Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Baggy Eighties

This morning I am pondering the Clothing of my Youth, which is to say of the 1980s.  Until 1987, short skirts were out and long skirts were in--when skirts were in, that was. In the earliest 1980, one did not wear skirts, one wore jeans, unless one was me, wearing my mother's 1960s tartan skirts. I hated them then but I wore them again in the 90s and 00s. I was taller and thus had thus returned to their original mini-skirt status.

My mother's motives for dressing me thus were of economy and general dislike of jeans. It was not about "modesty" because--this will blow your minds--it was actually difficult to dress immodestly when you were a child in the 1980s. If you were determined to do so and could get away with it, I suppose you could have worn a T-shirt with some saucy double-endre motto. You could also buy make-up which you smuggled out of the house and applied in the girls' washroom at school. In the 1980s, Catholic parents in Toronto generally frowned at their 12 year old daughters wearing the ton of make-up de rigeur for adult women back then.

Nevertheless, in the 1980s barely pubescent girls still felt a vague internal pressure to feel or look "sexy", and the standard for "sexy" in 1983 was set by a movie called Flashdance, which I not allowed to see.  Flashdance featured an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, leg-warmers and headbands (i.e. a string or piece of fabric around the forehead, originally worn by tennis players to keep the sweat from their eyes). In the generally covered up schoolyard, Jennifer Biel's one bared shoulder was just the epitome of glamour and daring. When I made my own headband--a fancy braid of bright blue macramé yarn--I was mocked for trying to look attractive to the boys. I got pink leg-warmers for Christmas, which I cherished and wore to ballet class, but I never dared rip the neck out of a sweatshirt and wear it á la Biel.

I remember the fashions of the 1980s so distinctly because, after my weird hair, my weird clothes were the bane of my existence. To underscore this to traditionalists in the audience, my clothes were no more modest than the clothes of the other children. It was as unthinkable (and laughable) to wear the lady's miniskirt of the 1960s as it was to wear the lady's maxiskirt of the 1970s: kids wore jeans. The fact was that my mother hated malls and enjoyed sewing dresses and knitting sweaters and knew--even if we didn't--that she was supplying us with better quality clothes than the mall sold to the parents of our peers. I developed a fanatical longing to "fit in" which was so obvious that my peers' ridicule intensified, and I was truly shocked and disappointed to discover that my first pair of jeans did not solve all my social problems.

Neon-bright clothing came in, and Cyndi Lauper and Madonna appeared simultaneously.  They wore a lot of clothes, and indeed female rock stars did wear an awful lot of clothes in the 1980s. They wore long skirts, flounced skirts, fingerless gloves, jean jackets, stirrup pants, baggy sweaters and hats. So did female characters in movies, as you can see in The Breakfast Club,  a movie which I had to battle my mother to see but did see. Madonna blew a hole in all this 1980s upholstery when she wore underwear as outerwear, but she was definitely in the minority and, anyway, that wasn't until 1986.

Elements of the punk counter-culture did trickle down to the heavily-dressed mainstream before 1986, which is how I explain the presence of a black T-shirt covered in zippers hidden in my friend's room. It was either 1984 or 1985, and neither she nor I would have been allowed to wear it in pubic. The zippers actually zipped.  It was the raciest piece of clothing I had ever seen in my life, and I longed to wear it. I was absolutely sure it would spark love in the heart of my crush object of the time; like many girls that age, I had the concepts of love and lust all mixed up and hadn't a clue what it was that made boys really like girls. Fortunately, I never did wear it. At least, I don't think I did.

Indeed, my breakout costume--which made my mother cry--was a button-down shirt, a purple pullover and grey cords, which I wore in 1985 to a high school dance. My mother thought I ought to wear my ice-blue, shoulder-padded, belted church dress with dress shoes. (If it was a gift from my American grandmother, as I suspect, it must have come from JP Penny.) Shirt, pullover and cords were borrowed from a worldly-wise church friend who identified as a "prep" (which meant she favoured, among other things, golf shirts with little crocodiles on them) and was wont to repeat such prep-positive slogans as "Pink and green make the scene."

Today I think it is very funny--and rather touching--that it was then perfectly unobjectionable for a girl to wear a collared shirt and a purple pullover to a high school dance. I met a lot of boys, danced up a storm and had a wonderful time. I felt normal at last--indeed, better than normal.  And when my mother dried her tears, she went to the hated mall and bought me my own purple pullover and grey trousers. (I still have the trousers.)

Then the 1960s revival hit.  The mini came back in in 1986 or 1987 and I gave up wearing trousers to dances for the new femininity. Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach Video" (which caused an uproar half because of the racier costume and half because it seemed to be anti-abortion) meant the malls stocked underwear-as-outwear. I recall trying on a bustier in a dressing-room, and my accompanying pal and I shrieked with shocked laughter.  This went beyond the 1960s mad sleevelessness. This was almost cleavage! 

