Vintage '80s

The 1980s, as a style decade, was certainly guilty of some serious fashion faux pas. Some of those trends are even coming back, or they never really left. Day-glo socks and other accessories can be seen all over Target these days. Bi-level and asymmetrical haircuts are strangely still being sported by women all over the country. But one of the trends of the '80s that was dear to my heart, and isn't around that much anymore, was vintage clothing. I don't miss those other trends, but I do miss vintage or "antique" clothing.

I dove headfirst into this trend, and was pretty lucky, because my mom, who had lived in New York in her 20s, had held onto most of her clothes, and I was able to raid her old wardrobe for some great pieces. I wore my mother's old party dresses and fancy attire, mixed in with basic items like jeans or simple skirts. I also shopped in used clothing stores, and even worked in a few of the more famous New York City ones (Canal Jean Co. and Reminiscence), for quite a few years during and post college.

Outside Scribner's bookstore in some typical '80s city garb — antique coat and scarf, cropped jeans, short boots.
In Soho, by the basketball courts
In SoHo, near the basketball courts, wearing my "James Dean Rebel Without A Cause" reversible jacket that used to be my mom's, a vintage scarf that originally belonged to my grandfather, and some antique clip-on earrings.


I remember the gigantic bins full of of old, used, woolen overcoats outside of Canal Jean Company on Broadway, where male and female, young and old, would try them on, looking for the perfect, dramatic winter coat. Most would tend to be oversized, which was of course, fine in the '80s, so one would roll up the sleeves and flip up the collars to come up with one's own version of a '40s-style trenchcoat. 

I was always a little leery of those overcoats, some still with an odor of mothballs. I wondered where the store's antiques buyer had found them. Were they really so many old men in Cincinnati no longer in need of their winter overcoats, or were they just from some overstuffed warehouse, where they never sold? And here they were, on the backs of New Yorkers (and New Jerseyans and Long Islanders, etc.) 40 years later. But tons of people bought them, and wore them during the cold winter, and looked pretty cool while doing it. Even as an avid film buff, I couldn't really remember any old black and white movie featuring overcoats exactly like these, but I think a lot of people were buying these sorts of clothes and remaking themselves in what they saw as more modern versions of cinematic superstars of the past, like Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall. I know I was at times.

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In one of my mom's old party dresses, channeling Kim Novak.


I worked at another clothing store, Reminiscence, after I left Canal Jeans. That became a bit of a schizophrenic "vintage" experience. Reminiscence did sell vintage items, but its real money was made on its own versions and knock-offs of mostly '50 styles. Bright colors and prints were its trademark, appearing on everything from trumpet skirts to Hawaiian shirts, and of course, even jeans. It was probably appropriate, with all of the talk at the time, of simulation and questions of originality in the art world, that art student me worked at a retail store which was simulating styles of the past.

Fashion these days, in comparison, is pretty boring. People seemed to pay a little more attention to putting together a look in the '80s. Maybe their outfits were over-the-top, but they were interesting, too. What current fashion trend is interesting? Certainly not leggings, or the persistent wearing of one's trousers 4 to 5 inches below one's underwear. Where are all the fun clothes?

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This fun little number probably cost me round $5.00, and the vintage shoes and oversized blue plastic hoop clip-on earrings, not much more. It was a wow at the Warhol opening at MoMA. And more than that, as you can see, it was a lot of fun to wear.


Some of the blame for current boring fashion trends I blame on the obsession first with supermodels, and then designer labels. The inevitable red carpet "Who are you wearing?" question as mostly cookie cutter gowns glide by generates little enthusiasm, and seldom seems to translate to any street wear. As the '80s waned, television shows centering on fashion, style, make-overs, and supermodels, became omnipresent. In the '90s suddenly heels had to be high and thin (no more boots or chunky heels). Skirts and silhouettes also slimmed down (goodbye '50s-style puff skirts). Everything, while certainly stylish, was also uniform. There was no room for mis-matched earrings, or just wearing one earring, bright colors, and prints. Black, always a go-to color in fashion, was certainly as popular in the '80s as any decade, but in the '90s and now in the '00s, black and solid muted colors dominate. Now don't get me wrong, I don't miss all those '80s little floral prints that were also all over the place, but a splash of color, something that even looks a little crazy, something a little fun — where today is the fun in fashion?

I've been wondering if this latest film version of The Great Gatsby will spawn another "vintage glamour is back" moment. These trends never really seem to take hold for long, however. Fashion trends only last from one season to the next. Lots of folks like myself still enjoy shopping at thrift and used clothing stores. It might never be like it was in the '80s, when vintage clothing and style became a bigger trend. I find that a little sad. But I guess you can now be prepared for the sight of me walking down the street in a vintage trumpet skirt or something similar. I warned you.

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