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Women's Fashions of the 1980s

Updated on September 19, 2017
Madonna | Source

After the elite lost their hold on fashion in the 1960s and 1970s the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Princess Diana in Great Briton heralded a new influence of the upper crust. Popular TV shows like Dallas, Dynasty, and Miami Vice showcased luxurious lifestyles of the rich. People flocked to indoor malls as shopping became entertainment. The music culture of the South Bronx encouraged inhabitants of poverty stricken areas to wear designer labels with large, obvious logos.

At the same time, street wear of lower class counter cultures continued the influence of the punk look. Ragged, torn, mismatched garments fastened with out-sized zippers and safety pins edged onto the runway. Couture designers created garments for royalty as well as rock performers. Exercise clothes became regular day wear and professional women paired business suits with sneakers.

Into the mix throw the avant garde's unstructured garments, graffiti print dresses, and you have the wildly diverse look of the 1980s.

Graffiti print blouse

Graffiti print blouse by Esprit
Graffiti print blouse by Esprit | Source


As the decade unfolded, people who were sick of 1970s austerity welcomed the concept of wealth and success. Though tough in some quarters, like 12% interest mortgages, others scooped in big bucks on the high interest rates. The glorification of financial success brought us the power suit and evening elegance.

The archetype of financial success, the professional business woman, wore suits with enormous shoulder pads tapering down to slim short skirts. While the 80s saw the dawn of women wearing all black, women's suits of mid decade featured vivid, jewel tones often paired in unusual color combinations.

Blouses came in men's tailored styles with large collars or with stand up collars edged in tiny ruffles ala Gibson Girl. Scalloped collars called pie crust collars moved from the New Romantic club scene to the mainstream thanks to Princess Diana.

Boldly printed tunic tops paired with tight, stretch, stirrup pants and short, schrunchy boots. On the other hand, parachute and harem pants featured tight waistbands and large, billowing legs caught at the ankle with elastic or banded cuffs.

Evening wear vamped up a luxurious femininity with dresses and gowns festooned with sequins and spangles. The pouf dress fit tightly at the top but ballooned at the hip. Mini crinolines offered short versions of a 1950s hour glass figure.

Jewel toned suits with shoulder pads and mini skirts

Mixed jewel toned suits
Mixed jewel toned suits | Source

All dressed in black

Siouxsie Sioux 1986 - big hair, black hair, heavy eyeshadow, all in black
Siouxsie Sioux 1986 - big hair, black hair, heavy eyeshadow, all in black | Source

Poufy dress

Evening wear erupted into poufs
Evening wear erupted into poufs | Source

High End for the Poor

Due to the austerity caused by an economic downturn in the 1970s, haute couture lost some of it's influence. In order to increase revenue, fashion houses created new forms of income. American and European designers created styles for the ready-to-wear market through franchised boutiques and licensing agreements for perfumes, jewelry, handbags, clothing, and home linens. One no longer had to be uber rich to afford Versace, Prada, or Dolce and Gabbana. Fashion shows displayed wild, over the top outfits as art statements and offered diluted versions for public consumption.

Youth culture street wear increased the style influence from the bottom up. The high end looked to street wear of urban youth for inspiration creating a concept of style tribes.

The Hip Hop movement which emerged from New York's south Bronx created a sense of ghetto fabulousness as young African American people flocked to purchase designer jeans, sneakers, oversized gold jewelry, and clothing that featured large designer logos.

Women wore Gloria Vanderbilt dark denim jeans, midriff tops, and mini skirts. Braids, hair weaves, and fake fingernails became popular. The Hip Hop movement brought us the concept of track suits as street wear, over sized clothing, and baseball caps worn backwards.


The punk movement of the 1970s continued its influence on fashion. A style of urban poor, white people soon appeared at fashion shows. The mismatched, unkempt look of ripped pants and ragged shirts and the bold look of bondage attire (think dog collars, leather straps, and chains) found a place on the runway. Safety pins, oversized zippers, and graffiti prints appeared on dresses worn by the middle class.

Multiple piercings allowed women to wear several pairs of earrings.

Punk style for women included combat boots worn with skirts, fingerless gloves,fishnet stockings, black lace, and unnaturally colored hair. Hair cuts often featured partially shaved areas and an asymmetrical look.

Lolita style punk

Lolita style punk at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lolita style punk at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London | Source


Styles tribes often blend at the edges with other influences. Elements of punk colored a more elaborate style called goth, short for Gothic. Goths wore black clothing with a vampire like tone. Female goths wore long dresses trimmed in black lace, long cloaks and long coats. Heavily made up faces with black lipstick were framed by black dyed hair. Pale face makeup was accentuated with heavy eyeliner. Young women also painted their finger nails black.

