The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
55. The Eighties Look

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
As the 1980s opened, experts tried to predict what the "look" of the decade would be. According to Eileen Ford, who ran the world's most prestigious modeling agency, New York City's Ford Models, Inc., the '60s had been freaky and the '70s slovenly; the '80s, she predicted, would be classy. John Casablancas, who headed Elite Model Management, said Brooke Shields was the "perfect synthesis of everything that will be successful in the '80s; a little bit of sex and a little bit of innocence; a lot of distinction and yet the warmth of youth." Gone was the "natural" look; models of the Eighties would be coiffed, made up and bejeweled. Though only fifteen in 1981, Brooke was already a movie star (Pretty Baby, Endless Love), and the most sought-after cover girl -- in a single year she appeared on the cover of Vogue three times, was introducing Valentino's spring collection in Rome, and raising male blood pressure (and the eyebrows of the prudish) by declaring that nothing came between her and her Calvins in ads for Calvin Klein jeans.
The nation's new president and first lady not only represented but seemed to influence this turn to glamour, class, and formality. Ronald Reagan was the first president since Kennedy to wear formal morning attire to his inauguration, including an Italian-style jacket of black barathea cloth. (Jimmy Carter had worn a $175 suit straight off the rack to his inauguration four years earlier.) The First Lady's favorite designers were Adolfo, Bill Blass and Galanos. At work the president preferred classic tweed jackets or conservative gray, brown and blue suits.
Perhaps the first big fashion phenomenon of the decade was Norma Kamali's transformation of drab workout clothes into haute couture outfits. Gone were plain gray sweats; in their place were stylish suits in bright colors and bold stripes, short cheerleader skirts and harem pants, oversized sweatshirts worn like minidresses over Danskin leotards, and of course the ubiquitous legwarmers. Flannel or lurex jumpsuits adorned with giant removable shoulder pads were also in vogue. (It was Kamali who, in 1974, made the first fashion jumpsuit out of a nylon parachute.) Now, she gave her imagination full rein, producing bomber jackets made of python skins and gowns made of Tiffany glass beads. The Kamali line was both avant garde and classical; it borrowed from the old to make something so new and exciting that New York's Saks Fifth Avenue sold out of its entire Kamali stock in one day, while celebrities like Diana Ross and Barbara Streisand frequented the designer's Beverly Hills Neiman-Marcus boutique. Suddenly, women were wearing their sweats everywhere, and looking sexy and sophisticated in the process.
The return of the miniskirt was heralded not once but several times during the Eighties. Even the most conservative designers raised hemlines well above the knee, and women of all ages responded. Minis were not seasonal attire any longer; in winter they could be worn over pants or leotards. In fact, women could wear a mini with anything -- ruffled tops, sweaters, even T-shirts -- and still make a fashion statement. Minis became an essential element in the wardrobe of the "Valley Girl," too. The Val Gal was characterized as just about any teenaged girl from a well-to-do family who conspicuously consumed clothes, lip gloss, sunglasses, Bubblicious chewing gum, Heinekin or Lowenbrau beer (Heinies and Lowies), Harlequin romance novels, and abundance of cheap jewelry, and Journey albums. They could be easily identified by their jargon -- "totally," "gag me with a spoon," "I'm sure!" -- the offspring of hippie and surfer slang, and by their attire, which almost always consisted of minis and short denim jackets adorned with patches, beads, lace, etc.
Yet another innovation in women's fashion was Calvin Klein's 1983 introduction of feminine underwear based on men's briefs and boxers, ribbed tank tops and T-shirts. Like so much Eighties fashion, it bespoke health and fitness, confidence and comfort. And it was sexy. Clearly, "anything goes" was the motto of the 1980s where clothes were concerned, and if anyone doubted that they had only to marvel at the next fad -- military chic. Reflecting America's reinvigorated patriotism, camouflage military-style garb became all the rage for a while. And not just for men, either; camouflage outfits for children sold out nearly everywhere during the 1983 Christmas season. Women wore camouflage T-shirts, shorts and jumpsuits, and Raquel Welch was but one of many who bought flight coveralls at the Camp Beverly Hills boutique. Another '80s fad was designer Stephen Sprouse's Day-Glo attire -- jackets and trousers, made of rayon and velvet and satin, in shades of hot pink, neon blue and candy-apple red.
Professional women demanded a more conservative style; they wanted to be taken seriously in the workplace. "No serious executive female wants to look like Tina Turner when she goes to work," explained Fashion Network Report's Alan Millstein. For the office, the American woman opted for boxy jackets, string ties and skirts with hemlines slightly above or just below the knee. For evening wear they wanted to look, and be treated like, ladies. Emmanuel Ungaro was just one designer who fulfilled their wishes in this regard with his draped and silk wrap dresses. Detailed with ruffles, flowers and lace, these garments seductively emphasized the female figure. Professional men preferred "the classics of yesterday, revitalized, redefined," according to a 1984 Christian Dior ad in Esquire. A sampling of mid-Eighties catalog offerings give an idea -- single-breasted suits, pleated garbardine trousers, cotton paisley shirts, cardigan sweaters and Donegal tweed overcoats. For casual wear, fashion-conscious males preferred bomber jackets in leather or cotton-nylon crinkle fabric and prewashed cotton, button-fly jeans. And of course there was the Miami Vice look that dominated for a while in mid-decade: the unstructured Armani blazers over pastel-hued T-shirts or tank tops, and the Gucci loafers. Miami Vice wasn't the only TV series to have a major impact on men's fashion. The popularity of Magnum P.I. -- and its star, Tom Selleck -- made Hawaiian shirts all the rage in the mid-Eighties. Upscale emporiums like Barney's in New York City offered racks full of them, as did the trendy Charivari chain in Manhattan. The shirts, "whether worn by men or women, have an insouciance that works as a parody of conventional cool," said Time Magazine.
The most successful American designer of the decade was Ralph Lauren. By 1986, Polo/Ralph Lauren was anticipating retail sales of $1.3 billion, up by 400% since 1980. Lauren sold his products in nearly 50 Polo shops and over 130 department store boutiques. In April 1986 he opened the world's largest solo-designer outlet in a 20,000-square-foot mansion on Manhattan's Madison Avenue. Lauren's line was patrician, designed for the conservative, conformist, upwardly-mobile crowd. According to one commentator, he "codified and merchandised America's dearest dreams of middle-class elegance." Lauren's chief rival, Calvin Klein, produced sleek, sexy, urbane styles. According to Time's Stephen Koepp, the "competing designers . . . each staked out an individual theme: status vs. sex." (It was Klein whose mid-Eighties ad campaign for Obsession perfume, featuring a man in the intimate embrace of a bare-breasted woman, made his 1980 Brooke Shields jean ads seem tame by comparison.)
On the business front, the U.S. textile and apparel industries faced a growing threat from overseas, as factories in places like Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Bangladesh exported clothing that would appeal to the increasingly fashion-conscious American male and yet were priced to undercut domestic product. As a result, the domestic textile and apparel industries suffered an unemployment rate that was double the national average. This in spite of the fact that these industries remained among the most protected, with duties on imported garments ranging from 5 to 40%. American manufacturers clamored for even more restrictive quotas, but retailers objected. Imports cost one-third to one-half less than domestically-produced garments, and this enabled retailers to lure customers with big markdowns and other merchandising strategies. Many large retailers started their own private labels, contracting with overseas manufacturers to produce them; J.C. Penney's private labels represented 75% of their menswear merchandise by 1985.
The most enduring American fashion of the 1980s, however, was non-designer -- a bomber or stadium jacket over a T-shirt and blue jeans, an uniquely American look that Russian civilians strove mightily to emulate in the Eighties as the Soviet Union's trade barriers began to crumble. Levi-Strauss, the largest branded clothing manufacturer in the U.S., had almost $2 billion in annual sales of denim and corduroy. Fads would come and fads would go, but blue jeans would remain eternally popular.

