1980s fashion can be commended for its creativity. Some fashion designers abandoned history, some borrowed from it, while others tried to design the future. Designers abandoned all convention — and their creations were interesting to say the least.The early 80s were somewhat subdued in color, where we see a lot browns and tans and oranges. Blocky shapes were everywhere and dressing like a tennis player was the cool thing to do. Velour was hot and velvet was even hotter. For both men and women, the waistline was a little high.
But let’s face it, early 1980s fashion was very similar to the late 1970s. In 1983 there was a slight 1950s-style throwback, especially in women’s dresses. By the mid-80s, pop music stars like Cyndi Lauper were ushering in an entirely new style — one that many people associate with the 1980s to this day.
Bright colored accessories like sunglasses, bangles and hoop earrings were a necessity. Teased hair, loud makeup and neon were an important part of this style. This style was obviously more popular with the younger crowd.
But that didn’t mean “regular” women in the 1980s couldn’t have fun. It was an exceptionally flexible time when a woman could wear skin-tight cotton stirrup pants with leggings and a giant turtleneck sweater one day — and parachute pants with a small v-neck top and a high-waist belt the next.
Society’s love for brand was epitomized by its inexplicable love for wearing Coca-Cola brand clothing in 1987. MTV had a huge impact on fashion, as teens across the U.S. were tuning in to watch music videos starring wildly dressed celebrities. Suddenly it became much easier for a fad to spread across the country faster than wildfire.
By the late 80s, Nike had grown into one of the most profitable clothing companies in the world. Like Coke vs. Pepsi, Reebok vs. Nike was the athletic wear battle of the decade. With the help of Michael Jordan, Nike won the war. In 1988, every kid had to have a pair of Air Jordans and a Chicago Bulls baseball cap.
If you ever hear someone talk about “Cosby sweaters”, they are referring to sweaters that were most popular in 1989. By then, women’s clothing had gotten considerably more baggy as women clamored for styles that hearkened back to a more conservative time.
The best example of late-1980s for boys is Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) from Saved by the Bell. One look at a 1989 catalog feels like a glimpse into the troublemaking teen’s bedroom floor.
Read more about 1980s fashion below. Simply click on the plus sign next to the year you want to read about.
Fashion in 1980
Women’s clothing in 1980 ran the gamut from conservative to opulent fantasy. Many designers reached back in history for inspiration. The looked to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Victorian era and even the Peruvian Indians for something “new.” A few avant-garde designers took their cues from futurism and designed clothes that looked like uniforms for space travel.
1980 witnessed a revival of the classic “preppie” look that began in New England prep schools in the 40s and 50s.
International fashion was influenced by American sportswear more so in 1980 than it had been since the jeans of the 60s. Western clothes began to make a comeback as well.
China saw its first American fashion show in 1980, when Halston presented his large collection. Chinese reactions ranged from polite admiration to outright dismay.
Designers did what they could to try to please women. They opted for choice. Hemlines bounced up and down and there was no prescribed length — day or night. Shapes ranged from slim to extremely full and blousons returned.
Velvet was popular around the clock and women wore lace with tweeds and leather. Clothes could be made of any color, with emphasis on blocks and asymmetrical bands of two or more colors.
Men’s dressing styles changed very little in 1980. One noticeable development for men’s fashion was that it was becoming more acceptable for men to wear sport coats and slacks to events that previously required a suit.
Fashion in 1982
Fashion, traditionally the province of rich and leisured women, subtly changed its focus in 1982. The most successful styles were moderately subdued, in durable fabrics that required little upkeep and in quiet, basic colors.
There were two main reasons for this development. 1.) The worldwide recession put extravagant clothes out of reach for a good portion of the population and 2.) a growing number of women continued to join the workforce.
With more women moving in executive roles in the workplace, the demand for business suits increased.
Perry Ellis, then one of the “rising stars” of fashion, was successful with his near-ankle lengths. Bill Blass and Adolfo — favorites of Nancy Reagan — kept their hemlines around the knee. Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren both favored calf-length clothes.
In 1982, sportswear is adapting well to everyday contemporary needs.
Donna Karan (of DKNY fame) and Louis Dell’Olio are inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. Feathers replaced beads and sequins as the latest extravagance.
Fashion in 1986
The long, full wool coat emerged the fall of 1986 as everyone’s favorite fashion. It became the unifying link in a still-fragmented fashion where, increasingly, anything goes. The big coat covered long flaring skirts, skinny knee-bearing skirts, pants, bulky sweaters, shirts, blouses and even jackets.
The search was on for fresh looks. In London, newcomer Alistair Duncan Blair, whose first collection was acclaimed for its stylish, tailored look.
Romeo Gigli was the new name in Milan. Trained as an architect, he brought a simple, old-fashioned charm to sweaters and skirts. Also in Italy was Zack Carr, a former Calvin Klein assistant, who created spare, minimalist designs for Giorgio Armani and Valentino.
The most promising new designer in the U.S. was 23-year-old Marc Jacobs who released fanciful designs that ran from battle jackets in printed satin to princess dresses with petticoats.
New York sportswear designers were widely praised for the contemporary approach to fashion. The upgraded their clothes by using luxury fabrics such as cashmere and alpaca rather than by adding frills. The leading names in this category were Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karen and Perry Ellis — who died on May 30 at age 46.
Mink was the fur of choice in 1986. As women moved into better-paying professions, they were able to afford more high-end furs.
Fashion in 1987
The big news in fashion in 1987 was the resurgence of the short skirt. For some time, fashion designers had insisted that anything goes when it came to the length of hemlines. Most women had accepted this approach and some alternated long skirts with short ones. Other women concentrated on the length they preferred.
When fashion collections for fall 1987 were unveiled in the spring, however, it was clear that designers were surprisingly unanimous in their support for the short hemline.
The new hemlines bared the knees and sometimes went to mid thigh. The most popular skirt lengths measured to 21 inches from the waistband to the hem. The shorter lengths were fashion choice for teenagers, but women of all ages began revealing their knees.
Although the new shorter skirts were designed for fall, women jumped the gun and began rolling up the waistbands or turning up their hemlines on their longer outfits to accommodate the new trend before the shorter fashions hit the stores.
Stores didn’t go crazy. They still offered longer skirts, but it was clear, short was in.
Fashion in 1989
The fashion focus in 1989 was on jackets as the staple of most women’s wardrobes. Linen, wool and silk were the fabrics of choice. Several designers wanted smaller shoulder pads. Jackets varied in almost every design: ranging from short and swingy to long enough to be worn with stretch pants.
Designers once again created clothes that faithfully followed the lines of the body. Popular colors in 1989 were plums, gold and bright wines. Animal prints were also a popular choice for women.
Dresses and skirts could be any length, either stopping inches above the knee or plunging all the way to the ankles. Coats made of cloth and fake fur received a sales boost thanks to animal-rights activists who urged women not to buy the real thing.
Christian Lacroix settled down to a more standard style in 1989. He worked to establish ready-to-wear fashions to complement his flamboyant made-to-order styles.
Designers in the U.S. had a very successful year 1989. Donna Karen’s sexy interpretations of American sportswear and her DKNY collection of casual weekend clothes were a huge hit both in the U.S. and Europe.
Calvin Kline and Ralph Lauren both had very good year and were capturing more overseas business daily.
Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta were the top evening wear designers.
In May, Dior chose Italian designer Gianfranco Ferre to design both its couture and ready-to-wear collections. Ferre replaced Marc Bohan, who had been with Dior since 1960.
Fendi, the Roman fashion house best known for the fur coats, released reversible coats that could be worn either leather side out or fur side out. The coats were made without linings.