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November 24, 2005 12:25 AM   Subscribe

Why was everything so ugly in the 1980's?

I'm fascinated by design and general aesthetics, and one of my favorite exercises is to look at something I think is ugly and try to see what the person who designed it was aiming for, or why other people think it looks good. Often I suddenly see that I just wasn't "getting it", or I get some insight into why that object or interior didn't work out – like that the materials or proportions don’t fit the concept. I like to try to think about how things that look dated or tacky to me now might have looked fresh or fun when they were originally designed. I don’t have any art or design training; I just like to look at things a lot.

However, I don’t seem to be able to do this with anything (almost) from the 1980’s. I can’t see what Patrick Nagel was aiming for, or why anyone wanted his stuff up on the wall, or what it was trying to say. Likewise with a bunch of other 1980’s “looks”, from orange-pine country kitchens to the 1980’s Playboy look – big hair and spandex. To me, the hair was terrible, the interiors were terrible, the graphic art was terrible.

Can someone who was there at the time and liked it, or who likes any of that stuff now explain to me what people in the 1980’s were trying to do? I understand some basic concepts like how design tends to react to what went previously, how it is often driven by new possibilities in technology and materials, and more informally, how people aim for a look like “Nevada brothel meets Star Ship Enterprise” (I made that one up). Any kind of explanation is good, and I realize I’ve lumped a bunch of pretty different looks in with each other, so focusing on one of them is fine.

I guess what I really want to ask is “How did anyone think that stuff looked good?!” but I actually honestly do want to know, so I didn’t phrase it like that. In the interests of full disclosure, I was born in 1980, and I’m sure that plays into it. How do people who liked the “look” of the 1960’s or ‘70’s feel about the ‘80’s?
posted by crabintheocean to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Every art movement peaks and then falls into disrepute. The 80s aesthetic just had a short cycle. Compare, for example, De Stijl: it lasted about as long, and left us with a lot of ugly crap no one outside of collectors really wants. It did inspire things like Bauhaus (which is still important) and it did so as much by negative as by positive example. I'm not sure exactly how the 80s inspired anything by positive example (especially in automotive design, ugh), but it's served its purpose and it's gone. Our modern aesthetic will likewise be boggled at in the near future.

I was, at the most, 8 at the time, but that's generally how things work.
posted by moift at 12:38 AM on November 24, 2005

I have the same question about the 70s.
posted by knave at 12:41 AM on November 24, 2005

Part of the reason that people liked it at the time is that it was simply different than what they had seen (or been left with) from the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. I think that people are attracted to change, the sense of progression, just as much as they are attracted to what can be considered timeless, universal. I grew up in the 80s and I remember thinking that the 70s was so "ugly", now that 80s style is back in vogue, I realize that the 80s were far uglier...
posted by sic at 12:46 AM on November 24, 2005

Remember that in 20 years you'll look back and think exactly the same about the naughties. Personally I find the 70s to be much uglier. A decade where lime green and brown were acceptable colours for interior decoration.
posted by salmacis at 12:49 AM on November 24, 2005

Don't forget the 70's staples of white, purple, orange and brown.

Every now and then I see a glimpse of fashions from the 80's, and I can't believe the shoulder pads and garish colours.
posted by tomble at 1:17 AM on November 24, 2005

You seem to be just singling out the aesthetics of popular culture; Nagel, spandex, Playboy, etc. It sounds like you are working from a vision of style from a Hefner perspective which may not be the real 80's esthetic. Please never look to Playboy for the best of design. Check out the Graphis annuals for real design greats.

