Grandma Had it Goin’™ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion of the 1980s

Like, ohmyGod, it’s totally 80s over here! Do you still own Hammer pants? Well, that’s too bad–they’re not back in. Carolina Herrera does not go near that shit, people. But you can wear the 80s today if you dare, radical ladies. So put on your Madonna and let’s talk about the 1980s!

If you’ve missed my previous posts, you can check them out here with the general how-to of buying vintage, the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. I love all the vintage decades, but none are as close to my heart as the eighties, for I lived through them and they shaped me into the unicorn-loving, Smurf snuggling, arrested-development dork I am today.

Yes, I own this. Yes, I wear the pieces, but not together. I have some personal pride.

1980s Vintage unicorn jewelry set
Vintage 1980s unicorn jewelry set (from my collection).

Let’s get something out of the way: I am going to go ahead and give you a list of things from the 1980s that you are not allowed to wear unless you’re going to a costume party. I’m doing this for your own good.

  • Hammer Pants
  • Parachute Pants
  • Legwarmers
  • Cosby Sweaters
  • Acid-Wash Jeans
  • Anything that makes you think “This outfit was made for Dorothy Zbornak!”

We all know what the 80s looked like–turn on The Cosby Show if you’re confused. Everything was bigger in the 80s–earrings, shoulder pads, sweaters. It’s like we all communally lost the ability to understand good proportions. But hark! You don’t have to look like a refugee from Punky Brewster. Mix and match your 80s pieces with something a bit more toned-down for a cute-as-hell outfit. That’s what I’m going to concentrate on in this blog–wearable 80s.

Vintage 1980s rainbow sweater
Vintage 1980s rainbow sweater (from my collection).

A Members Only jacket is still relevant today. I really need a lavender one to replace the one of mine that got stolen off the playground. Sniff. Yes, I’m still mad!

lavender Members Only jacket vintage 1980s
Vintage 1980s Members Only jacket, courtesy of heightofvintage.


You should check out 80s leather as well. It’s got a double whammy of awesomeness in that it’s 80s and it’s biker-chick all in one.

Vintage 1980s leather motorcycle jacket
Vintage 1980s leather motorcycle jacket, courtesy of lapetitemarmoset.

You can hardly talk about the 80s without mentioning the fashion juggernaut of Gunne Sax.  A 1980s Gunne Sax will sometimes be a bit over-the-top, like this one, a prairie-style:

Vintage 1980s Gunne Sax prairie dress
Vintage 1980s Gunne Sax purple prairie dress, courtesy of Fancy Disaster.


But sometimes Gunnes can be amazingly cute. I own a gorgeous blue Gunne sundress which is, sadly, put away for the winter. Here’s a similar one that you’d get tons of compliments on.

Vintage 1980s Gunne Sax sun dress
Vintage 1980s Gunne Sax sun dress, courtesy of TickledPinkVintage.

Be careful–many times an online seller will claim something is a real Gunne and charge you big bucks for it, as there are many Gunne collectors. Without the Gunne Sax label, however, do not pay through the nose. Here’s a link to a guide of genuine Gunne labels.  What’s my mantra? Always ask to see the label!  You can get Gunne knockoffs for a fraction of the price of the real thing, and still be adorbs.

Speaking of sundresses, I think that outfits like this are among the most wearable 80s clothes.

Vintage 1980s red and white stripe sun dress
Vintage 1980s red and white stripe sun dress, courtesy of pocketvintage1.

I’ve seen quite a few giant shoulder pads on the runways as of late, but be very careful with proportions. Pair an 80s shoulder pad with a modern pant. Something like this adorable Leslie Faye bolero is not too over-the-top, but stands out in the Forever 21 crowd. It features another lovely 80s giveaway–the puff sleeve.

Vintage 1980s Leslie Faye black and white houndstooth bolero jacket
Vintage 1980s Leslie Faye black and white houndstooth bolero jacket, courtesy of OwlVintage.

Here’s another Leslie Faye–an 80s-does-50s number. The 50s made a huge comeback in the 1980s, my guess is because of the Back to the Future movies. Remember from my 50s blog that if the zipper is nylon, it’s probably from the 80s.

