18 Clothing Pieces That Defined 1980s Fashion In America

Fashion in the 1980s
Fashion in the 1980s / Pinterest / wheretoget
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UPDATED 8/19/2020

In January of 1980, the Rubik’s Cube made its debut at the International Toy Fair. The small puzzle featuring dozens of brightly colored tiles could be seen as a prelude to the 1980s fashion. This is because the wardrobes of that time were all about as wild and colorful as that famous puzzle box. The name of the game was to stand out. Only one problem: everyone else was working hard to be fashionably ostentatious too.

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As a result of various social shifts and general developments of the time, the 1980s fashion is memorable to this day. Many pieces of clothing became ubiquitous among the U.S. population throughout the decade. Whether it was the tailoring, colors, or size of the item, it is easy to look back and remember what defined fashion in the 1980s.

1. Neon, neon everywhere

Bright neon colors definitely defined 1980s fashion
The neon was hard to miss / Pinterest

Recall the desire to stand out. The best way people did this in the ’80s was through vibrant colors. As a result, various bold neon colors adorned anyone embracing the fashion of the time. At least riding a bike was made all the safer; no one could miss a highlighter-yellow bicyclist.

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Bright colors defined the '80s in all areas of life
Bright colors defined the ’80s in all areas of life / PickPik

Any clothing item could and would be neon-colored. Leg warmers, themselves pretty characteristic of this era, would be bright pinks and yellows. Sweatshirts, sized to be especially large, featured wild colors. Shirts, pants, anything visible on the body would make itself very visible.

2. 1980s fashion had acid-wash jeans reimagine denim

Acid-wash jeans and denim in general became fashion staples
Acid-wash jeans and denim, in general, became fashion staples / wheretoget

Some creations are happy accidents. Such was the case for acid-wash jeans. The Rifle jeans company of Italy brewed this fashion piece up after accidentally tumbled jeans, bleach, and pumice stone with pretty much no water. The simplicity of this recipe meant many people could replicate it and have this 1980s fashion piece themselves.

Any denim item, not just pants, got an acid wash treatment
Any denim item, not just pants, got an acid wash treatment / Wallpaperflare

Other denim items were not spared this splattering of bleach. Jackets, usually oversized like the sweatshirts, also got the acid-wash treatment. Interestingly, they seem to be making a comeback. Many acid-wash pieces made an appearance on the F/W 19 runway show. Even celebrities have been seen sporting the look.

3. Shoulder pads weren’t just for football players

TV queen Joan Collins sporting a professional outfit with shoulder pads present
TV queen Joan Collins sporting a professional outfit with shoulder pads present / Everett/REX Shutterstock

In fact, shoulder pads were present in the blazers women wore during their workday. Almost any blazer purchased in the ’80s had shoulder pads in them, so much so it looked unusual to see a professional outfit without them. Compare this to now, and the difference is especially striking. Jackets are still present to finish up a professional outfit, but without the shoulder guards.

Shoulder pads had profound cultural meaning for women entering the workforce
Shoulder pads had profound cultural meaning for women entering the workforce / YouTube screenshot

Its prevalence in the 1980s fashion actually is a resurgence of popularity from decades ago. In the later decade, they were made from cut foam designed to define the silhouette. Because many associated the broad shape with masculinity, the shoulder pads became symbolic of women breaking into the workforce in earnest and reaping success in the corporate world. Ultimately, they became symbols of power in an era when many overshadowed groups were demanding their voices be heard.

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4. Tracksuits for all occasions

Tracksuits were not just for athletics anymore
Tracksuits were not just for athletics anymore / Grailed

The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J accelerated the popularity of tracksuits. No longer was this set for workouts. In the ’80s, they became a clothing staple for any occasion, without breaking a sweat. Adidas became one of the most famous producers of tracksuits, featuring the three bars along the edges of the outfit. But other variations existed, with different styles and patterns to choose from.

Tracksuits worked for any occasion that wasn't formal
Tracksuits worked for any occasion that wasn’t formal / Wikipedia

Eventually, velour sets became highly popular. This led to the material being the most popular when making tracksuits. In the latter half of the 1980s, a brief switch would draw people to wearing nylon shellsuits, though this was very brief. No one could resist this popular trend for long.

5. Don’t get your shirts in a ruffle…or…do, in the name of 1980s fashion

A woman's ruffled bib blouse
A woman’s ruffled bib blouse / Pinterest

Men and women alike pursued clothing with more surface area to it, especially with shirts. Looking back on the trend to be noticed, this makes perfect sense. What better way to grab attention than by increasing what there is to see? And so, the 1980s fashion included ruffled shirts and blouses.

Prince in Purple Rain
Prince in Purple Rain / City Pages

Some examples might remind viewers of what dancers or figure skaters might wear. This too is rather logical, since artists could often be seen sporting the fashion piece. Prince, for example, wore a white shirt with a sophisticated, airy, ruffled front in “Purple Rain.” The style found itself in many closets in the ’80s.

