When it comes to the 1980s, that hedonistic, chaotic and complex decade where the general belief system was “the bigger the hair, the closer to God”, there’s always been much to mock. The crimped hair, the windbreakers, the sweatbands, the enormous shoulder pads, all that neon. It was just so... much.
But along with the mad mish-mash of new romanticism, preppy, punk (and so much more!) that ruled the era, there was one that flexed its buns of steels over them all: aerobics. Indeed aerobics, especially the high-velocity, high-cut, bedazzled-leotard variety that dominated the decade (think Jane Fonda’s famous exercise video and then just try and think of a better workout), incorporated many of the trends we associate with ’80s fashion.
All of these trends are gloriously on display in the new Apple TV+ series Physical, s tarring Australian actress Rose Byrne as Sheila Rubin, a dissatisfied housewife with a seriously disturbing inner monologue who becomes an aerobics mogul in 1981 San Diego, California.
The costumes, particularly the leotards that women of that era tended to make themselves, are almost unbearably accurate. While the series is a reminder of the perils of both perms and acid-wash jeans (not to mention the unforgiving proposition that is a high-cut neon leotard belted in at the waist), the ’80s was a rich decade for fashion trends – in part because, being so over the top, it allowed for experimentation. Many of the trends of the time, not to mention its style icons – from Cher to Princess Diana – remain as relevant today as they did then.
As any classic ’80s movie will tell you, there’s something powerful about reinventing yourself – so take a V-step and lunge for the good, the bad and the “we’d definitely wear it again” of ’80s fashion trends.
We do need to be clear here: leotards (or worse, G-string leotards) worn over flouro leggings and paired with slouchy leg warmers was a look that suited... very few. Maybe it should have been left to Jane Fonda, Olivia Newton-John and Flashdance ’s Jennifer Beals – although, as Physical shows, there’s something very uplifting about the idea of people DIY-ing their own leotards and giving it their best shot.
Other ’80s trends that didn’t age well: MC Hammer pants; enormous puffed-sleeve ’80s wedding dresses; and all of the outfits Joan Collins wore on the original Dynasty – while they were incredible in their rhinestone-encrusted excessiveness, they would be quite difficult to wear now without looking like you were lost on the way to an ’80s-themed disco. The aesthetic is just too, well, eighties.
That said, more is more is definitely back, with dazzling, piled-on jewellery – including pearls and rhinestones – spotted at Lanvin, Erdem and more, while chunky gold jewellery is back in the spotlight at chains including Loewe . Alexis Colby would approve.
There’s a reason why the likes of Louis Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquière and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga find much inspiration in the 1980s: Its shapes and silhouettes remain interesting, such as exaggerated, puffy shoulders and definitions of power dressing for women.
The decade gave us so many iconic fashion moments, from Madonna’s bodysuits (a look worn by all the Instagram fashion set now, minus the layers of pearls and lace gloves) to the preppy plaid oversize blazers worn by the most popular teens at school in the 1989 teen black comedy Heathers (’80s prep has been spied everywhere from Chanel to Balmain in recent seasons). And let’s not forget Princess Diana’s enormous-balloon-sleeved polka-dot blouses.
Most of all, the decade of excess made us rethink power dressing and proportion. And we’re still doing it now.
The ’80s fashion making a comeback
Let’s start with the shoulder pads. Fear not, they don’t look like they used to, but “structured shoulders” or power shoulders have been spotted on outfits worn by It girls such as Hailey Bieber and produced by trendy labels such as The Row, whose oversized and chic autumn 2021 suiting featured removable shoulder pads.
Then there’s the boxy, oversized blazers that ruled the ’80s. You can find them everywhere from Balenciaga to The Frankie Shop. Indeed, it’s hard to find a designer who hasn’t done a spin on the oversized blazer right now. This time around, wear it paired with a simple T-shirt and lean tailoring or jeans so as to not look too Working Girl . To borrow a line from Heathers, “It’ll be very.”
One other key 1980s trend making a comeback is body consciousness. This seems the best reaction to 18 months of being swaddled in loungewear, with Bottega Veneta, Givenchy and cool emerging London label Nensi Dojaka among those offering slick and sexy body-con dresses destined for the dance floor (one day!).
Then there is the return of the “king of cling”, Azzedine Alaia. The late and very much-missed Tunisian designer was given the nickname for his sculpted designs that gained particular popularity in the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” decade.
This month Pieter Mulier made his haute couture debut as creative director of the house. He told Vogue: “For me, it’s about how to explain the codes [Alaia invented] to a new generation.” This was evident in the slinky draping, leather, bike shorts and sheer, flippy dresses – clinging and goddess-like, clothes made for flaunting it.
The best thing is that now, in these more body-positive times, you can do that whether you have an aerobics-honed body or not. In 2021 anything goes, but never forget that the ’80s paved the way for it.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.