To me popular culture in every decade is kitsch. There are enduring artists from that decade that cannot be associated with the pop style. I prefer alternative culture which is entirely different. In the 80's alternative culture was filled with Joel Peter Witkin, The Ramones, Jim Jarmusch was just starting to cut his teeth, and Pedro Almodóvar was making an international reputation.
posted by JJ86 at 1:24 AM on November 24, 2005

Yes there were gold headbands, leg warmers and K Cars, but the 80s also brought us the Macintosh, Devo and Pee Wee's Playhouse.
posted by Scoo at 1:28 AM on November 24, 2005

My memory of the 80s (I was in my teens) is that it was a very bright, colorful, optimistic time. Colors were clean and bright and things like unicorns were in fashion (unlike now, when it's Vampires), hair was soft and fluffy, pants fit instead of hung off the ass, "happy" was more acceptable than "goth", there were a lot of Yuppies, Reagan was in the White House, Glasnost seemed to be working and the long threat of nuclear war was starting to fade, there was no Web, no cell phones, no Ritalin, etc. Looking back on the fashions of the time, now, they don't strike me as -ugly- (not like the babyshit colors of the 1970s), but more naive and silly and a bit childish; almost cartoony. But it had a certain innocent charm, I think, like a little girl who loves all the colors of the rainbow so much she can't decide what to wear, so she wears some of everything, and sprays her hair into a big froofy lion's mane of inflated hopes and dreams and adds lots of glittery bangles because she loves the shiney. You know she's being silly and idealistic and gaudy, but you can't help but smile anyway.
posted by Rubber Soul at 1:42 AM on November 24, 2005 [4 favorites]

Yeah you have to remember that anything new and cool in the 80s was new and cool compared to the 70s. People always forget that every decade still resembles the one that came before it about 50%. You're also focusing on emblems like Nagel when in fact lots and lots of stuff was going on. Usually the most emblematic things about a period are remembered, but that doesn't mean they were the most representative at the time, that everyone was into them. That's just retrospect.

This is kind of a pointless question though because it's entirely a matter of esthetics, too. You don't like something? Can't understand why everyone doesn't agree? I don't know what to say to that, really.
posted by scarabic at 1:57 AM on November 24, 2005

PedanticFilter: Though The Ramones and DEVO were active in the '80s, both acts were products of the '70s.

/The more you know...
posted by Opposite George at 2:03 AM on November 24, 2005

If people were trying to say anything in particular with the 80's aesthetic, it was probably something like "let's leave the unwashed, slimy, dead-end 70's behind."

Being bright and colorful and unjaded/unironic wasn't uncool then like it is now.
posted by shoos at 2:08 AM on November 24, 2005

You don't like something? Can't understand why everyone doesn't agree?

I think it's more the other way around, I want to understand why I don't like things that were/are obviously popular and well liked. This isn't about "Why can't those morons understand how ugly their stuff is?"

And I don't think esthetics is a a random, unchangeable personal thing. I think people like visual things because they evoke stories and moods and other esthetic things they already like.
posted by crabintheocean at 2:11 AM on November 24, 2005

Opposite George: yeah, and Nagel was doing his thing at Playboy starting in the 70's, and spandex was fashionable in the 60's. Moot point. They are associated more with the 80's, same as the Ramones and Devo.

All in all, the 80's were better than today where the fashion is metro-sexual, queer-eye crap. The pop scene is littered with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The architectural trends of Gehry are getting to be a pox on the land.
posted by JJ86 at 2:18 AM on November 24, 2005

Yesterday I took a picture of a monk and posted it on my blog, noting that in the eighties I had drawstring parachute pants in the same pale yellow color as his robe, and in fact I had a more hideous pair in electric blue, and in the interest of full disclosure I wore these with a white cotton turtleneck and a kind of gray crosshatched vesty/tunic-y pullover thing that was all very '80s, which at the time meant anything that rejected the '70s, and you would surely laugh at it today, and rightly so, just as I would laugh at the shit music you listen to.
posted by planetkyoto at 2:19 AM on November 24, 2005

Well, for me anyway much of the '80s aesthetic was exciting at the time, at least the parts that incorporated at their heart a renunciation of '70s style. For me I'm sure a lot of its appeal had to do with me being at a naturally contrarian age (I was a teenager from late 1979 to late 1986.) And on top of that a lot of the '70s stuff was really awful.

