1980s Fashion – Clothing styles & History
1980s fashion was showcased by London Fashion Week, which was established in 1983. Before a British fashion week was organized, designers had held shows, of course, but they were not under a collective umbrella. However, just because the fashion industry had become more organized it didn’t mean the shows themselves were less quirky and creative – LFW and London itself has always held that reputation. Designers like Vivienne Westwood, Rifat Ozbek and Betty Jackson sent models down the catwalks wearing layers of clothes with ripped and unfinished hems or exuberant, clashing pattern and print and the careers of enfants terrible John Galliano and Alexander McQueen began in this decade.
Fashion in the 1980s
In contrast, the sober Margaret Howell, Jean Muir and Paul Smith created understated 1980s fashion classics. Japanese born designers like Yohji Yamamoto (who showed in Paris but was eagerly bought in the UK) and Michiko Koshino played with oversized volume and draped textures. Menswear as womenswear – voluminous shirts, jumpers, jackets and coats in masculine cuts was a theme throughout the decade.
1980s fashion had quite a fascination with what the young royals – especially the newly married Princess Diana – and their rich friends on Sloane Street were wearing (the original Made in Chelsea lot) but club kids turned fashion designers ran counter to Establishment styles. Matching that, 1980s fashion magazines like Vogue and Harpers & Queen continued to report on high fashion in Paris and Milan and what Society was wearing, but now they were joined by a new crop of younger, more rebellious magazines, such as The Face and i-D, who would rather talk about Leigh Bowery and Boy George.
Social climate in the 1980s
Politically and socially, the 1980s was tumultuous – miners’ strikes, terrorist bombings, high unemployment and the rise of HIV and AIDS lead to an uncomfortable climate. However, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government brought in sweeping changes aiming to promote capitalism in Britain, and this gave a boost to entrepreneurs including those in the creative industries, like fashion and music. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, hosted many fashion receptions in Downing Street. She declared: “Fashion is important because it raises the quality of life when people take the trouble to dress well and it also provides employment for many, many people.”
The Tobe Investors Report of 1989 commented: “Thanks to banks, investors and knowledgeable manufactures, most of these young British designers are, at last, producing merchandise that can hold its own against what we’ve seen in Milan, Paris and the USA.” Buyers agreed, and many British brands had excellent export sales in the States and Japan as well as across Europe.
1980s fashion – Daywear
1980s fashion streetwear
Streetwear in the 80s was about colour and fun – those synthetic fabrics we’re so concerned about today were used in abundance and nylon track suit tops were worn as jackets over jeans or cut off jean shorts and baggy t-shirts, and crinkly bright shell suits, designed as a “shell” layer to be worn over shorts and t-shirts when athletes were warming up, passed into street wear too, along with ubiquitous trainers.
1980s fashion Jeans
Jeans were worn semi fitted and held with a decorative belt at the natural waistline, and pale blue, distressed versions were most fashionable. When the boy band Bros came along with their 1988 hits When Will I Be Famous and I Owe You Nothing and their jeans ripped at the knee worn with Patrick Cox “clock” loafers, teens up and down the country enthusiastically took the scissors to their jeans too and ripped, frayed and shredded them, and when they disintegrated them entirely cut them into knee-length shorts instead.
1980s fashion Denim
More denim came in the form of American singer Tiffany, with her easy to wear double denim.
American rappers Salt n Pepa modelled distinctive matching baseball jackets, worn over skintight catsuits and accessorized with heavy gold chains and African tribal hats. This too was a highly influential look.
A layered look came along too. Big, baggy sweaters with maybe a batwing sleeve or off the shoulder, either knitted or sweatshirt style, were worn over large men’s dress shirts and long skirts. Handknits, or jumpers that looked chunky and hand knitted, were worn in cosy layers too. Vivienne Westwood brought this into couture with her “Buffalo Girls (Nostalgia of Mud)” collection of 1983 – completely different from the punk outfits that had made her famous.
1980s power dressing
Career women, however, were having none of this. They favoured fitted suits, skirt suits mostly with a knee-length pencil skirt but sometimes trousers, and a fitted jacket. The shape was shoulder padded and triangular, with immaculate tights and neat court shoes in a colour to match the outfit. The handbag also matched. Colours of suits were usually bright, like sunshine yellow, tangerine, scarlet or fuchsia (both particular favourites) or in out sized check, tartans and houndstooths but could also be black, brown or stone – a particular favourite neutral was navy or bottle green with bright gilt buttons.
