Fashion in the 1980s typically invokes a giggle as neon-coloured Spandex and over-sized shoulder pads come to mind, but fashion in that decade was also glamorous, powerful, romantic, shocking, and innovative. The 1980s was a creative decade for designers who reinvented fashion for working women, revitalized vintage styles, and promoted new materials and concepts of beauty. 

A New RomanceFashion History Museum

A New Romance

As the 1980s dawned, neo-romanticism blossomed when a new wave altered the hard-edged punk scene. The new wave look was nostalgic, flamboyant and androgynous: both men and women wore frilled shirts, coloured hair, vintage jewellery and futuristic make-up.

Canadian Punk Outfit (early 1980s)Fashion History Museum

Canadian Punk Outfit, early 1980s

The punk movement that began in the late 1970s made shock chic. The conspicuously aggressive style of fashion included body piercings, torn jeans, and graffiti covered vintage leather jackets.

Outfit Made from Vintage Pieces (c. 1984)Fashion History Museum

Clubwear Outfit made up from Vintage and Found Pieces including Corselette, Charm Bracelets, Bathroom Chain and Rosary, Canadian, c. 1984

Hippies may have invented vintage shopping in the 60s, but by the 80s, vintage had became a chic way to create unique looks.

Purple Velour Jumpsuit (1981) by Betsey JohnsonFashion History Museum

Purple Velour Jumpsuit, by Betsy Johnson, New York, 1981

The neo-romantic movement was best exemplified by Vivienne Westwood’s 1981 pirate collection of puffed shirts and striped pants - a look copied by designers around the world.

Red Silk Suit with Jodhpurs (c. 1982) by Bern ConradFashion History Museum

Red Silk Suit with Jodhpurs, by Bern Conrad, New York, c. 1982

By the mid 1980s a romantic nostalgia aesthetic had gone mainstream as fashion borrowed styles from multiple pasts for contemporary looks.

InnovationFashion History Museum


A wave of Japanese avant-garde designers (Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo) created a new aesthetic in the early 1980s that incorporated elements of traditional Japanese clothing, materials and construction with innovative textiles, forms and finishes.

Tartan Wool Jacket with Satain Blouse (late 1980s) by Issey Miyake and Rei KawakuboFashion History Museum

Tartan Wool Jacket by Issey Miyake, with Satin Blouse by Rei Kawakuba, Japan, late 1980s

The Japanese designs were a bold suggestion for global design, aimed at abolishing the polarity between future and past, male and female, and East and West.

Black Cotton Dress (mid 1980s) by Kansai YamamotoFashion History Museum

Cotton Dress by Kansai Yamamoto, Japan, mid 1980s

Oversized clothes were layered in deconstructed shapes that enveloped the wearer, abolishing form. The excessive space between the body and the textile was called ‘ma’, and the ideal colour palette was created by the “accumulation of shadow”.

Purple Wool Dress with Rubber Ink Print of Couples in Carnal Embraces (Spring 1983) by Vivienne WestwoodFashion History Museum

Dress by Vivienne Westwood, England, 1983

Despite being accused of attempting to tear down fashion, these Japanese designers reinforced their work by legitimizing their collections on Paris runways. Their aesthetics influenced designers like Vivienne Westwood.

Active WearFashion History Museum

Active Wear

The fitness trend that began in the 1970s swelled into a self-conscious mania in the 1980s. Exercise clothes (jogging pants, sweatshirts, hoodies, and leggings) moved from the gym to the street. Aerobic workout videos popularized headbands, bodysuits and leg warmers; the film Flashdance created the fad for cutting necklines out of sweatshirts so they would drape casually off one shoulder. 

Blue, Black and Brown Aerobics Outfit (late 1980s) by Rachel MacLeishFashion History Museum

Blue, Black and Brown Aerobics Outfit, late 1980s

Sportswear fabrics, cotton jersey and polyester fleece, were comfortable and inexpensive materials for everyday dresses and tops, while Lycra became popular for sensually highlighting muscle-toned bodies and legs.

High Heeled Sneakers (1983) by Norma KamaliFashion History Museum

High Heeled Sneakers by Norma Kamali, American, 1983

Pairing close fitting with oversized garments to accentuate and hide body assets and faults reflected active wear styles. Similarly, accessories, from running shoe styled pumps to sweat band inspired evening bandeaus were in style.

New FrontiersFashion History Museum

New and Old Textiles

A global palette of patterns and materials entered fashion alongside a reinvention of a familiar favourite - denim

Sweater Dress (mid 1980s) by Marika ContompasisFashion History Museum

Sweater Dress, by Marika Contompasis, American, mid 1980s

Print and knit patterned textiles inspired by distant places, or made from imported textiles were infused into fashion alongside accessories sourced from global marketplaces.