How old are you, crabintheocean? A former coworker had a theory that if you ask somebody where the best pizza they've ever had was, they'll more often than not name a place within 5 miles of where they grew up or where they live now. I suspect something similar goes on with aesthetics.
posted by Opposite George at 2:24 AM on November 24, 2005

This may or may not answer your question or help. I graduated high school in 1982, so the 80s represent the last years of being a teen and the first years of adulthood. In terms of pop consciousness, I think that puts me pretty strongly in the 80s. So how can I explain it? I can't. I can't because I have no real sense of that decade as culturally coherent. The 80s is either a blank to me, or a bunch of random things mixed together. The 70s are very real to me, they're, well, the 70s. And the 90s I really enjoyed and they make up a much bigger party of my identity than the 80s did. Come to think of it, that might be weird for someone my age. Or maybe not. If I could think of one word that I feel most describes the 80s, it probably would be "shallow". "Plastic" in a very bad way, not in a kitsch way like the 70s. The 80s were soulless. I don't know how popular design would react to that mood (or if it helped create it), but they were pretty darn soulless. Imagine Reagan with more advanced Alzheimer's than anyone thought. That's the whole decade.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:38 AM on November 24, 2005

Also, I would add the coldness and harshness of much of eighties design can be seen as a pretty simple reaction to the faux folk of late 60’s and 70’s arts and crafts movements and suburbanized hippie culture generally. This also begins to explain fashion. The 60’s and 70’s were traumatic times for fashion marketing as girls were buying jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, rather than a range of ‘fashions’. They had been trying to declare the ‘end’ of the casual look for years but no one was listening. It took a 16 year old Brooke Shields, with her blouse open, talking about no one coming between her and her Calvin’s for all of that to stop. Designer jeans were a desperate attempt to get girls back into clothing stores and it worked. When there was a crack in the casual façade marketers leapt and went to the extreme as if sticking a knife in the gut of the anti-consumerist beast. The fluorescent colors, spandex, puff ball skirts – all of it seem fairly predictable when you consider the term ‘reactionary’ in both cultural and political ways.
posted by anglophiliated at 4:00 AM on November 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

posted by jaded at 5:13 AM on November 24, 2005

JJ86, the Ramones are still my favorite band of all time and DEVO holds a dear place in my heart but I really don't think of either as typical of the very distinctive '80s (U.S.) pop aesthetic.

But then again, a lot of the music that was made in the '80s that I liked (e.g., the great L.A. Hardcore scene) isn't really typical of the aesthetic I think the original post references even though it was very much a product of that era. I read the original question as a request to decipher a more popular culture than these bands represent (e.g., big hair and spandex). Sad as it is, the Ramones and DEVO were rarely treated as anything more than a novelty act by the the day's mainstream radio.

I dunno, maybe the rest of the world associates the Ramones and DEVO with the '80s, but in my middle school days (late 1970s) we all knew who they were, and we pretty much thought they had peaked by 1983 or so. I don't want to get into a fight here (especially about something this silly) as your experience of the time would almost certainly have been different from mine. So let's compromise -- I'll give you the post-peak sucky DEVO (i.e., the DEVO that did the "Dr. Detroit" song); that DEVO was kind of '80s, but I think by that stage they were more riding a wave than influencing it. :)

Back to the original question -- all the stuff you read about 80's cynicism and powerlust is true. A lot of that meant taking all the happy-lovey hippy stuff and flushing it down the toilet. Cold, functional, technical, flashy and extravagant were the new ideal. Now we know (a little) better, but don't worry -- something equally ridiculous is bound to come along soon.

(on preview, jaded has it.)
posted by Opposite George at 5:19 AM on November 24, 2005

Unlike Rubber Soul, I see the 80s as the most nihilistic era I can remember, with advertisers and such trying to put a shiny face on things but, in fact, it was very scary. Remember that things like the fall of the Berlin Wall came very very suddenly and at the very end of the 80s and into the 90s.

