I remember the ‘80s as an awkward pre-teen, forging my own style while preparing myself for the social onslaught of high school. There were failed attempts at perfectly crispy bangs, for which I apologize to the ozone. And there were fashion choices that were just as important as the songs I listened to, both becoming part of my identity. I can look back on those choices now as fairly ridiculous–what with all the disposable music and tragic fashion. It was a time when greed was good and popped collars were a sign of the openly douchey times, but punk and New Wave were fighting the good Molly Ringwald fight to James Spader’s Ray-bans and sockless loafers.
Of course now, American Apparel is trying to bring it all back. You can almost hear the hipsters as they walk down the street in stretch pants and a ripped sweatshirt (Flashdance, anyone?) saying, “Yeah it’s ugly, but it’s in an ironic way, obviously. It’s editorial.” OK, sweetheart—there’s $40 well spent on clothes you could get from any attic in Middle America.
But in the ’80s, these fashions were completely sincere—complex identifiers of a musical affinity and a personal philosophy. Were you a yuppie? A punk? A mod? Your clothes signaled your musical tribe.
Though I hung mostly with the Boy George/Madonna crew until I went to junior high and expanded my tape collection (remember those, kids?), there were plenty of variations. So here it is, a list of musical fashion houses from that Decade of Decadence. This is by no means a complete list, so add your own.
The Punky Brewsters
There’s something of the naive runaway in the Punky Brewster. Cindy Lauper and Pat Benatar both perfected these looks in their music videos—strutting their vulnerable vagabond with gypsy skirts and shredded clown clothes. Lauper kicked it up a notch with day-glo hair, but Benatar was keeping it real with her punkette pixie ‘do. It was about streetwise whimsy and a light dose of girl power, with Lauper emphasizing that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, while Benatar discovers that Love is a Battlefield.
The New Waves
The Brits were importing their own brand of ‘80s style, and you can bet your synthesizer that bands like Soft Cell and Duran Duran knew they had to capitalize on that. Big man-hair, lip gloss and cheekbones could sell that “quasi-emo with a side of bondage” thing . But it also involved interesting mixtures of animal prints, blousy shirts and pleated pants—or sometimes tight leather ones. But not those skinny jeans today’s manorexics are so fond of, no. These are men with asses in tight pants. But I digress. Oh, Simon Le Bon, I was Hungry Like the Wolf for you.
In the age of Wall Street and pop culture class wars that turned Mr. Spader into a rich but undeniably hot asshole, suits were a sign of power and polish for rockers, but not without a touch of irony. For one-hit-wonder Spandau Ballet, it might be the most memorable thing about them. They bought a ticket to the world, but pretty much had one song to show for it. The Eurythmics, however, had staying power. And it was a strange combination: the silent guitar player and business-class dominatrix Annie Lenox, with a head of safety orange Astroturf and a well-tailored suit. The only thing that made it creepier was when she wore gloves and informed innocent me that some people want to get used by me. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it sounded unpleasant.
Ambiguously Gay Duo
Is he? Isn’t he? I, like so many pre-teen girls seeking that perfect mix of creepy femininity and mincing sorrow in one pasty male package (not having the benefit of the Twilight series), idolized Culture Club. Though it’s clear now that Boy George is gayer than Provincetown at high season, at the time, I thought he was just a little, er, creative. Unlike George, his purple badness Prince has probably seen more bits than a successful gynecologist, and he’s not shy about singing of his love for the ladies—and their bits. A common ‘80s theme was color, and neither of these musicians lacked for it in their ensembles. Prince was given more to form-fitting flair than Boy George, who went in for homeless chic that would’ve made John Galliano jealous, combined with his trademark braids and hair rags. Pop stars that feed on a heady combination of androgyny and sexuality. Hmmm … maybe Lady Gaga isn’t so shocking, after all.