Multi-Coloured Appliqué and Patchwork Coat (mid 1980s) by Judith RobertsFashion History Museum

Appliqué and Patchwork Coat by Judith Roberts, Mexican, mid 1980s

Wearable Art had its roots with Hippie culture do-it-yourself crafts, but by the 1980s had transformed into a respected style.

Denim Dress (late 1980s) by SantanaFashion History Museum

Denim Dress by Santana, American, late 1980s

Denim was overhauled from its working class roots into designer clothing. Brooke Shields even declared in 1981 that nothing got between her and her ‘Calvins’. It didn't have to look new either -- it could be bleached, stone-washed, or frayed.

Let's Go to the MallFashion History Museum

Let's Go to the Mall

1980s fashions for the young consisted of a series of trends that were often defined by the wearer’s musical tastes.

High Waisted Blue Jeans with Victorian-Style Tartan Blouse (early 1980s) by James RevaFashion History Museum

High Waisted Blue Jeans with Victorian Style Tartan Blouse, American, early 1980s

Videos on Much Music and MTV popularized every look, from hair band rocker chic and New Wave to Pop and Rap.

Plastic Shoes (1985) by Thierry MuglerFashion History Museum

'Jellies' by Thierry Mugler, made in Brazil, 1985

Malls peaked as chain stores carried the most popular trendy brands: Esprit, Member’s Only, Jordache, Converse, Guess, Gloria Vanderbilt, Swatch, Calvin Klein, Wayfarer, Lacoste, Nautica, DKNY, Nike, Reebok, Benneton, Polo…

Sweater with Memphis Art Movement (mid 1980s) by SkovhuusFashion History Museum

Sweater by Skovhuus, with design inspired by the Memphis Art Movement, Denmark, mid 1980s

Department stores, which anchored malls, were in decline as their own lines couldn’t compete with trendy brand names.

Black Suede Boots with Painted Pattern (c. 1984) by La MarcaFashion History Museum

Black Suede Boots with puff paint design, by La Marca, Italian, c. 1984

The flat soled Pixie boot

Big and PowerfulFashion History Museum

BIG and Powerful

Optimism in the booming economy of the 1980s created yuppies (young urban professionals) who were driven by the quest for upward mobility. Designer clothing became expressions of their success.

Green Wool Tweed Suit (early 1980s) by Christian DiorFashion History Museum

Tweed Suit, by Christian Dior, France, early 1980s

Women were climbing the corporate ladder dressed in power suits that mixed masculine broad shouldered jackets, tailored shirts, and trousers, with bastions of femininity – lace, mini skirts, and stiletto heeled shoes.

Coral Coloured Wool Dress with Button Trims (late 1980s) by Gianfranco FerreFashion History Museum

Dress by Gianfranco Ferre, Italy, late 1980s

The shoulder-pad became the icon of 1980s fashion, creating a look of self-confidence and power. The broad shoulder line also helped to create a slimmer looking waist and curvaceous, hourglass figure.

Suede Pumps (late 1980s) by Sacha LondonFashion History Museum

Suede Pumps by Sacha London, late 1980s

Donna Karan founded her business in 1985 with the concept that every women only needed seven basic garments to dress for success: bodysuit, tights, jacket, skirt, trousers, tailored shirt, and sweater. The high heels brought the power...

GlamourFashion History Museum


The French couture industry had been steadily shrinking since the 1960s as ready to wear gained a growing share of the market. However, a return to glamour and designer name fashions reinvigorated Paris in the 1980s.

Red Satin Suit (mid 1980s) by CacheFashion History Museum

Red Satin Suit by Cache, American, mid 1980s

Television played a significant role in promoting high fashion in the 1980s. Greed was good on soapy dramas like Dallas and Dynasty that dazzled viewers with glamorous lifestyles filled with designer clothes, glittering jewellery and sumptuous furs.

Black Taffeta Dress (mid 1980s) by Victor CostaFashion History Museum

Black Taffeta Dress by Victor Costa, American, mid 1980s

Top couturiers like Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and Valentino produced ‘bridge’ lines – luxury ready-to-wear that was less expensive than couture.

Cream Silk and Crystal Rhinestone Evening Gown (early 1980s) by Valentino CoutureFashion History Museum

Evening Gown, Valentino couture, Italy, early 1980s

Karl Lagerfeld brought Chanel back from near obscurity in 1983, and in 1987 Christian Lacroix revived the art of frou-frou couture after he became the first haute couturier to open a Paris salon in fifteen years.

Credits: Story

Highlights from the exhibition "Back to the Eighties" June 27 to December 20, 2015, at the Fashion History Museum, 74 Queen Street East, Cambridge, Ontario

All artifacts are from the Fashion History Museum Collection. Photography is the property of the Fashion History Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
We Wear Culture
The stories behind what we wear
View theme
Google apps