It was more common in the 80s to not only be convinced that we could all die in a nuclear holocaust tomorrow - but that that reality was boring, blase, normal.

So while some saw unicorns in style, many (if not more) saw that as an embarrassment at the time, a very small attempt at a tacky bandaid on a hopeless situation. As well, "Yuppie" was always an insult - it was never a term that had a positive cast which was later corrupted. The term specifically referred to soulless people who purposefully ignored the realities of the times and self-indulged to the point of obscenity.
posted by mikel at 5:28 AM on November 24, 2005 [2 favorites]

On second thought, JJ86 I see where you're coming from with DEVO (though there are probably better examples out there.) I still don't see the Ramones thing, though.
posted by Opposite George at 5:29 AM on November 24, 2005

It was more common in the 80s to not only be convinced that we could all die in a nuclear holocaust tomorrow - but that that reality was boring, blase, normal.

Wordy McWord.

On the term "Yuppie": the first time I ran into the term was in a news story referencing political demographic and it was more descriptive than derisive. But yeah, it got ugly real quick.
posted by Opposite George at 5:37 AM on November 24, 2005

The 80's was also the era in which the "perfection of the package" came into full effect. I was 13 in 1983 and at that time images of "new wave" and MTV were fully absorbed by kids my age. If you wanted to look like Billy Idol you could go down to the drugstore, pick up some hair dye and gel and spike your hair.

More on this later
posted by jeremias at 6:05 AM on November 24, 2005

it was a decade that was overrun with self-conscious irony and parody ... a lot of things were done and worn with the full knowledge that they were tacky and ridiculous
posted by pyramid termite at 6:24 AM on November 24, 2005

MTV had a lot to do with it.

BTW, I survived the 80's (I was 21 in 1984) and I don't remember a lot of optimism. I remember everyone being worried about Japan dominating the world economy, nuclear war with the USSR, and AIDS.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:45 AM on November 24, 2005

Speaking of MTV, I think the availability of cheap synthesizers drove a lot of the aesthetic in music and, in turn, other areas.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:47 AM on November 24, 2005

it was a decade that was overrun with self-conscious irony and parody ... a lot of things were done and worn with the full knowledge that they were tacky and ridiculous

I was born in 1979, so my 80s memories are pretty shakey--but looking back, I think this is very right.

A friend of a friend with fashion design experience once explained at least part of the 80s aesthetic to me as related to glamour, which helped things make sense. On the one hand there was the straight-up glamour of big hair, big shoulders, bright colors, long fingernails, and all the rest; on the other there was the fallen glamour of, for example, early Madonna (remember all her lacey clothes and ripped evening gloves?). And the 80s were quite glamorous, especially compared to the earth-tone '70s.

To me, this idea of 80s glamour explains a lot, especially in the context of fantasy, which was big in the 80s. The 80s had a lot of fantasy going on, in the popular culture and elsewhere. (My favorite example of the glamour/fantasy combo is the absurd video for Hail and Oates' "Maneater.") Think about, say, Miami Vice, which for me anyway is the ultimate emblem of 80s mass culture. The white suits, big, brightly colored buildings and neon signs, and, to quote Vanilla Ice, "girls in bikinis" and "Lamborghinis" are all part of that fantastical universe. And one of the great things about the 80s, at least from an aestheticized, retrospective angle, is this combination of rich fantasy life and truly downtrodden, screwed-up, declining American culture. The best example of this is probably Vincent Gallo's movie Downtown 81, in which, for example, Debbie Harry plays a (glamorous) angel who appears to the main character, a down-and-out abstract painter, in a puff of smoke while he walks through an East Village alleyway. But another equally powerful example would be David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
posted by josh at 6:54 AM on November 24, 2005

(Born 1974) I remember very clearly as a younger kid that the 60s were thought of as a real joke, fashionwise.

