The 1980s were a dramatic time marked by excess, self-expression, and rapid change.
The Cold War quietly wore on, only to end with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. AIDS, which was clinically identified in 1981, ravaged the gay community. Innovations in technology, such as Apple’s Macintosh home computer, progressed at an unprecedented pace. MTV debuted in 1981, blurring the lines between music, art, and fashion and forever changing popular culture. Everything was bright and bold and larger than life.
As the world grew more uncertain, people began focusing on themselves. Shoulders were padded, lips shone bright, and nothing was impossible.
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Fueled by the easy money that could be made on Wall Street, consumerism ran wild and social Darwinism was, for many, the reigning philosophy. Everyone wanted to be a master of the universe, but seemingly no one really cared much about Earth or its other inhabitants. This attitude of self-importance imprinted strongly on the wheelers and dealers of the era, producing over-the-top personalities such as Donald Trump, Mr. T, and Hulk Hogan.
In 1981, television changed forever with the launch of MTV. The network had a huge impact on youth and popular culture. Bands and musical artists were now as closely connected to their visual identity — most importantly in the form of the music video — than ever before. Image was everything, and being shy about anything was totally out of fashion. Artists like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper layered flea-market finds to create over-the-top looks that perfectly encapsulated the decade’s desire for experimentation and a larger-than-life attitude.
Prince and Michael Jackson put their own opulent spin on fashion with outfits that pushed the limits of good taste. Duran Duran were the golden boys of synth-pop, with wild hair, angular suits and bold makeup. Hard rock and heavy metal bands like AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, and Metallica popularized a more overtly masculine aesthetic, with lots of leather, hardware, and hairspray. Salt-N-Pepa, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and other hip hop groups introduced a bold, colorful aesthetic inspired by streetwear — a style influence that endures even today.
Shoulder Pads and High Fashion
On primetime TV, Miami Vice, Dallas, and Dynasty introduced the public to unapologetic glitz and glamour; no outfit or hairstyle was too out there for these characters. Meanwhile, moneyed socialites favored designers like Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren. At the same time, creations by Calvin Klein and Michael Kors struck a perfect balance between simplicity and drama, and Japanese design from Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawabuko’s Comme des Garçons brought avant-garde minimalism onto the fashion scene.
Paris, Milan, and New York City were the major fashion capitals, while London was still considered up-and-coming. Punk icons Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren contributed significantly to the British capital’s reputation for edginess. “I did much of my work in Paris, some in Milan, and much in the newly-emerging fashion scene in London,” says Dovanna Pagowski, a model who worked with many of the big names in ’80s fashion and is featured on the cover of McLaren’s album Madam Butterfly.
Living Out Loud
In New York City, the disco scene was still thriving at Studio 54. Downtown, artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were creating colorful, graphic works of art that became highly influential, infusing fashion with a sense of playful naïveté that made it impossible for anyone to take themselves too seriously.
Meanwhile, night clubs like Danceteria, Mudd Club, Palladium, and Area were catering to a more edgy crowd. “The glitter and glam of uptown appealed to me, complete with disco balls, and downtown was so free and raw,” Pagowski recalls. Betsey Johnson, Norma Kamali, and Stephen Sprouse were some of the designers who dressed the beautiful people below 14th Street.
Let’s Get Physical
The ’80s was a golden age for fashion photography, and Pagowski worked with many of the most prominent photographers. Richard Avedon, she says, “was very, very focused and humble, and did everything he could to make models feel comfortable.” Mario Testino, Pagowski recalls, “was a master of putting together crews that all got along, which made for a seamless, stress-less day.” In Paris, she worked with legendary duo Pierre & Gilles and in NYC she frequently posed for Robert Mapplethorpe. His photograph of Pagowski in a white dress, dancing with a nude, muscular black man is one of his more well-known works. “It was the arty photographers who ‘got’ me,” she explains.
Mapplethorpe’s images — rich compositions in black and white, often depicting evocative flowers or the sculpted bodies and faces of the people he surrounded himself with — pushed the limits of what could be considered fine art. His images from the ’80s frequently featured statuesque nudes, a subject matter very in line with the decade’s obsession with physicality.
Everything was hard-edged, including human bodies. The ’80s was when we started focusing on transforming our bodies and going to the gym, lifting weights, or sweating it out in aerobics class. The body was no longer considered a temple, but something to be publicly displayed.
The Provenance of the Power Suit
Fashion played with extreme contrasts between masculine and feminine, with a tendency to take each stylistic choice to its very edge. Both men and women’s hairstyles were big big, their shoulder pads were enormous, their makeup was bright and bold, and the power suit became a symbol for female empowerment.
The fashion scene also became more diverse. Pagowski loved how the ’80s allowed for a variety of looks for female models — “long hair, short hair, sweet and strong looks, skinny and rounder — all were welcome.” She recalls doing a shoot for London’s Tatlermagazine with a young Naomi Campbell, who was cast as her maid (yes, maid). “She was 15 years old and basically brought on as an accessory,” Pagowski says. “I took one look at her and didn’t even know where to begin — the eyes, the lips… Wowzer.” This was the first-ever fashion shoot for Campbell, who would go on to break racial barriers on runways and magazine covers and become one the original supermodels.
During the ’80s fashion, art, music, and pop culture became virtually indistinguishable from one another. The various influences all blended together, and what came out of that was a decade of glam and excess but also of minimalism and diversity. Fashion would never be the same.