When it comes to recognizability, few decades can match the iconic imagery of the 1980s.
The 80s aesthetic was, and still is, defined by bright colors, bold print, towering hair held up by an ocean’s worth of Spray-Net, shoulder pads, and an unabashed love for consumerism. For all its clashing shades and prints, the 80s aesthetic is defined by one idea: go big or go home.
It’s an almost alien concept now. The late 2010s and early 2020s have been dominated by a sleek, minimalist clothing aesthetic that prefers neutral colors, relaxed silhouettes, and a disregard for brand names.
Even the plain white and wood tones of the Japanese minimalist interior design trend are a far cry from the technicolor pop art accents of 80s aesthetic spaces. Look to the trendy ‘-core’ aesthetics of Tiktok and Tumblr and you’ll find that they also lean towards a back-to-basics feel.
But the internet is nothing if not a hub for any and all trends and subcultures. While you’d think it’s the original 80s kids returning to their power-suited roots during the pandemic, it’s actually their children rummaging through their closets, looking for an Adidas vintage piece, who are driving the resurgence of the funky 80s aesthetic.
The Totally Tubular Origins of the 80s Aesthetic
Let’s not fool ourselves: the 80s aesthetic was tacky as hell. But it was tacky in a fun way. The decade’s defining looks, colors, and design elements were suffused with an energetic youthfulness that seemed to anticipate the coming of the 21st century. While trends seem to spring up from the ether today, neither the assorted ‘-core’ aesthetics nor the 80s aesthetic is without precedents.
In the case of the 1980s, its distinctive look was influenced by the Memphis design movement. The name obviously evokes some confusion: What could little ole Memphis, Tennessee have to do with such an out-there design movement? The city is known for producing great artists, Dolly Parton, and crowd dividing music genres, Bluegrass, not Bauhaus’ spiritual descendants.
But the Memphis design movement didn’t come from Tennessee. It originated in Milan, Italy, a city that’s been known as a hub of artistic innovation for centuries. Naturally, the Memphis group was founded by an Italian, the architect and designer Ettore Sottsass who became known for his almost sculptural designs which featured clean, sharply defined lines that reduced objects to their basic geometric shapes.
In his article ‘Memphis Design: the defining look of the 1980s‘ Johnny Levanier writes of the group, “The furniture was colorful, asymmetrical, often uncomfortable, constructed of cheap materials and—in a cheeky parody of high class culture—all named after luxury hotels.”
Though the trend was admittedly just a trend, the Memphis group having split up just a few years after they began creating together, it’s this cheeky parody of high class culture that gives the Memphis style, and the 80s aesthetic that it birthed, so much appeal.
It was camp.
The 1980s, like the Roaring 20s before it, was an era of decadence except for one caveat: it was a parody of the true economic strength of the 20s. The 1980s wasn’t just poor by comparison. It was straight-up penniless. The decade saw one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression. Despite this, the 80s aesthetic clung to its bright colors and lavish logo flaunting, its peppy appearance hiding the truth: that there wasn’t really much to go around.
If you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, you might be familiar with a certain word: Opulence or, as the queens put it, “Opulence! You own everything!”
The phrase “Opulence! You own everything!” comes from the classic 80s ball culture documentary Paris is Burning which explores the ball culture and voguing scene of 1980s New York. It’s practically a meme now seeing as how opulence keeps getting repeated as an upbeat “Ahpahlens! Ahpahlens! Ahpahlens!”
But opulence in camp has been more than just dressing up in exaggerated styles. The opulence of the 80s ball culture, which had its roots in New York City, was a world where queer people of color could mirror the world above them. You know, the kind that’s filled with people who aren’t queer, who aren’t of color, who exist in spaces where they typically aren’t welcome.
80s ball culture, and the 80s aesthetic that grew alongside it, was a defiance of the limitations on what queer people of color could be. Participants were expected to dress up in costumes and serve ‘realness’, the quality of being visually indistinguishable from the real thing without being the real thing.
Whether it took the form of Vanderbilt heiress realness, Wall Street hedge fund manager realness, or suburban housewife realness, the camp of ball culture was basically a ‘look at me, I can talk the part, dress the part, act the part, and become the part if I had the chance’.
This aspirational ‘realness’ pervaded the rest of the 80s. Not only did it manifest in the 80s aesthetic of showing off brand names and logos on clothes (middle class realness), but also in the rigid hierarchy of 80s office culture (Patrick Bateman, anyone?).
The yuppie culture of the 1980s gave rise to the sexy power suits for which 80s aesthetic fashion is known. Yuppies, that is, young business professionals, embodied the energetic and pro-consumerist values of the 1980s. Their constant flaunting of designer clothes, expensive BMWs, and really, really specific typography on calling cards fit the mold for the “go big or go home” attitude of the era.
But if the 80s aesthetic is such a product of its time, then why is it back? You need not look further, my fellow corporate yes person, for like any retro resurgence, the return of the 80s can be credited to none other than nostalgia.
The 80s Aesthetic: Biding Its Time Since 2016
Stranger Things (2016-) is a hybrid of adventure, action, and horror that takes place in the 1980s. The show is one big love letter to the 80s aesthetic, complete with high-waisted jeans, denim vests, leg warmers, and Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop roleplaying game that was the subject of Satanic Panic persecution in that era.
It’s been accused of fueling the 80s nostalgia machine and for good reason. Stranger Things contains all the classic tropes of the 80s and references to the era’s biggest films as well. For one, Chief Hopper’s mustache couldn’t be more 80s aesthetic if it tried, add to that a Hawaiian print shirt and he becomes a walking visual nod to Magnum P.I.