As I got a bit older, the 60s started to seem a bit cool in a retro kind of way, and the 70s were suddenly an absolute joke.

In the mid to late 80s, in my early teens, I remember suddenly realising with absolute certainty that all the things I thought were cool would one day be regarded with the same derision. I looked around and I could not understand how people would ever dislike the cutting-edge looks I was surrounded by - the spiky, gelled hair, green eyeshadow, batwing jumpers etc., but nonetheless I knew that day would come.

It has.

Look around you now and try and pick out what you think people will dislike in 2020. Probably you can't, because we all look so plain and normal. That's how I felt in 1987.
posted by penguin pie at 7:09 AM on November 24, 2005

I was a pre-teen / teenager in that horrid decade and I'd have to disagree with with the earlier statement that "things were done and worn with the full knowledge that they were tacky and ridiculous."

With the exception of shoulder pads for women, which was easily acknowledged by nearly everyone as something horrid, everything else seemed like such a huge improvement over the 70's. Bell-bottoms? Fuck no! much better to wear parachute pants. Wide brown ties? Fuck no! I'm looking quite good in my black string tie and shiny suit.

But it was a strange decade in some ways. There was great optimism and great fear, usually coexisting simultaneously. I remember being obsessed with nuclear war and the culture, in the early 80's reflected that. There were some bright colors but the popular music and attitudes had a strong streak of melancholy. New Wave and pop fluff, such as Duran Duran, was music tinged by quite a bit of darkness. Even the fantasy of Miami Vice reflected a deep unease by having horrible things happen to the beautiful people in the beautiful places.

But all that changed around 1986, when Glasnost took hold as an idea in the west and Gorbachev seemed like a nice guy who wouldn't be frightened by Reagan into incinerating the world, and the stock market really took off, reinvigorating the whole American dream, at least in the popular perception. Pop music gave way to painfully frivolous acts which I refuse to recount out of the deep pain it causes.

But the underground aesthetics of the late 80's, has become the mainstream of today. I remember being deeply immersed in punk and the zine culture and witnessing the growth and birth of the type of hipster irony, cynicism, and "weirdness" which has survived to this day, becoming mainstream (as mainstream as anything gets in this fractured current culture). Not that my generation invented irony, cynicism or weirdness, but the spin we put on it was pretty effective and has stood the test of time, for better or worse.

But, overall, the decade sucked and 90's were much better. Though, in some respects, the 90's were pretty bland compared to the 60's, 70's, and 80's, and I wonder how the kids in 2015 will find a way to make it nostalgic.
posted by pandaharma at 7:49 AM on November 24, 2005

I think penguin pie has hit the mark.
posted by hippyboy at 7:59 AM on November 24, 2005

Look around you now and try and pick out what you think people will dislike in 2020.

Capris. Slutty skirts on 12 year olds. Hipster hair. Faux-faded retro T-shirts. Super-tight t-shirts with snotty sayings. Lots more. This is easy.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:39 AM on November 24, 2005

And the 80s were quite glamorous, especially compared to the earth-tone '70s

Oh woe is me. Doesn't anyone remember the 70's glamour of DISCO? Hot pants? Satin in jewel tones? Dresses with slits up to one's crotch? Silk cord headbands?

There was a lot of glitter and fantasy in the 70's. This continued in the 80's...the 80's weren't a reaction to it.

And big shoulder pads? Were supposed to make women with curvy hips feel better about the peg leg pants and straight skirts of the 80's. The inverted triangle shape was BIG for some reason.