6. High-waisted jeans favored form AND function

Freddie Mercury participated in the move away from low-waisted pants
Freddie Mercury participated in the move away from low-waisted pants / Denimology

Low-rise pants dominated the ’70s and though they were stylish, there were practical reasons not to wear them. Instead, trendsetters made high-waisted jeans staples of 1980s fashion. They avoided a waistline digging right into that tender part of the torso. Additionally, allowing the waist area to be larger made it easier to have pockets that could actually hold things. These days, women are lucky if the pockets of their jeans are even real, never mind decently sized.

Lower the jeans, lower the regard
Lower the jeans, lower the regard / Flickr

The rivalry between the two waist heights paralleled the various cultural movements at play in the ’80s. Hippies, Mods, mainstream denizens, and more all expressed themselves through the height, color, and tailoring of their jeans.

7. Choose animal print for life on the wild side

People really went wild with the animal prints in 1980s fashion
People really went wild with the animal prints / feeling-flirtatious.co.uk

The ’80s were a wild time, particularly for fashion. Those living in that time let this trait be reflected in the clothes they wore. The markings and patterns of numerous creatures were mimicked across shirts, pants, skirts, bags, and more throughout the decade.

Animal print accessories and outfits enjoyed popularity through 1980s fashion
Animal print accessories and outfits enjoyed popularity through 1980s fashion / Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of animal print clothing in America can be traced to the 1960s Bohemian movement. Overall, however, the reverence attached to this style reaches back centuries. Even as just printed imitations, donning clothes with patterns akin to animals became synonymous with prestige. The various colorful patterns also evoked a sense of exoticism that was refreshing to many living in such uncertain times.

8. Wear Ray-Bans to protect from all those bright fabrics

Tom Cruise, shades and all, in Risky Business
Tom Cruise, shades and all, in Risky Business / Hollywood Reporter

No matter the era or age of the viewer, movies have the power to influence culture. Toddlers will imitate the mannerisms of their favorite cartoon characters. Adults flock to the store to purchase a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses like what Tom Cruise wore in Risky Business. The Ray-Ban brand is particularly known for its Wayfarer and Aviator lines of shades. The former is what everyone needed to have to be like Cruise.

Shades in general became very big in the '80s
Shades in general became very big in the ’80s / Max Pixel

Perhaps this was also important to preserving eye health. After all, it is evident 1980s fashion had a lot of very bright colors. Those shades do a number on the corneas without protection. Actually, the lenses were made to be functional as well as stylish. To maximize the ability to easily navigate, BBC reports Ray-Bans using “Kalichrome lenses designed to sharpen details and minimize haze by filtering out blue light, making them ideal for misty conditions.”

9. Time to break out into dancewear

Everyone was ready to dance
Everyone was ready to dance / julep.com

Much like how tracksuits became acceptable to wear outside of athletics, dancewear became part of the 1980s fashion even when not moving to that funky beat. Also, like the tracksuit, and pretty much any other piece of clothing, dancewear would often be vibrantly colored. Wildly-patterned leotards and form-fitting shirts characterized this trend.

You didn't have to be a dancer to dress like one...though, the '80s provided great music for it
You didn’t have to be a dancer to dress like one…though, the ’80s provided great music for it / Flickr

The music of the ’80s was all excellent. Thinking on it, being prepared to dance at a moment’s notice is a smart move. At any point, the radio could start playing a catchy song that demanded attention.

10. Step into 1980s fashion with Bally sneakers

Bally shoes gained attention in the '80s
Bally shoes gained attention in the ’80s / Bally

The growth of hip-hop brought with it the growing fame of Bally shoes. ’80s rappers Slick Rick and Rakim were often seen sporting a pair themselves. Bally seems to understand the powerful nostalgia these still carry, as the shoes are still available to own for those wanting to revisit that time and fashion.

Sneakers in general worked for a lot of outifts, but one brand got a lot of attention
Sneakers in general worked for a lot of outifts, but one brand got a lot of attention / Wallpaperflare

Luxury and style combined in these shoes to make many people want a pair for themselves. The ability of rappers to draw other people’s attention to this style reflects the shoe’s power as a symbol of authority. Rappers helped people notice the shoes in a different light, tangential to other characteristic style choices they displayed.

11. You’ll warm up to 1980s fashion with leg warmers

Leg warmers could be worn by anyone looking for help against a chill
Leg warmers could be worn by anyone looking for help against a chill / Flickr

Leg warmers come in many forms but their purpose remains consistent throughout: keep those calves warm. Usually, athletes wear them when performing in the elements with activities like soccer, dancing, ice hockey, cycling, and more. On a technical level, they actually help athletes such as dancers from getting cramps.

If its clothing in the 1980s, it was going to be loud
If its clothing in the 1980s, it was going to be loud / Flickr

But in the ’80s, girls starting picking up on the fad regardless of whether they danced or not. Soon after, Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area got boys wearing them too as fashion items. Though not everyone wearing them danced, they did pick up on the craze because of the musical movies Flashdance and Fame.