Gothic style

Goth style (contemporary)
Goth style (contemporary) | Source

New Romantics

The New Romantics drew influence from Goths, punks, the 80s penchant for pouf, as well as from historic styles. Also called New Wave, the exaggerated styled recalled Victorian military dress jackets, fantasy pirates, and ethnic influences.

Exaggerated or asymmetrical hair styles framed pale faces with odd make up like bright slashes of rouge.

Within the look one could mix and match elements of 1930s Hollywood, Scottish tartans, and Regency historic. The New Romantics made dressing up fun again while combining dramatic flair with a sense of humor and fantasy.

New Romantics

Preppy and Yuppie

As a counter balance to the sometimes extravagant look of new artistic street fashions, a more conservative style became popular. Preppies based their look on prep school uniforms with oxford shirts, La Coste polo shirts, chino pants, and sweaters worn around the shoulders. Women's hair hung long and straight, often worn with hair clips or headbands.Faces featured little or natural makeup.

Yuppies (young urban professionals), grown up preppies, wore conservative, tailored suits and business attire. Ralph Lauren offered these traditional styles along with garments that hinted of America's pastoral past.

Athletic Clothing as Day Wear

Thanks to the exercise and aerobics movements of the 80s as well as Hip Hop culture, combined with the much loved film Dirty Dancing garments formerly seen only at the gym edged into the street. Leg warmers, once worn only by dancers, became common and came in plain colors or stripes.

Track suits with zippered jackets became the iconic uniform of stay-at-home mothers, a style that extended far beyond the decade. The outfits later appeared in velvet and in feminine pastels.

The shell suit was made in swishy, bright colored nylon with elastic cuffed loose, matching pants. Sweat shirts and pants became, sadly, common street wear. US designer Norma Kamali incorporated sweat suit knits into her designs for skirts, dresses, and jackets.

Baseball caps became the predominant form of head gear. Young women used the opening at the back of the caps to sprout pony tails.

Team logo shirts were worm by males and females. Tee shirts with surf brands logos were worn by people who never saw the ocean. Sneakers and running shoes grew in popularity.The New York transit strike in 1980 forced women to walk to work. In order to walk long distances in comfort, women began to wear sneakers with their business attire, carrying dress shoes in bags. The strike ended but the style did not.

Vans, flat slip on type sneakers worn by the skate board crowd caught on as well.

Style Icons of the 1980s

When Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, the Prince of Wales in 1981, people embraced her with a frenzy. After the British royalty had become inconsequential in the world of fashion, suddenly there was a new royal princess with the stature of a model. Member of a group of young women called the Sloane Rangers who wore Hermes scarves, Liberty prints, and low heeled shoes, Princess Di came prepared to influence style.

She appeared at public functions in clothing created by British designers and became an effective marketing tool for British couture. She created a style that mixed elements of the New Romantic club scene with a traditional, British country look. Her sweetness, grace, and affinity to promote causes influenced young women world wide.

Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, offered an androgynous look for young men and women alike. Tight pants worn with loafers and white shirts hinted at a preppy style, while his bright red jacket with its large zippers hinted at New Wave.

Vivienne Westwood was a British fashion designer who drew inspiration from Punk, Goth, and New Romantic groups while influencing them as well. Her Pirate collection of 1981 - 82 offered puffy shirts with large collars and 18th century style military jackets. Her Buffalo Girls collection of 1982 - 83 drew on Peruvian ethnic traditions colored in shades of brown. Her designs brought a theatrical edge to fashion, opening the doors to more avant garde styles.

Pop singer Madonna influenced fashion with her dramatic performance wear showcased in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Wearing multiple ropes of long beads, black lace gloves, and mesh knit tops, Madonna gave us underwear worn as outerwear with her obvious bras and corsets. Capitalizing on her stardom, Madonna licensed her own brand of clothing and accessories.

John Galliano erupted onto the scene when he created his own label in 1984. An icon of the New Romantic movement, Galliano offered theatrical, avant garde clothing melding historic themes with contemporary design. His bias cut dresses and skirts offered a soft, flowing grace. His fantastical and dramatic designs offered a kind of campy romance and earned him British Designer of the Year in 1987.

By John Galliano 1987

John Galliano dress of the year 1987
John Galliano dress of the year 1987 | Source

Mini-crini by Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood's poufy mini
Vivienne Westwood's poufy mini | Source

Japanese Designers

When Rey Kawabuko's war painted models marched down the runway in Paris in 1981, the style conscious took note. Her "Destroy" collection introduced outfits that were as comfortable as they were outlandish. The stark, modernist collection featured a monochromatic blend of black, charcoal, and gray. The unusual cuts thrilled some, horrified others.

Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and Kenzo Takada offered unstructured garments that hung loose on the body and incorporated can asymmetrical look. Kansai Yamamoto created costumes for David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust.

The oversized,garments featured little in the way of detail or embellishments and quickly caught on bringing an air of the avant garde into mainstream fashion.

1990 tunic and leggings by Miyake Issey
1990 tunic and leggings by Miyake Issey | Source

Hair, Makeup, and Accessories

  • After the simple, toned down hair and makeup of the previous decade, 80s styles became more flamboyant. By mid decade, women's hair grew large. The preferred style included masses of waves, curls, and volume. Perms puffed out straight hair. Women wore hair clips to contain their dos. Head bands were worn horizontally across the forehead for exercise or physical activity. Preppies wore their headbands on top of the head.
  • Scrunchies were fabric covered elastic bands used to pull outsized hair dos away from the face.
  • Pale complexions replaced tans on Caucasian women, a look taken to extremes by goths. The subdued eye make up of the 70s gave way to more pronounced eye liner, mascara, and eye shadow. More colorful, deeper toned lipstick was often highlighted by lip liner.
  • Nail polish came in a rich variety of colors with the younger set sometimes painting a different color on each nail. The black polish favored by goths and punks worked its way into the mainstream.
  • Scarves and shawls draped over jackets and coats as a favorite fashion accessory.
  • Rows of earrings lined each ear in another instance of punk styles going mainstream.
  • Multiple layers of necklaces of mixed beads and charms were popular. Girls often wore their own names engraved on a metal plate hung on a chain. Pendants featuring designer logos were also a fashion trend of the time.
  • Eye glasses and sun glasses featured huge lenses.


Jellies were brightly colored, plastic shoes with holes.
Jellies were brightly colored, plastic shoes with holes. | Source

Work Consulted

Back to Our Future - How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now by David Sirota, Ballentine Books, New York, NY 2011.

Survey of Historic Costume by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank;Fairchild Publications, Inc.; New York, NY; 2005

Costume and Fashion a Concise History by James Laver; Thames and Hudson Ltd.; London UK; 2002


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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Peggy - I find it amazing that buying ripped jeans has been popular for so long. Sure I remember elbow patches! They are still out there and in 2016, someone in a WSJ article claimed that elbow patches add "a quiet complexity" to his look.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This was a fun trip down memory lane. It is fascinating how fashions change through the decades and some trends seem to last much longer than others.

      The ragged jeans & other pants with holes in all sorts of places has really become popular today. I guess it is an exaggerated style from the past. I wonder if patches on elbows will once again be popular? Remember that one?

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Glenis Rix - I love that song. Ray Davies wrote that song and performed it with his band, the Kinks in 1966 spoofing the fashion scene in London. I would love to see a Vivienne Westwood exhibition. Her clothes are so interesting.

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 6 months ago from UK

      'She's a Dedicated Follower of Fashion'. Did you ever here that song? Could be about us. I went to an exhibition of Vivienne Westwood's work through the years some years ago, in Sheffield, England - it started with her punk t-shirts and moved on to her stupendous ball gowns. If you ever visit Paris, don't miss the museum of haute couture.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi MsDora - we never realize, at the time, what fashions or fads are going to last the test of time. Thanks for reading!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 6 months ago from The Caribbean

      Dolores, I like these articles in which you chronicle the history of fashion. There are so many "aha" moments in your report when we recognize for example, when fake nails became popular and the baseball cap became the tool for showing the pony tail. Well Done!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Blond Logic - I remember seeing people wearing those horrible gray sweat suits everywhere. It looked awful! Though I love casual clothing, it can be taken way too far. I can't believe the concept of paying big money for ripped jeans is still popular.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi FlourishAnyway - for some time I thought that the whole 80s thing was just silly. But looking back, I find it fascinating. So much of how we dress today is influenced by the 80s.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 7 months ago from USA

      This was a wonderful trip don't memory lane, from jellies to parachute pants (didn't do either). I did do Madonna style clothes, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, preppy izod shirts with the collar up, and big hair.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 7 months ago from Brazil

      This was fascinating. I have often wondered where some of the fashion trends started. The 80's seemed to have pushed out many of the fashion ideas we see today.

      Isn't it funny that some last and some don't, such as a baseball cap being worn backwards we still see, but not shoulder pads.

      Perhaps it is because casual wear is so popular because everyone dresses down, it seems.