I don't think that fashion and design is that "turn on a dime" overall. Plus, fashion/design has so many layers and categories. So, as the decade changes, little hotspots in the culture and what's possible to execute create little offshoots that either grow and evolve, or die out completely. Or they "trickle down" (or up) through different demographic categories. The prairie look of the 70's flared up and then died quickly. Polyester dresses in the 70's with lots of slits and cleavage evolved in the 80's when someone threw big shoulder pads in there to make them more flattering to women with hips. Then the women of "Dynasty" began wearing them and everyone wants one. The best explanation is quite possibly the least complicated...Occam's Razor and all that.
posted by jeanmari at 9:22 AM on November 24, 2005

The thing that amuses me is how more liberal and extreme dress sense was back then in terms of color. I've seen a lot of films (documentary and otherwise) where people were wearing TEAL suits to work formally!
posted by wackybrit at 9:29 AM on November 24, 2005

As someone who was in my teens during the 80s, I thought the baggy pants/checkerboard/etc aesthetic was the epitome of cool, and there was no way it could ever become passé.

Now I laugh at the selective memory of people who wax nostalgic about Pac-man and Rubik's cubes. And yes, I realize that a lot of current 80's love is the ironic-quotation-marks kind.

Anyhow, anyone who thinks that the 80s were somehow devoid of "pop crap" is delusional. The 80s had some great music, and some amazingly shitty music. Pretty much like any other decade.
posted by O9scar at 10:07 AM on November 24, 2005

I've often felt like the 80's are an especially dichotomous decade - perhaps just because I grew up in liberal new york during the reagan era. I wrote about it briefly at the bottom of this page, saying that it had "two sides, the pop-reagan-fake everything and punk-goth-nuclear fear." It's certainly plausible that the latter was something of a response to the former, but why people liked the former I never understood. I hated the 80's growing up during them, until high school when I discovered the gothy side of things which I liked. I also wrote about that here with regard to music.
posted by mdn at 10:42 AM on November 24, 2005

in some respects, the 90's were pretty bland compared to the 60's, 70's, and 80's, and I wonder how the kids in 2015 will find a way to make it nostalgic.

And that was exactly what I thought about my 80s childhood at the time: the previous generation had the Beatles and the swinging sixties to wax lyrical about - however were we ever going to find anything to be nostalgic about our own bland age?

And now I find I am part of a generation that is utterly obsessed with its own nostalgia: [British list to follow, I'm sure the rest of you can fill in your equivalents] Pacers, Tooty Frooties, Grange Hill, Roobarb and Custard, Grifters, Rubik's Cubes, legwarmers...

Today's kids will reminisce about the days when phone numbers were ascribed to houses and offices instead of each individual person having a phone number, about how you had a separate mobile phone and mp3 player, about how they thought Nintendos were reallly cool (oh, and of course about how it was before we ate all our meals in pill format and we wore silver suits as we climbed into our private helicopters, which I believe is scheduled to happen around 2010).
posted by penguin pie at 10:51 AM on November 24, 2005

The 80s were about excess as the Me generation started earning more. Even die-hard hippies had left their communes and the Baby Boomers were on to scaling the corporate ladder. Women had more earning power, which meant more money for women and families. So you could have long spiral-permed hair because you could afford the $70 to have it done. You could afford to buy gel for your son's spiked hair and highlights for your daughter's teased hair. Tailored clothes were out of fashion -- when you have money, you can afford loose-fitting clothes that use more material. Shoulder-pads helped women wear their suits with confidence while still having thin waists. Music was big, glamorous, decadent. Even hitting the gym was about excess, as we chanted "no pain, no gain". The US president was a movie star. Pink and grey and pastels were a total reaction to the dark, sleek designs of the 70s.

Everything was an MTV fantasy video, even though people were crying out their hearts on Oprah.
posted by acoutu at 11:38 AM on November 24, 2005

The thing that strikes me about a statement like "everything was ugly in the 1980s" in regards to clothing is that it discounts those who just wore t-shirts and jeans, just like they did in the seventies, and their parents in the fifties and sixties, and probably still do today. I suspect that the t-shirt and jeans crowd was then (and is now) the majority but it's the high-visibility fads and trendinesss that stands out in our memories, and, as everyone knows, in hindsight trendiness is always ugly.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:38 AM on November 24, 2005

Mmm, I don't see the 80's as one period.

