The New Era Of Excess

Why The ’80s Is Still Fashion’s Favourite Decade

We examine why the over-the-top nature of ’80s style has an enduring grip on fashion designers.

Why The ’80s Is Still Fashion’s Favourite Decade
Louis Vuitton

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known,” says model Shannon McFarland, the protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk’s hit novel Invisible Monsters.

Two decades since its publication, the quote remains a ringing description of the fashion industry.

Where originality hasn’t prevailed, an amalgamation of references, ideas and details has been generously gleaned from decades past and repackaged for us in 2019.

Paco Rabanne’s Autumn/Winter 2019 collection leaned on Victorian dress codes, with fitted velvet coats and high-necked brocade dresses. Victoria Beckham’s Resort 2020 revamped smoking jackets and dipped them in autumnal browns and greens to evoke the Seventies. Even Prada looked back on the ’20s and ’30s for its conceptual, sleek silhouettes for Spring/Summer 2020.

One decade that has stood the test of all this era-bending appropriation, however, is the Eighties. How would oversized jackets come about without shoulder pads from that era? And we haven’t even started on athleisure, animal prints and chunky accessories.

The ’80s were interesting times. As technology permeated everyday lives, people discovered they could create tiny time capsules of their own. Suddenly, we were archiving day-to-day moments through handheld video recorders and instant cameras. The rise of this “everyman museum” culture helped preserve icons and signifiers, from pop stars and TV shows to designs.

Pop culture was fascinating, coloured by an obsession with material wants, celebrities, and “more is more” fashion. The towering coif that tumbled down the side of Cyndi Lauper’s head, the ear-grazing shoulder pads Joan Collins wore on Dynasty, and the eye-catching makeup sported by Annie Lennox and Liz Taylor became memorable fodder that — whether we loved or loathed it — stuck in social sensibility.

Designers like Azzedine Alaia, Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, meanwhile, were celebrated for their love of excess. They draped bodies in yards of clingy knits to accentuate the female form and poured liberal heaps of sequins and paillettes on jackets and dresses. These were names that relished in producing plenty of sartorial drama (even if it might seem a tad tacky today).

Fashion’s current crop of creative directors, such as Nicolas Ghesquiere (Louis Vuitton), Alessandro Michele (Gucci) and Hedi Slimane (Celine), would have been in their teens in the ’80s, either observing or soaking up all that overindulgence.

Why The '80s Is Still Fashion's Favourite Decade
Gucci Cruise 2020 / Image: Kevin Tachmann

As Slimane let on in an interview: “I am attached to a certain hedonism, maybe closer to the perspective of fashion in the ’70s and ’80s… A dress to get laid, dancing shoes, a prom suit, anything that makes someone feel good about themselves, and confident, without going too deep into concepts or being dead serious about the clothes.”

The mid-1980s saw the rise of young urban professionals, who sought fashion that reflected their sense of self and that departed from dull grey suits. It is a sentiment that resonates with millennial consumers, who eschew the constraint of dress codes at the office and consider dressing up as a form of self-expression. Indeed, looks matter.

Hence, presentation is key. For Louis Vuitton Resort 2020, Ghesquiere embraced the nostalgia and excesses of the ’80s, but tempered it with his brand of modernity. Strong-shouldered tops, bubble skirts and audaciously loud leather jackets all played into the tropes of ’80s fashion, which Ghesquiere refreshed with more contemporary silhouettes.

Take one of his brocade looks, for example. Clashing textures of gold and silver, bordered by a thick white line, exemplifies the perfect marriage of over-the-top couture and sensible shapes. It is a double delight for modern-day Vuitton fans.

For the same season, Donatella Versace sent out Western frontier-inspired pieces with models cloaked in leopard spots and signature baroque patterns, before filtering them through a decidedly ’80s lens. Cue structured cuts and phosphorescent hues! Bring on the high hemlines, brash cut-outs and bedazzled column dresses that Ivana Trump would’ve worn in a heartbeat.

Like Ghesquiere, Versace tried to make her ’80s-flecked collection relevant through its styling. She wanted to communicate grown-up glamour, and the notion that one could wear an oversized camel coat with a slinky skirt and still feel confident. Her maiden army strode out in party skirts with sober striped shirts, and cocktail dresses insouciantly thrown over leg-skimming pants.

Fashion’s love affair with the ’80s spilled over into Spring/Summer 2020, with Olivier Rousteing of Balmain leading the trend. He churned out tuxedo-dress hybrids, brassy ornamental accessories and shoulders that stretched a mile — Grace Jones would approve everything — to underscore the decade’s extreme character. One slogan tee that proclaimed “Own who you are” resembled the call to arms to revel in one’s uniqueness.

The ’80s was a time of self-expression, where what we wore mirrored who we were and what we wanted. It never really went away. On the contrary, it’s been given new energy and purpose by Generation Now and their quest for self-love.

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A.

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