12. Ripped sweatshirts aren’t a ripoff

1980s fashion went in a lot of extreme directions, particularly up and down. Pants’ waistlines went up and so too did hoodie hemlines. That’s because cutoff sweatshirts became very popular in that decade.

Some elements of 1980s fashion are coming back like the cutoff sweater
Some elements of 1980s fashion are coming back like the cutoff sweater / YouTube screenshot

Like leg warmers, these too transcended genders so everyone got into the craze. When they did, even with the high-waisted jeans, the ripped sweatshirt could sometimes show a bit of the torso.

13. Spick and span(dex)

Spandex repurposed itself after the demand went elsewhere
Spandex repurposed itself after the demand went elsewhere / Wikimedia Commons

Social trends and cultures change. So too must the fashion industry and those fulfilling consumer demands. Whether you know it by the name of Lycra or spandex, this material has a history of adapting in more ways than one. DuPont Textiles Fibers Department addressed women’s need for undergarments and hosiery. Lycra filled that need.

When demand changed, spandex fit a new need - literally
When demand changed, spandex fit a new need – literally / Getting Creative

As women fought for more rights, however, they saw such garments as symbolic of their oppression. Because demand went down, Lycra adjusted course and rebranded itself as a supplier of exercise wear. Spandex still fulfilled that demand and just in time for exercise crazes…especially when it came to fashion!

14. You don’t have to be a member to know this clothing item

’80s fashion finds a way of returning to us even today. Younger Americans get glimpses of the country’s old trends through Stranger Things. There, they can see the Members Only jacket, which offered a unique way of sharing quasi-advertisements.

Members Only jackets became popular
Members Only jackets became popular / Mâle Raffiné

Sometimes the Members Only jacket became associated with PSAs and other times they emphasized celebrities, Best Life writes. The epaulets, collar strap, and knitted trim made these impossible to miss.

15. Stay on top of the time’s trends with Swatch watches

Staying up-to-date on the latest fashion trends didn’t have to be exclusively for the outrageously wealthy. Anyone from many economic backgrounds could get a hold of a Swatch watch, and that’s what made the accessory so appealing.

Some swatch watches looked simple and others had bold patterns
Some swatch watches looked simple and others had bold patterns / Flickr

They had such an accessible price compared to other big names that having and wearing multiple at once became cool too. They rose to fame just in time for the “quartz crisis” of the ’70s and ’80s. At that time, digital watches from Asia competed against European mechanical watches. This Swiss company managed to stay relevant.

16. Stick the landing with parachute pants

Exercise fads defined a lot of 1980s fashion trends
Exercise fads defined a lot of 1980s fashion trends / YouTube screenshot

Form meets function in at least a few instances of 1980s fashion. And that goes beyond the function of making bold statements and standing out in a big world that could overlook people who went with the flow. With parachute pants, the material and shape helped those who wore them.

The light, loose fabric made moving easy
The light, loose fabric made moving easy / YouTube screenshot

For instance, breakdancers loved wearing these. The loose fit but shapely design allowed them to pull off grand moves easily without worrying about tripping on fabric. These fashion statements reached peak popularity by ’84 and ’85, so much so that apparently boys and parachute pants became synonymous.

17. Preppy looks got straight As

The preppy look became a bit exclusive
The preppy look became a bit exclusive / Wikimedia Commons

In the United States, wealthy teens and older embraced a peppy look in their clothing. This amounted to boat shoes, sweaters tied around the neck, and polos themed around a particular university.

Preppy became exclsuive but popular thanks to celebrities
Preppy became exclusive but popular thanks to celebrities / Wikipedia

Preppy styles reigned particularly supreme in the early ’80s, here defined as 1980 to 1983. Argyle socks enjoyed a wide fan base among those supporting the preppy style. Formalwear took inspiration from the past, looking back decades to the ’40s to bring back stylish suits.

18. Hats off to 1980s fashion

History is meant to be learned from. The ’80s didn’t just bring back double-breasted suits from the ’40s. It also saw a resurgence in wearing hats. Hats as part of an outfit disappeared briefly over the decades, but those living in the ’80s made them a part of their wardrobe.

Hats had their own sub-culture and trends within the broader picture of 1980s fashion
Hats had their own sub-culture and trends within the broader picture of 1980s fashion / YouTube screenshot

Style varied but in general this article of clothing. Baseball fans and truckers alike donned caps. According to Classic80s, both Charlie Chaplin and Boy George popularized the bowler hat. The Blues Brothers and Michael Jackson brought back the fedora. Women could have tons of fun with berets because of all the pretty, vibrant, wild patterns out there to mix and match with. The same could be said with dressy formalwear hats.

Which iconic bit of ’80s fashion did you wear? What would you like to see make a comeback?

1980s fashion
1980s fashion / The Trend Spotter

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