The first couple of years were still 1970's brown. Then there was The Day After, punk nihilism (which had been bubbling under) became commonplace and every child thought they were going to die in a nuclear war. Then there was the late 80's fall of communism, the 87 fall of Wall St, and by 1989 everything stable had collapsed to the extent that Fukuyama started telling everyone history had ended.

Packing those ideas, and their accompanying design trends, into 10 year blocks is stupid.

For the record, at the time I perceived trends in clothing as pure reaction against 70's standards. Big collars for men, flared trousers, earth tones, all replaced by small or no collars, stovepipes and tapered pants, blues greens and greys (and oh the shame of being caught wearing "flares"). Crafty woody curvy organic shite replaced by techno plastic angled shite. No underlying significance other than the pendulum swinging the other way. We're bored with this thing, time for another thing.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:52 PM on November 24, 2005

The thing that strikes me about a statement like "everything was ugly in the 1980s" in regards to clothing is that it discounts those who just wore t-shirts and jeans, just like they did in the seventies, and their parents in the fifties and sixties, and probably still do today. I suspect that the t-shirt and jeans crowd was then (and is now) the majority but it's the high-visibility fads and trendinesss that stands out in our memories, and, as everyone knows, in hindsight trendiness is always ugly.

Simple and clean is never very edgey, but it also never goes out of style. Black is always elegant, clean lines always make for good design no matter what the era. What changes is the conext in which this good sense is placed. A simple black jacket might not have been very hip in 1987, but it's certainly aged better than your hot pink cycle shorts, hasn't it?

In just about any area of design I can think of there's a sort-of genereric norm from which it's hard to screw up. This norm changes very slowly over time. It won't be edgy, but it will remain acceptable for a long time. The further you deviate from this norm, (wide lapels, skinny ties, artsy-farsy-coutry kitchens, hot pink hyper-colour shirts, etc,) the more prone you are to looking ridiculous 10 years later. Your design will look hip for a while, but not set to last.

Trucker hats are a great contemporary example, they're already long out of style with the Toronto hipsters, at least. Ditto for those stupid big furry boots that hip women were wearing two years ago, and suburban teenage club-goers are latching onto now. The cycle continues.
posted by generichuman at 2:06 PM on November 24, 2005

two sides, the pop-reagan-fake everything and punk-goth-nuclear fear

Great one-line synopsis. Worth noting that 'fake' was a little more on the U.S. side of the ocean; 'fear' on the Europe side.

I remember three periods:

--Summer of '79, "disco sucks" spelled the end of that era. The next wave of fashion to be marketed to people was New Wave, not groundbreaking stuff but knockoffs of what had been alternative in the 70s. Think Soft Cell, Flock of Seagulls. Parachute pants and Members Only jackets were a blend of new-wave-knockoff and the dying dregs of disco. The 70s in the U.S. had been mostly depressing--this basically continued with a crappy economy, cold war, Reagan, and now Islamic extremists.

--Then things in the U.S. started taking off. Britain started off the next wave with New Romantics stuff, but by late 83 into 84, U.S. was starting its first era of increasing prosperity in many years. Reagan in 84 could proclaim "Morning in America". After 60s hippies, 70s polyester and punk/new wave spiked hair and safety pins, the reaction against all three was Benetton sweaters and sharp suits. Think Miami Vice, Spandau Ballet, "Addicted to Love", Cosby show. If you wouldn't or couldn't do that, you could go Mellencamp or even big hair metal. Alternative retreated to college radio.

--Late 80s are less easy to define. There was some 60s nostalgia again (Big Chill, Thirtysomething), and being a current or former Deadhead was less uncool. Rap and hip-hop had started to get mainstream attention. Big hair metal remained as a poor substitute for authentic rebelliousness. Faux new wave was basically gone, but nothing had shown up to take its place. Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses went from sharp suits to more of a Martha-Stewartish aesthetic, although there may have still been shoulder pads on women and what people remember as "eighties hair". In my personal memory, the world was basically on hold, waiting for the Wall to fall, then for Kurt Cobain.
posted by gimonca at 2:44 PM on November 24, 2005

I'd like to point to the design abilities of Peter Saville as art from the 80's that didn't suck, IMHO. I've always found his style to be clean, effective and I don't really think that a lot of it has become dated, especially his fonts and album covers (Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' is still beautiful in it's minimalism.)