The jackets displayed an amazing array of detail, with collarless, mandarin collar, shawl collar or exaggerated notched lapels, peplums at the back, interesting buttons, applique designs and lengths from something like a bolero to a longline upper thigh, and many lengths between.
They could also be either boxy and square or sharply tailored and well fitted to the body. Although the “power suit” look, with its masculine proportions of heavy shoulders has been called an attempt by women to be like men and taken seriously in the office, they added plenty of feminine touches. The blouse beneath the shirt (never a t-shirt) could be plain and shirt like, but also could be soft and silken with ruffles. Statement jewellery, particularly big earrings and brooches were added, and makeup was important – a statement red lip or neat neutral, along with carefully styled hair.
1980s Evening wear
Society girls who were breathlessly reported on in Harpers & Queen loved their velvet and taffeta party dresses – a tight, sometimes strapless black velvet or sequinned bodice down to the waist or hip with an explosion of pouffed up colourful silk taffeta below, to knee-length or thereabouts. The tight, body con dress was the alternative – also to knee-length. Both styles could feature elaborate embroidery and a high, slashed neckline, a sweetheart neckline or a square one. The designs could be a strapless bustier style or sleeveless, have long or short sleeves, either tight all the way or exaggeratedly voluminous at the top in a fairy tale princess, 1980s style.
1980s club wear
Those on a more modest budget also wore versions of this – the pouf ball skirt was a defining party look for the 80s – but if you wanted to look anti establishment there were plenty of options. Punks were still around, with their vinyl, chains and bondage gear, and club kids vied to dress up in gender challenging, outrageous clothing.
London club Taboo spawned the beautiful Boy George and his sometime lover, Marilyn, as well as those with a more challenging look like Leigh Bowery who was both a performance artist and briefly, 1980s fashion designer.
The look is hard to define but drag and general outrageous over the top ness were the general rule. The New Romantics too, brought their own 1980s fashion look to-night clubs. It featured Byronesque jabots and ruffled white shirts, worn with long hair, fitted black jackets, pantaloons, waist sashes and long leather boots. The look was pretty unisex, borrowing elements from both male, female and pirate dress.
Sportswear was worn as leisurewear in the 1970s, but it was in 1980s fashion when the crazy big boom in tracksuits, shell suits and trainers appeared on our streets. Reflecting popular colour ways, the fabrics were synthetically bright and clashing – violet and turquoise, fuchsia and yellow – or pastels like baby blue, pale mint green and pastel pink. Flouros were also in.
The 1980s is also when Jane Fonda and her aerobics videos made their debut. Leotards were worn over leggings, sweatbands appeared on wrists and foreheads, and shiny Lycra was queen. A particular and distinctive 80s trend was the two colour cycling short – skin-tight, one leg was fluorescent yellow and one fluorescent pink. Tight cycling shorts were worn as streetwear with square, baggy t-shirts.
1980s Bridal Fashions
The 1980s were the age of the “Meringue” wedding dress. Most wedding dresses were white, following the form of a tight bodice and many petticoated, full, bell-like skirt which reached to the ground. Favored fabrics were silk and satin, often with a lace overlay. Veils were popular, and white satin court shoes often worn to match.
The most famous wedding dress of the 1980s was probably Princess Diana’s, when she married Prince Charles in 1981. She had a dress made from silk satin taffeta with full skirt, ruffled neckline, large leg o’mutton sleeves and a twenty-five-foot long train. It was embroidered with sequins and pearls and overlaid with antique lace.
Some 1980s career women were supposed to feel that they wore their power suits as outward Armour, whilst being “all women” on the inside – and so wore sexy, playful underwear for any man who conquered them and got to unwrap their prize. In 1980s fashion this was the essential marketing behind the Janet Reger brand , anyway, who shocked feminists by producing soft and lacy, impractical and uncomfortable underthings, away from the 1970s development of easy to wear tights and smooth, neutral coloured bras that didn’t show under clothes made by brands like Triumph. Both 1980s styles had their followings.
Like the hair, makeup and favourite colours of the 1980s, a lot of 80s best-selling scents were big and loud – so much so that some were banned from restaurants. 1980s perfumes weren’t about celebrity names as they are now, but designer names really hit the spot. The perfume names weren’t subtle either. Christian Dior had Poison in its dark purple flask and Yves Saint Laurent Opium, a powerful oriental in a red bottle. Calvin Klein had Obsession, which was advertised with naked people apparently engaged in an orgy. Pamolo Picasso smouldered in red lipstick, advertising her own brand. Giorgio was a powerful perfume also guaranteed to cause a migraine.
