Clothing, 1980–2003

The years between 1980 and 2003 present all the complexities of modern costume. These decades saw a rise and fall in the status of high-profile clothing designers and their extravagant clothes; the sudden popularity of certain clothing items, often associated with youth-driven music trends; the impact of new technologies; the influence of celebrities on fashion; all set against a general trend to favor comfortable, casual clothes. These trends were a continuation of the trends that had characterized the second half of the twentieth century. But what made the period from the 1980s onward different was the speed with which styles changed and the amount of money directed toward clothing.

Working days, glamorous nights

After the 1970s, a decade in which the world of high fashion had fallen into disarray and people picked and chose amongst several acceptable styles, designer fashions came roaring back in the 1980s. High-profile European designers like Giorgio Armani (c. 1934–), Christian Lacroix (1951–), Karl Lagerfeld (1938–), Jean-Paul Gaultier (1952–), Azzedine AlaΓ―a (c. 1940–), and others introduced daring, expensive lines of clothes to the praise of the fashion press. Wealthy people across Europe and in the United States flocked to Paris fashion shows and New York boutiques to purchase expensive originals, and lower-level designers and mass-market retail stores modeled their clothing lines on the more conservative efforts of the top names. This was the traditional way that fashions had been set, with designers leading the way in the creation of clothing styles.

New fashion designers were able to be bought, promoted, recreated because of one thing: money. During the early and mid-1980s business exploded in the West and in the increasingly westernized Japan. Stock market traders, corporate executives, and even second-tier executives grew extremely wealthy in a climate where success in business was celebrated as the ultimate mark of achievement. These new cultural celebrities used clothes as one of the ways to demonstrate their wealth and power. American president Ronald Reagan (1911–) and his wife, Nancy (1923–), wore designer suits and gowns, and corporate leaders proudly extolled the merits of their favorite designers. For men the "power suit," a tailored suit, preferably by Giorgio Armani, was the symbol of success. Women dressed for power by day, with designer suits and business dresses, and for glamour by night, with extravagant gowns in the richest fabrics. These wealthy people were held up as cultural models and their clothing styles imitated on popular television shows like Dynasty (1981–89) and Dallas (1978–91). The choices of the rich and their favored designers thus had a great impact on clothing.

The fashion boom of the 1980s was more international than ever before. Though Paris, New York, and London remained the true centers of world fashion, designers from Italy, especially the city of Milan, and from Japan also exerted a real influence on fashion. The Italians became associated with rich fabrics and classic cuts, while the Japanese are credited with boosting the popularity of the color black.

Not everyone could afford the clothing made by the big name European or Japanese designers, but in the 1980s there were real alternatives for those who still wanted to follow fashions. Top designers, such as Calvin Klein (1942–) and Ralph Lauren (1939–), offered high-end custom clothes, but they also offered a ready-to-wear line that had the high status of a designer name but at a more reasonable price. Many designers built international design empires, selling their brand-name clothes, perfumes, and accessories throughout the world.

Sex sells

One of the most important trends of the 1980s and 1990s was the emergence of open sexuality as an important element in clothing design. A variety of causes lead to the growing openness with which sexuality was displayed in this period. Perhaps the most important was the ongoing fitness boom that encouraged people of all ages, but especially young people, to pay a great deal of attention to getting their bodies in good shape. People wanted to show off their newly sculpted bodies and there were a variety of clothing options for those who wanted to flaunt it. Calvin Klein celebrated the human form with his underwear designs, which were made famous with an advertising campaign centered on towering billboards on the side of skyscrapers in New York City. Spandex, a high-tech, stretchy fabric, was used to create formfitting biking shorts and tights, and the Wonderbra, introduced in the mid-1990s, pushed women's breasts up and in to show off their cleavage. Designers created extremely clingy dresses, and supermodels, or high-profile models, and music celebrities such as Madonna (1958–), in the 1980s, and Ricky Martin (1974–), Britney Spears (1981–), and Christina Aguilera (1980–), in the 1990s, made a great public display of their sexuality. A youth trend in the 1990s for hip-hugging, low-riding pants and bare midriffs brought sexual display as far as the pre-teen market. By 2003 little was forbidden in the display of flesh.

The 1990s flight from fashion

The designer-worshipping fashion excesses of the 1980s crashed along with stock markets in 1987. Although designers still produced annual collections and fashion magazines highly praised them, the world retreated from its celebration of wealth and haute couture, or high fashion, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With designers out of favor, the other dominant mode of determining clothing trends reemerged. As in the 1970s people took their clothing cues from popular music, from youth subcultures, from the more successful mass-market retailers, and from their own desire for comfort and personal expression. Once again designers began to take their cue from the streets.

Young people and their music were especially influential in the early 1990s. The grunge, or alternative rock, music scene that emerged out of Seattle, Washington, created a fashion trend favoring flannel shirts and ripped jeans, and it wasn't long before designers offered their own grunge collections. Hip-hop or rap music, which had once been the music of African Americans living in the inner city, went mainstream and brought with it a craze for extremely baggy jeans.

For the great majority of people, however, choices about clothing were dictated by the wearer's desire for casual comfort and by the minor variations in styles offered by major retailers. The trend toward casual business dress began in the 1980s with casual Fridays, when business dress codes were relaxed for the day, and became widespread among workers in the booming high-tech industries of the late 1990s. At work, men could wear chinos (a type of khaki pants) and a shirt without a tie, and women could wear more casual dresses and pants. For leisure time both men and women chose cotton pants and knit shirts, tennis shoes, sweatshirts, and other athletic clothes. The most popular outer wear was made of a fuzzy, high-tech fabric called polar fleece, which came in bright colors.

People had a huge range of choices about where to buy their clothes, from designer stores and department-store boutiques such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein; to mid-range specialty retailers such as Gap and Old Navy; to mail order catalogs such as J. Crew, Lands' End, and L. L. Bean; to discount retailers like K-Mart, Wal-Mart, and Target. These stores offered clothes of reasonable quality with trendy styling. Colors and details changed from season to season, but the basic garments remained the same.


Carnegy, Vicky. Fashions of a Decade: The 1980s. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.

Feldman, Elane. Fashions of a Decade: The 1990s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Gaines, Steven S., and Sharon Churcher. Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Gross, Michael. Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. New York: Harper, 2003.

Lomas, Clare. The 80s and 90s: Power Dressing to Sportswear. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.

Steele, Valerie. Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Lauren, Ralph and Klein, Calvin
Rise of the Japanese Designer
Armani Suits
Baggy Jeans
Casual Fridays
Designer Jeans
Goth Style
Polar Fleece

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