2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 20

Club Kids: An Aesthetic Emphasised by Outrageousness, Fabulousness, and Sex

By Anya Goulthorpe

The 1990s was a time of liberation, and radical new ideas within the club and nightlife scene of New York. Here, we introduce the Club Kids, an underground subculture of inclusivity, promiscuity, and a period of relief for those damaged by the 1980s AIDS crisis. 

According to self-proclaimed ‘Club Kid’ Walt Cassidy, “when the Club Kids came along, we brought this idea that our identity was enough; we didn’t have to do anything else”. “It’s very much ahead of the time. We were criticised at the same time the way people criticise the Kardashians: ‘You’re interesting looking but what do you do?” Cassidy was an integral figure in the ground-breaking Club Kids scene when he began to deconstruct ideas of fashion, music, drugs, gender, pop culture, and media. The actual term of ‘Club Kids’ was first coined by New York Magazine in 1988 which then emancipated a secular culture of expressive youths in the underground nightclub scene. There were seen as an object of fascination, as all rules were abolished of gender and sexual expression. There wasn’t a hierarchy involved as everyone was accepted. The boundaries of race and gender didn’t exist here, and this is why the Club Kids were rarely recognised in the historical curriculum, as they didn’t ‘fit’ the mould.

When an article is written about such people as the Club Kids, you might assume there is a ‘turning point’ or something of contention, a hardship they faced so to speak. However, the Club Kids were so underground that it actually worked in their favour. The rare occasion that these people would be brought to the surface was due to moguls of the time being seen in these ‘elite’ groups. Pop stars such as Bjork were plastered across newspapers, maybe not on the front pages, but enough to keep people engaged. The general public will have seen this as fascination, these people who weren’t drag queens, unlabelled, and androgynous. As the 1990s progressed into the 21st century, the Club Kid style became less outrageous and more ambiguous which melded references to grunge and R&B. This was at the height of the Club Kids, and they would tour America and appeared on several talk shows such as The Joan Rivers Show and Geraldo

Club Kids brought a lot of joy to America, especially for the Queer community who had faced decimation in the 1980s AIDS crisis. This group brought a radiance that hadn’t been seen before, being gay was becoming more accepted due to this group. Queer people became more expressive, and the Club Kids exuded confidence and liberalism. Much of what is associated with the gay community in the 21st century can be attributed to the Club Kids and what they did for those who felt different. 

Drugs became a prominent feature of the Club Kid movement: “The drugs that people were taking were about pursuing truth, opening up and going to the furthest point inside. The 80s, it was cocaine, which is a superficial social drug. With other drugs [like ketamine] you are exploring your mind and looking for an inner truth”. These once taboo subjects became more popular, and almost normalised, whether that be to the Club Kids benefit, or demise. The ‘death-knell’ of the scene was the increasing amount of heroin consumption. The Club Kids became ‘glorified junkies’ according to Cassidy but they took it on as style, like many other things used to build their complex identities. 

Conclusively, the Club Kids movement was one where intrigue and glamour intersected. They bring both personal and timely joy to not just myself, but those of nostalgic value during the 1990s. Club Kids were so outwardly themselves and created a whole sub-secular culture for any others involved. The reach is even seen today within the Queer and Drag communities, but even then Club Kids refused to be labelled. Cassidy fully encapsulates this by saying:

“I was aware I was in the middle of a historic moment, and we were playing out all these archetypes, like wow, we are at the core of the universe”. 

They were enigmatic, they were free, they were outrageously individual.