It's time to talk about fashion in the 1980s, a loveable decade of unconventional style that was embraced worldwide. My best girl friend's wardrobe draws inspiration from this decade, so it holds a special place in my heart.
Trends were quirky, avant-garde and electric. People weren’t afraid to be loud with their personal style.
My adoration for this era comes from its willingness to be daring and progressive. People felt creative and they embraced the bizarre in their fashion endeavours. This blurred lines between haute couture and street-wear, where both appeared almost blended.
I can describe 80s vogue but it’s likely anyone can instantly rattle off the modes of fashion because its immediately recognisable. You could say neon colours, big hair, shoulder pads and active wear and it’ll paint a very accurate snap shot of the decade. However, I’ll outline the attitudes and influences that defined the EPIC fashion response within the 1980s.
The whole era can be summed up by one word… Excess! A “more is more” mentality where maximalism ruled. People did indeed embrace an abundance of bright colours consisting of gem tones, neon, primaries and pastels, sometimes all at once! Favoured patterns were geometric or abstract and pattern bashing was frequent. Costume jewellery was piled on and accessories were statement pieces in themselves.
Excess equated to success, and success was measured by excess. The more you had the wealthier you’d appear. Success was associated with fame, money, and glamour and in some cases through eccentricity or being the picture of health.
All demographics loved fashion in excess. On one side of the economic scale you had the “Yuppies” (Young Urban Professionals), business moguls and celebrities. On the other side you had the lower income community whose affiliates expressed their worth through fashion of the punk, blitz, brat or hip-hop sub-cultures. Both sides displayed their style and attractions towards excess.
So, here are some ideas that generated excessive style.
Two influential people in western power were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both capitalists.
Margaret Thatcher proved women could now contend in politics and business as major players.
Ronald Reagan implemented “Reaganomics”, an idealistic economic trickle-down effect. This aided the wealthy resulting in more opportunity and capital, in turn creating a divide of wealth.
For both ends of the divide it created a desire for money and fashion was a response to that appeal.
Status dressing, luxury brands and the “Yuppie” look defined the capitalist aesthetic.
Although the style was sleek in comparison to other trends, its excess was expressed through silhouette and the “bigger is better” mantra. Hair was high, shoulders were artificially broadened, clothing was slimming (tapered waists and trousers) and accessories were from top shelf brands like Rolex, Escada and Chanel.
One’s reputation was to appear successful, prosperous and powerful even if you were just an aspiring entrepreneur.
This was the decade of the “Material Girl”. She had extreme makeup, bold style and sculpted hair to project the the idea of ‘having it all’. This boosted women’s confidence in achieving success for themselves. Women began dressing on par with men. They now competed in the same careers men had once dominated.
Power dressing of the 80s was revolutionised by designers Georgio Armani for the successful man and by Donna Karen for the newly competitive women who still wanted to maintain some femininity.
The trend of shoulder padding from the 1940s was resurrected. In both decades women filled the workplace and had to prove themselves just as capable as men. Designer Claude Montana, popularised the sharp edged and high shoulder. He presented women with the armour he believed they wanted.
Thierry Mugler also emphasised a severe shoulder. He states, “A well constructed body needs shoulders”.
Montana and Mugler spawned the desire for the “Total Look”. Women saw collections on their runways that encompassed a sophisticated yet dominant perception that portrayed a powerful modern woman. Women then purchased the entire look! This gave power back to designers and haute couture (taken from them in the 60s and 70s by retro fashion then governed by the street). Furthermore this lead to increased sales for luxury brand’s ‘ready to wear’ lines and paved the way for new ideas like luxury denim (only previously seen as casual or work wear).
As the wealth gap separated socio-economic groups further, some of the more excessive fashion trends emerged from the lower income earners. Here was the birth of new wave, blitz kids, brat packs, hip-hop and an evolved punk scene. There was a lot going on, politically and fashion wise.
