “80s rocker diva” costume in the aisle around Halloween, it was all she could do to keep her dry heaves at bay (city).

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