I didn't have the courage to buy Madonna's bustier--I don't think I ever saw a girl wearing one--but I did summon up the gall to buy sleeveless turtlenecks in green and a black-and-white pattern. I was so embarrassed to be sleeveless at first that I wore my new top with an open oversized black-and-white shirt when I went to my own school dance. They went with my new stretchy black mini, of which I was greatly fond. Shoulders--scary. Legs--no problem.

So those were the 1980s. Until Madonna came along--and even for some time after that--it was a decade rather covered up. I was obsessed with fashion and spent whatever money I had at the mall, especially at Le Chateau, which specialized in cheap knockoffs of the latest runway fashions. (They were a tad extreme; I liked extreme.) I wore sleeveless turtlenecks with ballooning skirts, with tight miniskirts and with short, floaty skirts. I wore flats and kitten-heels. Most of the time, when I was not in my school uniform, I wore jeans and pullovers.  I wore big earrings. For a formal dance, my mother made me a bubble dress, the bubble skirt having very briefly come back into fashion. The frothiness of the bubble made the dress very short; in balance, it was long sleeved and, yes, featured another mock turtleneck.

In the 1980s we showed a lot of leg--if we wore skirts--but we did not show our breasts or emphasize our buttocks. We knew about hot-pants, but they were considered relics of the laughable 1970s or stripperwear. Madonna was not considered a good role model for Catholic girls, and so the average Catholic girl in my elementary school and high school did not dress like Madonna. I remember envying asymmetrical haircuts and breathing in the clouds of hairspray thought necessary for the big hair of the day. (My big hair was kept short from 1984 until 1990.) Ordinary women did not get breast implants, let alone butt implants.

I am trying to remember what clothing (or lack thereof) my friends and I thought immodest--besides bustiers, short-shorts, cleavage, bare shoulders, that is. Probably all the hooker clothes Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman, which came out in 1990, especially the boots.  Poor Vivian looks very flat-chested for the poster girl for prostitution now, doesn't she?

Needless to say, we would have all been staggered by Beyoncé's outfits, to say nothing of the Kardashians. At the same time, I would have been very hurt and surprised had an adult condemned my black stretch mini. Some girls in my high schools managed to cut their kilts down even shorter than my beloved skirt, and I never realized just how short we wore our uniforms until I visited the old school 10 years or so after graduation. The 1990s--never mind the 1980s--were over, and I was staggered by all the teenage leg on unconscious display until I thought back.


  1. I was the opposite of most girls in that I cared nothing for clothes until I was 30 (I would have been thrilled to see Anne of Green Gables styles make a comeback) and my mother had to force me into the style of the day. We played opposite roles in the usual battles of clothing that mothers and daughters have (not that she ever wanted me wearing anything immodest; we had a shared disgust of Madonna-inspired fashion).

    But in the vague recesses of my memory, I recall that crop tops were in in the early 80s. I had one, and it covered my belly...maybe because the waist of the pants (sorry, trousers) was very high? And the crop trousers which hugged our calves ballooned out at the hips and thighs...none of the form-hugging "skinny jean" look we have now.

    I never realized it, but you are right...lots of layering happening in the 80s. I don't like all the frills and fuss of 80s wear, but it did tend away from all the skin-baring we have now.

  2. Oooh, I don't remember crop tops although I certainly remember the expression. Maybe that zipper shirt was a crop top. WHAT was my friend thinking? And how did she smuggle it up the stairs?

    Oh the Eighties. I feel like I spent a lot of the decade listening to middle-aged people gassing on about the Sixties and how wonderful they were and how they, the middle-aged people, "had stopped a war." Yadda yadda. "We had ideals, unlike kids today..."

    Now I am a middle-aged person reminiscing about layering versus skin-baring. Do you remember all the Miami Vice fashions? White jackets, white trousers... Oh, and sunglasses at night! And Max Headroom style sunglasses! Hee hee hee!

  3. rofl...What a great trip down memory lane...thanks! I'd forgotten about the Miami Vice craze, sunglasses, white...eek!

  4. Madonna used to be so cute. And her songs used to be listenable.

  5. When she first appeared, she had roughly the same impact as Cyndi Lauper (of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" fame). Both of them had distinct and fashion-fueling "looks." I really, really admired Cyndi Lauper--in part because I was too innocent to understand the lyrics of her dodgiest song. So in the "Cyndi Lauper or Madonna?" rivalry, I was always on the side of Cyndi and with my "prep" pals looked down on the "Madonna chicks" (the girls--especially Italian Canadian girls--who wanted to look like Madonna and identified with her Italian roots). Thus, I never thought of Madonna as cute--from her then-shocking "Like a Virgin" video she was on the cutting edge of the current cultural mess we find ourselves in--but her songs were definitely listenable. I loved the Top 40 when I was a teenager; somehow the REALLY cool ALTERNATIVE stuff passed me by. But then I have never been musical despite various efforts (and half-hearted attempts) to improve my ear, study piano, etc.

    1. I meant 'cute' as in a cute-looking young woman.