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Official Article

Women's Fashion of the 80s

Discussions of women’s fashion in the 80s are often clouded by a haze of Aquanet hairspray and leg warmers. There was so much more to the styles of the times than what teenage protagonists like Molly Ringwald and Alyssa Milano were wearing in our favorite moving pictures of the decade. That’s why I wanted share with you my recollections of what adult women of the time considered high fashion, because it was a different animal altogether. I know this seems like a strange topic for a guy who was not an adult woman in the 80s to cover, but my Mom’s closet was a land of mystery that fascinated me as a kid and caused me to pay attention to trends of the day. So yeah, I know whereof I speak.

SATIN BLOUSE: If I had a nickel for every lady I saw walking around in a satin blouse growing up, I’d have more money than J.R. Ewing himself! It seemed like every secretary, department store employee or airline attendant I passed by in my youth had a default outfit of long sleeved, pearl button collared blouse and dark colored skirt that hung just below the knee. We were a church going family as well and this was definitely the standard uniform for my Sunday School teachers, but it was also my Mom’s go-to for all of our family photos. The shimmery nature of the fabric fascinated me with its rippling waves of fabric that seemed almost enchanted by some wizard’s spell. Plus, the word blouse is just funny to me, it seems totally out of place in the English language.

BIG JEWELRY: I feel like hoop earrings and crucifix necklaces get a lot of play in 80s tribute costumes (Thanks a lot, Madonna), but my Mom’s jewelry drawers were filled with randomly shaped pieces of plastic and gold, with no central theme connecting them at all. Her collection of ear and neck accoutrement tended to consist of hunks of rock shaped plastic or large beads in varying colors from bright reds or blues, to darker blacks and greens. But when it wasn’t colorful plastic, gold was the name of the game! It’s not like she was giving Mr. T a run for his money or anything, but this was not some little pendant on a chain either. You knew the lady was out to make a statement.

SHORT HAIR: While the popularity of big, teased out hair for the younger generation was pretty hard to dismiss, I feel like half the people doing that were guys in glam bands. Maybe for this reason so many adult women decided to hack off their long tresses for the shorter “boy cuts”. I can only assume these ladies were taking their cues from cultural icons Pat Benatar, Olivia Newton-John and of course, Princess Di when stopping by the salon. My mother and her friends were no exception. Though taking out the fashion element, I have to imagine that when you have kids vying for your attention every minute, it’s just easier to have a hairstyle that is more low-maintenance. When my Mom started growing out her hair around 1990, it was definitely sign of the end of an era.

STYLISH SUIT COATS: I remember quite often going to a friend’s house after school to find their mom getting home from work wearing a suit jacket and skirt combo kind of thing. As I look back, it seems like this could have a lot do with the high divorce rates in the 80s. With a lot of women making their own way in an office environment, a suit coat was a non-verbal communicator that they meant business. Movies like Working Girl and Baby Boom certainly exemplified this reality, while weekly episodes of Designing Women reinforced the idea of strong women in control of the workplace. These fashionable jackets seemed to be the through line. Another place I often came across this look was in the images of the female realtors printed on pads of paper that were hung from our door handles as a marketing tool. You know what I’m talking about, right?

LONG PAINTED NAILS: Maybe I’m just not stopping in at the local nail salon enough, but it seems to me that long, boldly painted nails are no longer in style. Not so in the days of my youth, when every woman had a set of claws long enough to make a panther blush (wait, was Panther Blush a cosmetics brand back in the day?). The tapping of bright red nails on flat surfaces seemed ever present in my day to day experiences, but the innovation I found truly fascinating were the Lee Press-On Nails.

Basically you got a set of 10 synthetic and fully-painted nails you could put over your real nails with a sticker back. In retrospect, they were probably seen as cheap back in the day, so I hope I’m not embarrassing the woman that bore me, but I remember getting into her bathroom drawers to try out the Lee Press-On Nails once or twice trying to create a menacing Freddy Krueger moment. But as I look back it was really more of a mediocre event like the Nuclear Man from Superman IV: The Quest For Peace since they didn't stick very well and I mostly looked ridiculous.