The youth and young adults of the 80s found commonality in outrageous costumes and androgynous dress up as an escape from the hardships of unemployment and low paying jobs. Often it was also to give the finger to the elite and bourgeoisie by emphasising another way to dress for success.
In the early days of Hip-Hop culture participators stuck solely to street wear. The look was a manifestation of black power where there was no association with capitalistic luxury brands. Wealth and success in this subculture was displayed through excessive jewellery (oversized gold chains and huge hoop earrings), expensive sneakers or designer tracksuits. This was revolutionary because it put emphasis on street cred not luxury labels.
Nowadays, Hip-Hop style has evolved with time and is now juxtaposed with what it once rejected.
The success of the punk movement of the 1970s gave rise to designer Vivienne Westwood who became an evocative designer to represent street fashion in the 1980s. Vivienne Westwood’s early 80s ‘dandy’ dressing resulted in a whimsical, “dress up box” style of costumed street wear. She resurrected styles of the past: the pirate look, the new romantics and Punkature (era bashing styles of the regency and Victorian eras). All trends could be put together with second hand clothing or a DIY aesthetic seen by the Blitz Kids of London.
“Brat Pack” is a nickname for the groups seen in coming of age films of the 80s like The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. Actors like Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald depicted troubled youth, which set teens to follow in their fashion trends. Clothing in their films were reinforcing character stereotypes and defining youth personality. This taught the younger generation to seek their “tribe” and express themselves within their social groups or cliques. The fashion style saw DIY creations like overly patched up denim and hand-me-downs (often oversized).
Television is not necessarily a new influence to culture but in the 80s it was essential to fashion and its direction. People learnt more about fashion from the TV screen than ever before.
The latest craze to the network was MTV, which showcased fashion influencers like Madonna. Music videos were just as important as the songs. Musicians produced theatrical displays, which saw flashy artistic fashion as the star of the clip. Musicians were, more than ever before, the style icons of the decade. Watch Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' and Robert Palmers 'Simply Irresistible' where his band are wearing iconic Alaia Azzedine ensembles.
Television fed people’s obsession with the rich via shows like Dallas, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, and the infamous Dynasty. These ostentatious shows pushed the public to strive for an appearance of success.
I can’t move past this decade without mentioning this momentous outbreak. The 80s had both genders cross-dressing; men dressed feminine and women dressed masculine. Those that met mid-way to produce an asexual ideal in-between gender created a thought-provoking message: gender as expression.
The iconic style of rebels like Grace Jones, Boy George, Prince and Annie Lennox promoted the gender-bending fascination. Their androgynous looks challenged ideas of ‘gender’ within dressing and morphed it into a mainstream acceptance.
Prominent 80s designer Jean-Paul Gautier stylised sexual ambivalence by putting men back in skirts and Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (Comme de Garçons) blurred lines of gender by simplifying designs and reversing or unifying gender appropriate clothing and silhouettes.
Lets Get Physical
Dance revolution and celebrity aerobics videos led to a new found awareness in a fit body. Working out (or at least seeming like you did) and looking healthy showed another type of success. A healthy physique suggested power, strength and success in one’s wellbeing. This allowed active wear to break into mainstream fashion. But obviously done in excess: bold colours, extra sweat bands, leg warmers, bike shorts and leotards over leotards. Working out never looked so good.
Celebrities like Jane Fonda and Cher had their own work out videos.
The decade endured tragic blows that included: oil spills, bombings, assassinations, the highest recorded crime rates and the AIDS epidemic. However, the 1980s hedonistic ways ended with two major events: the Tiananmen Square protest (where the military massacred innocent students) and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These two major events forced society to deliberate over what was more crucial in life: superficial attachments or humanity? The excessive style retreated and the 1990s was born!
Here's a gallery of some great 1980s looks from the influences mentioned above. I've also added a few people who had great influence but don't often get the credit they deserve e.g Lee Bowery for Boy George and Jean-Paul Goude for Grace Jones.
While you're at it, please check out my 80s inspired editorial 'OH MY GAWD' in the AQV 'Look Book' archive.