Other Top Models of the Eighties
Brooke Shields may have been the the best-known model as the 1980s opened, but others gained prominence during the decade: Carol Alt, at 20 the youngest model to sign an exclusive cosmetics contract; England's Rachel Ward, who went from being a Revlon Scoundrel perfume girl to an actress most noted for her role opposite Richard Chamberlain in the hit miniseries The Thorn Birds; and Christie Brinkley, Sports Illustrated's most popular swimsuit model, who was signing multi-million dollar beauty contracts before the '80s were over. Another development in the modeling industry was the entry of black models -- once regarded as mere novelties -- into the mainstream. Louise Vyent, half-Dutch and half-Surinamese, became one of 1988's top cover girls and was featured ( along with black models Iman, Beverly Johnson and Kersti Bowser) in Revlon's "most unforgettable women in the world" ad series.

Cindy Crawford had her first British
Vogue cover in January 1987.


Esquire, September 1984, March 1986

Newsweek, 4 June 1984, 4 April 1988, 12 September 1988, 3 April 1989

Playboy Guide Fashion for Men, Fall/Winter 1981

Self, October 1985, April 1986, November 1989

Time, 19 January 1981, 9 February 1981, 5 October 1981, 22 March 1982, 9 August 1982, 9 May 1983, 5 September 1983, 6 February 1982, 22 October 1984, 3 June 1985, 9 December 1985, 7 April 1986, 16 June 1986, 1 September 1986, 18 May 1987, 25 April 1988, 28 August 1989