Also faves of mine are... Steven R Gilmour, who did a great deal of the original artwork for Nettwerk Records when they first started (Skinny Puppy and The Tear Garden being two that spring to mind).... and 23 Envelope (link1, link2), who did all the artwork for 4AD Records (Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Colourbox, etc...).
I still think the art of these designers from the '80's can stand up to most today, and perhaps especially Peter Saville who was a definite presence in the many fields he had his hand in.
posted by Zack_Replica at 5:01 PM on November 24, 2005

ooops. The Skinny Puppy link should've been this, and for completeness' sake, the link to Saville's website is here, but I linked to the next page to bypass the annoying and unskippable flash intro. More links for those interested are but a Google search away.
posted by Zack_Replica at 5:07 PM on November 24, 2005

Coming in sorta late . . .

Lots of solid explanations here - the somewhat shallow glam as rejection of forced hippie earthiness, the sense of dread just underneath the slick yuppie surface (think of it as The Day After meets Top Gun as a confused design aesthetic) - but I thought I'd add one more: the mainstreaming of postmodernism.

The avant-garde in almost every medium - visual arts, lit, music, film, architecture, design - had since the end of WWII been pushing outward so fiercely and rapidly that in many ways the whole thing had reached a kind of nihilistic, meaningless endpoint. Where to go after abstract expressionism? How to tell a story after Barthelme? How to simplify and streamline any further than the modernists had?

As these trends went mainstream, they just became mixed-message, mixed-media gibberish. Think here of clothing with random words or letters printed on it. Of pointedly asymetrical hair. Of buildings with sudden, pointless outcroppings in styles diametrically opposed to the rest of the building. Of the redesigned country house in Beetlejuice or the (jaw-droppingly silly) extras in the party scene in Crocodile Dundee. Think, indeed, of Devo (who knew what they were doing) but also of the mangled narratives of pop video generally (most of which didn't). Think of rap - music as a sort of comment over top of existing music rather than a medium involving the skilled mastery of an instrument. Think of Reagan's public speeches, which leapt from real life to remembered bits of movies to overwrought rhetorical bluster like verbal kaleidoscopes.

Was it all bad in the '80s? No - but lots of it was. The overarching tone of those years was a sort of fuck-it-all amorality verging on sociopathy (hence Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho as such a sharp and effective satire of that time). And if you're having trouble finding a clear meaning in any of it, it might just be that there wasn't any.
posted by gompa at 5:07 PM on November 24, 2005

AFAICT, 1980s design was a(n over)reaction against 1970s design. (Super-skinny ties instead of super-wide ties, etc., etc., etc.)
posted by winston at 6:17 PM on November 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

One more U.S.-related item: the strong dollar. The U.S. dollar was worth a lot more in the mid 80s than it had been, which led to the U.S. importing a lot of suddenly less-expensive items from other countries. This affected U.S. consumers in several ways:

--Japan consolidated its hold on the U.S. markets for cars, electronics, etc., as mentioned above. But more importantly...

--China and other countries took over as suppliers of "cheap crap" to the U.S. This process had been going on for a while, but it really took off during the "strong dollar" years. Coincidentally, Wal-Mart was marching across the rural countryside in a big way during this time.

--At the other end, relatively high-fashion, expensive items from Europe became accessible to a broader range of U.S. buyers. This didn't always work out well (think Miami Vice again).

So you have a wave of "cheap crap" welling up from the bottom, and a nouveau-riche topping of luxury goods trickling down from the top...leaving a nation of fashion victims caught in the middle.
posted by gimonca at 9:03 PM on November 24, 2005

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