Separated from its original context, the 80s aesthetic was just that for kids who grew up during the decade: an aesthetic.
The show’s executive producers, Matt and Ross Duffer, are a sibling duo that worked as writers and directors on other shows and films, namely Wayward Pines (2015). While the two have always dabbled in horror media, what’s notable about them is their birthdate: both brothers were born in the 1980s.
Devoid of its roots, the vivid colors and deconstructed geometric shapes of the Memphis design movement returned as polo patterns and Canva templates.
But Stranger Things didn’t put the 80s aesthetic back on the map all on its lonesome. A good chunk of the work was done by Vaporwave. This retro-futuristic music genre incorporated dreamy synths, slowed-down vocals, and beats that sounded straight out of an 80s office building elevator.
Vaporwave was a branch of the older Chillwave, another electronic music genre, that became more known for its 80s aesthetic visuals than its music. That said, MACINTOSH PLUS – リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ became the mid-2010s’ theme song for the resurgence of 80s nostalgia. The song has over 16 million views on YouTube and its mix of Japanese text, 80s photography, and a rather fitting bust of Apollo, the Greek god of art and music, gave rise to a wave of, well, vaporwave art.
Just like the Memphis design movement before it, Vaporwave as a music genre and artistic style kind of just fell out of season within a couple of years, steadily waning in popularity to give way to newer ‘-core’ aesthetic trends, most of which favored an even more classical throwback to old-world visuals.
Surf the internet today and you’ll find inactive Facebook groups and subreddits all dedicated to this 80s aesthetic genre. Vaporwave’s similarities to the Memphis movement, thankfully, don’t just end in it being lost to time. If you have a keen eye, you might notice some of the Japanese text and striking colors of Vaporwave still floating around.
80s aesthetic fashion, on the other hand, is experiencing a more lasting renaissance.
Elements of 80s Aesthetic Fashion
If you were around during the 80s, you might cringe at a lot of the fashion trends on this list. But if you’re a younger Millennial or Gen Z, chances are that you’re taking notes on what to wear when we finally get to hang out in public spaces again. Buckle up your massive Gucci belt buckles and reminisce on VHS dreams. Spray-Net optional.
Bright Colors and Patterns
Nothing is off-limits for the 80s aesthetic. In contrast to the neutrals of the early 2020s and the pastels of the late 2010s, the 80s look is chock full of bright colors with no regard for the rule of three. Pink leg warmers, violet tights, neon green headbands, and an orange skirt? Don’t mind if the 80s do. 80s fashion was unrestrained. Depending on your tastes, the neon shades of the 80s aesthetic are either fun or an eyesore.
Speaking of eyesores: leopard print. The pattern was quite popular during that decade, often accompanied by zebra print or cheetah print clothes. It was bold, it was out there, and it invoked the shameless love of luxury that the 80s had. Some wonder if it’s the worst of the 80s’ fashion crimes, but it’s only a matter of time before animal print equals sexy the way little black dresses do.
Quirky, Plastic Accessories
With neon colors, of course!
The 80s were a time of plastic charms strung up on bracelets. Charms would range from miniature purses to tiny whistles and instruments. Like everything 80s, it was adorably tacky. Bracelets weren’t the big arm accessory of the 80s aesthetic, however. That honor goes to scrunchies which were often worn on wrists the way leg warmers were leg accessory staples.
Speaking of scrunchies: blue, red, yellow, and green. Ring a bell?
Large Silhouettes (Powered by Shoulder Pads)
The Heathers (1988) is an 80s film cult classic. The proto-Mean Girls group called the Heathers dominated Westerburg High School where they ruled as Queen Bees in a strict hierarchy where weird, nerdy types like Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, are at the bottom of the food chain. Fortunately, or not so fortunately, given how the film turns out, Veronica earns the attention of Heather Chandler, the Queen Bee of the Queen Bees, who takes her in as one of theirs simply because she’s good-looking.
Are Heather Chandler’s values messed up? Absolutely. But you can’t deny she was a fashion genius. Chandler and her female underlings sport the iconic shoulder pads of the 80s aesthetic, an essential component of the power suits the girls always wore.
The power suit of the 80s was more than just a fashion statement. it was a social statement as well. Power suits were called power suits because they were meant to evoke an air of power and respectability around the person who wore them, which was often working women.
Power suits were born from an attempt to fit in in the workplace, a sphere of life where women were previously less than welcome. The large shoulder pads, which created broad shoulders even in slight figured women, was meant to emulate masculine features, divorcing the wearer from traditionally feminine appearances and traits, which were associated with weakness and lack of competitiveness, in the process.
Logos, Logos Everywhere
Two words: conspicuous consumption.
The 80s aesthetic lived and breathed flaunting what you had. This meant a series of track jackets, windbreakers, and chunky sports shoes all emblazoned boldly with corporate logos. Done right, the logomania of the 80s actually looks nice, as if it were a natural part of the design, like in the jacket we see here. Done badly and you look like a walking billboard ad for fashion houses.
The return of the 80s aesthetic was welcomed with open arms on high fashion runways as Versace and even Dior began to embrace the loud visuals of the 1980s again. As logo-filled clothes appear more and more on the bodies of stars like Billie Eilish, only the coming years can tell whether 80s aesthetic maximalism can overpower the growing trend towards minimalist fashion.
Got any favorite fashion staples that fall within the 80s aesthetic style? Let us know in the comments.