FLOPPY SUN HATS: Though it is actually a pretty timeless look from what I understand, there are few images more glaringly 1980s to me than a woman with red lipstick and big sunglasses wearing the clothing version of the rings of Saturn on her head. Plus these floppy felt or straw sunhats are way functional. You wanna block the sun out? A visor or baseball cap just aren’t going to cut it. You need at least 12 inches of clearance all around your head! My Mom couldn’t handle much sun, so she had an arsenal of these things ready to go at all times. Of course I threw them around like Frisbees when she wasn’t looking, there was no getting around that.

SHOULDER PADS: There’s only one fashion statement that could close out this discussion properly, of course I’m talking about, Shoulder Pads. They really are my number one response to the question, “What did women wear in the 80s?” (you know, that common question we all get asked daily) Nothing was more ubiquitous than the inclusion of shoulder pads in women’s clothing during the 80s. Mustard colored blouse? Check. Trendy suit jacket? Yep. Any random top you grabbed blindly from your wardrobe? Sure!

Joan Collins and Linda Evans were pretty much the queens of this look in my mind. But I have to give the edge to Joan due to the fact that my Mom was a similarly petite lady with short, dark hair and that served as my point of reference. Either way, I never sat down and watched an episode of Dynasty, but she was on so many magazine covers, you couldn’t miss the influence of the "Shoulder Pad Madame".

I should also mention that many shoulder pads were attached by velcro that allowed for modification to the desired look for the day. Quick confession: I often played with loose shoulder pads I found scattered around my parent’s bedroom. The game I played was seeing what fabrics the velcro portion would stick to. Not really shamefully embarrassing, but also, not quite normal…I don’t know how I should feel about sharing that with you all, but what’s done is done.

I think the conclusion we should all draw from this article is not that I’m obsessed with women’s clothing (come on, this is the one article I didn’t mention action figures in), but that women have far cooler clothes than guys and get to play dress-up every day. That’s probably for the best though, as most men would probably be wearing football jerseys or Camouflage gear to their jobs if given total free reign over the company dress code. Seeing 80s fashion coming back into style over the last 5 years or so has been pretty interesting to observe, but now you know what got left behind.

So what did I miss? What were your Moms, Aunts and School Teachers wearing from 1980-1989?

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captainzorikh Posted on Apr 13, 2016 at 12:54 PM

Women never looked batter than they did in the 1980's/ One detail you missed was BELTS! Somehow those hip-riding belts inspired by punk fashions seemed to serve no purpose but a) draw attention to those sexy, curved hips in tight acid-washed jeans and b) when cinching a loose blouse or shirt, managed to cause that blouse or shirt to drape a female figure in such a way as to inspire the imagination of the perfect female figure (at least for me).

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 15, 2015 at 09:52 PM

@Hoju: Ahh. Touche. LOL. Of course, people may be looking for something that smells better than toxic water and dirt so... I'll have the cure for their aromatic ills.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jan 15, 2015 at 09:31 PM

@pikachulover My wife seconds your comment about the big glasses. I guess since that was kind of a unisex style, I never associated it with just women's fashion. But Annie Potts as Jeanine in Ghostbusters is one great example of it.

@vaporman87 Hey, at least your Dad will have some bartering power in the post-apocalyptic world. What will YOU have...Moss Man mint in package?! j/k

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 12, 2015 at 02:57 PM

Only Hoju could somehow manage to make Superman work in a women's fashion of the 80's article. LOL

I look at all of these fads/items and every one of them I could find in photos of my mom. Every one of them. From the fake nails to the giant jewelry... the photographic evidence is there.

On the subject of giant jewelry, this was not something exclusive to women. My dad wore some ridiculous jewelry as well. Bracelets the size of watches made of gold, gold necklaces and rings... gawdy stuff. In fact, he still wears some of the stuff. Such a waste of money in my opinion.

pikachulover Posted on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:49 AM

When I think of what some of my female realities in the 1980s were wearing bear in mind I was only really aware for the latter part of the decade around '86 or so.

The 2 things that really stand out for me personally were huge glasses and big curly hair.

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