Chambray. Shoulder pads. Parachute pants. Neon. The 1980s were not a decade known for quiet, unassuming fashion trends for men or women. It was, overall, a flamboyant decade of conspicuous consumption, bright colors, and big volume. Let’s take a fun look back at some of the best, most outrageous and hottest hits of men’s and women’s ’80s fashion.
For the Women:
- Laura Ashley Dresses
In the 1980s, every girl had or wanted a Laura Ashley dress. The name-brand Laura Ashley dresses were very pricey, and knock-offs abounded. The style was uber-feminine and princessy and fit with Wall Street, the money-making ethos of the Reagan era. Lace, ruffles, velvet, and so much flowered cotton covered women and girls in the 1980s….you’d have to see it to believe it. And the bows. Did we mention the bows? Big bows. On the sleeves. At the waist. In women’s hair. Bows everywhere.
2. Leotards and Dancewear
The aerobics craze of the 1980s, where everyone suddenly wanted to get in shape, followed by the success of the movie Flashdance suddenly had a lot of women wearing dancewear everywhere. Legwarmers over leggings and jeans, leotards with shorts, terrycloth headbands to school and ripped sweatshirts as streetwear were suddenly everywhere. If you’d like some extra fun, check out the vintage Olivia Newton-John video for her hit “Physical,” which is ostensibly about working out but which, really…is not.
3. Power Dressing
Shoulder pads. Let’s talk about shoulder pads. They are likely one of the first things you think of when you think ’80s fashion. Really, they form part of a larger aesthetic of “power dressing,” whereby women were supposed to “take charge” in men’s spaces by literally taking up more room and looking assertive. In addition to huge shoulder pads that looked like football equipment, this included dark and dramatic “warpaint” make-up, sky-high heels, and bright, vibrant colors, all designed to make an impression and force their way into the conversation.
For the Men:
- The “Cosby Sweater”
Popularized by (now disgraced) mega-star Bill Cosby, the “Cosby Sweater” was a type of baggy, busy and colorful knit sweater popularized by comedian and actor Bill Cosby on his sitcom The Cosby Show. The sweaters featured wild colors and overlaid knitted patterns. Though many erroneously believe that the sweaters were made by an Australian knitwear brand named Coogi (this is from a popular hip hop song that references the sweaters), the original sweaters were made by Dutch designer Koos van der Akker. The eye-popping colors and mixed designs are now iconic and symbolic of ’80s fashion.
2. Members Only Jackets
If you were a guy and wanted to be cool in the 1980s, you needed a Members Only Jacket. Members Only was a European brand that was introduced in 1979 to the US and took off with the youth market, especially after being modeled by bands like Hall & Oats and the Gatlin Brothers. The jacket, which you might be able to visualize David Hasselhoff or Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf wearing, is a kind of windbreaker with a snap collar and ribbed cuffs and waistband. Incredibly, the brand marketed it with a bow tie as potential formal wear in the 1980s.
3. The Miami Vice Look
One last look for the 1980s was the product of a television program based in Florida: the cop drama Miami Vice. The show followed two undercover narcotics agents who needed to look like drug dealers. Don Johnson’s iconic outfits in the show featured casual t-shirts under expensive suit jackets. This look, usually in bright or pastel colors that evoked Miami and the beach, is a style that still today reminds us all of the 1980s. If you want to complete the look, don’t shave for a day or two!
For the Men and Women
1. The Hair Metal Look and the New Romantic Look (AKA the MTV Look)
We’re putting this one in both columns because one of the key elements of the rock-and-roll aesthetic of the 1980s was androgyny.
MTV music television, in its early 1980s incarnation (when it actually just showed music videos), had a great influence on fashion. Bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison, Ratt, Def Leppard, Duran Duran, Culture Club and A Flock of Seagulls were all bands whose looks were promoted heavily by the station and who gained widespread fame and fortune through their exposure on MTV.
For all the bands, their looks were remarkably androgynous, and their fans’ looks were then remarkably similar whether for men or for women. Both male and female fans of the hair metal bands (Crüe, Poison, Ratt) wore large, teased hair, dark eye makeup and lip gloss with tight, feminine clothing. The only significant difference for the New Romantic bands (Duran Duran, Club, Seagulls) was perhaps more elaborate makeup, slightly less voluminous and more avant-garde hair.
We may cringe looking back at the 1980s, but the fashion was fun!