As a contrast, Estee Lauder produced Beautiful, a floral scent that was strong but marketed with images of weddings, not orgies, and Chanel’s floral aldehyde No 5 was as popular as ever.
The teenage market was well catered for in 1980s fashion, with Charlie and a perfume named Babysoft by a company called Love, which imitated the scent of baby powder.
For men there were perfumes as powerful for those made for women – Brut and Old Spice are classics that spring to mind.
The most remembered 1980s makeup was all those crazy colours – turquoise eyeshadow blended into orange, with a bold triangle of pink blusher and bright pink lips on a base of heavy, matte foundation. That was more for teenagers. Or, something like Princess Diana’s look, which in the 80s involved a more natural look, of a little soft eyeliner all around the eye teamed with neutrals on the face. She did wear blue mascara though, to highlight her blue eyes. A more sophisticated look was red (scarlet or red-brown) lipstick, with a flick of black eyeliner or grey or brown eye shadow. A pink lipstick, close to neutral but a bit brighter with only a little frosting was also worn with brown eyeshadow and some pared back mascara.
Browns were mostly left completely untamed, or plucked to thin arches.
Of course, punks and club kids did it differently, with deliberately jarring and angular makeup, and New Romantics brought a different kind of make up for men than the 1970s glam rock that had ushered it in – soulful eyeliner and a pale powdered face was usual, unless you were Adam Ant, who liked a few war stripes too.
Big and bold, of course. Perms in 1980s fashion created tight ringlets and waves, which were made bigger by mousse and piled up, with a luxuriant fringe or without. A more natural look was also worn, with long, glossy locks with some bounce. A contrasting, ultra slicked back style looked impressively severe. Short hair was quite popular, with curls or spiked up all over.
Teenage looks included ponytails high on the top of the head, or worn to the side but still quite high above the ear.
1980s hair accessories
To decorate the hair, you could pull it back from the face in a padded velvet headband, a style which was copied from Sloanes of Sloane Street, a posh tribe who hung around Chelsea, and still exist today. Diana came from their ranks. To copy another royal, the Fergie Bow. Sarah Fergusson, Duchess of York, was young and vivacious in the 80s, just got together with Prince Andrew and a style leader. Her large padded bow, clipped to a ponytail was all the rage.
1980s scrunchies & banana clips
To make the most of those cascades of permed curls, you could also arrange your hair in a banana clip that held it back from the face and let it fountain from the back of the head. More simple and neat was the French braid, running from the top of the head and finishing in a plait down the back, or just a simple loose plait hanging down the back, sometimes finished with a fabric “scrunchie”. The high plait and sideways French braid were also tried out.
Updos for the sophisticated included the sleek chignon or elaborate top knot.
In 1980s fashion, Men’s hair was relatively long – either really long and held back in a ponytail, or worn in a mullet, short on top with a longer back, or just above the collar with a long crown, worn pushed or slicked back.
Court shoes with a moderate heel came in block colours to go with most outfits, either day or evening wear. Slingbacks were an alternative. The toe was usually pointed, but the vamp could be creatively cut – square and low across the toes or with a sweetheart effect, or particularly high and decorated with ruching or a buckle. Loafers and trainers were popular for casual wear.
Jewellery in 1980s fashion was small and fussy, in gold preferably, or big and bold. Massive earrings in both button and dangly styles highlighted the face. Costume jewellery was perfectly ok, and obvious plastic not a problem – it made for the brightest of colours, anyway. Costume gilt was made to catch people’s eye – buttons or earrings, it had to be big and smoothly shiny. Oversized men’s watches or dainty gold watches were worn by women.
Brooches were also often pinned to a jumper, dress or jacket lapel, usually a quirky form like an animal – jaguars and scottie dogs seemed particularly to catch people’s fancy. Strings of ladylike pearls never went out of fashion but layers of chunky beads were in too, all jangled together, as were stacks of chunky bracelets. Broad, colourful belts cinched in outfits. Handbags could be structured – like Maggie Thatcher’s famous one – and in a colour to match the shoes and hat of the wearer for business women. Or they could be slouchy for more boho women.
1980s spectacles and sunglasses
Big, chunky spectacles and sunglasses were in, of a style, it seemed, guaranteed to suit no-one.
Hats were worn in a playful way. A felt hat with a big brim could be peered from under, and a slouchy beret went with the layering look. Tiny pillbox hats with veils in a colour matching the outfit were for special occasions. A surprisingly large amount of women were featured in adverts and editorials with wrist length leather gloves – black, brown or coloured – as the finishing touch to any outfit in 1980s fashion.