Vintage 1980s Leslie Faye khaki day dress
Vintage 1980s Leslie Faye khaki day dress with button detail, courtesy of concettascloset.

80s evening wear trends toward the over-the-top, rife with shiny bows and giant skirts, but numbers like this one are infinitely wearable, even today.

Vintage 1980s purple evening cocktail dress
Vintage 1980s purple cocktail dress, courtesy of aquamarinedream.


One the coolest things you can sport from the 80s is anything pop culture related. Hell, most modern tees are made to look as if they came from the 70s and 80s–wear the real thing!

Vintage 1980s Pac Man tee shirt
Vintage 1980s Pac Man tee shirt, courtesy of RobsVintique.

80s sweaters can sometimes be gross and replete with pastel fuckery, but if you love angora, then this is the decade for you. I adore my 80s sweaters.

Vintage 1980s black angora sweater
Vintage 1980s black angora sweater, courtesy of empressjade.


Blouses are a marvelous way to wear the 80s every day. Gathered sleeves? Yes, please! When searching for this look, type in “secretary blouse/dress” and you’ll find tons of cute stuff. And these items are so new and easy to care for, you’ll have the chic of vintage with barely any fuss.

Vintage 1980s secretary blouse
Vintage 1980s secretary blouse, courtesy of vintageangel25.


Maybe your fashion icon is Rachel Berry from Glee? The 80s has you covered with adorable, girly looks in bold colors.

Vintage 1980s round collar girly dress
Vintage 1980s round-collar girly dress, courtesy of thepigeonchest.

Preppy was invented in the 80s. Get your Heathers on in this adorable jacket.

Vintage 1980s yellow ladies suit jacket
Vintage 1980s yellow ladies suit jacket, courtesy of lapetitemarmoset.


Finally, if you are the sort of bold woman who says, “Fuck it! I wanna sparkle so much you can see me from space! How else do you pick up a hot astronaut?” then look no further.

Vintage 1980s sequin colorblock skirt
Vintage 1980s sequin colorblock skirt, courtesy of fabulousmessvintage.

In terms of awesome 80s inspiration, I don’t think we can possibly go forward without acknowledging Madonna, probably the number one arbiter of fashion in the decade, aside from Michael Jackson.

Madonna in the 1980s
Madonna in the 1980s, image courtesy of Inside the Costume Box.

And how frakking fierce are Salt-N-Pepa? We all bow to Cheryl James “Salt,” Sandra Denton “Pepa,” and Dee Dee Roper “Spinderella.”

Salt-n-Pepa in the 1980s
Salt-n-Pepa in the 1980s, image courtesy of

Molly Ringwald movies are marvelous for 80s fashion, as long as you never, ever, ever replicate that horrid monstrosity in Pretty in Pink. You know the one I mean. No, I’m not posting a picture of that thing.

Molly Ringwald in the 1980s
Molly Ringwald in the 1980s, image courtesy of Pacific Hourglass.

Are you now inspired to try your hand at the 80s? Tell me in the comments!

By Lucy Woodhull

Lucy Woodhull is a novelist, humorist, parodist, and all-around geek. Her new venture is THE SHITTIEST PRINCESS, a series of un-fair-y tales right here on Persephone. You can check out her sexy, fun romantic comedies at

19 replies on “Grandma Had it Goin’™ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion of the 1980s”

Any Bay Area peeps remember the Gunne Sack Factory outlet in San Francisco? I want to say the entrance was hidden in an alley somewhere? I haven’t been since I was very young, but I remember it being really hard to find. It was a huge open loft packed to the gills with taffeta, super cheap. I got the most hideous flower print full-length gown there for when my parents made me join Rainbow Girls (the young girl extension of the Masonic Lodge. So freaking creepy. I lasted 3 meetings before I told my parents I wasn’t going anymore. You had to wear full length gowns to every meeting. Seriously, so weird) as a kid.

I would like to challenge you to an arm wrestling match for that unicorn set. It is amaze-balls.


Juliette sleeves (aka, puffs on long sleeves):
Long sleeved red dress with puff sleeves from the 80s on a mannequin.

Puff sleeve:
Light blue party dress with puffed sleeves from the 80s. Model is white thin and blonde.

Mutton Sleeves are their sibling, with a longer, tapered form, becoming a narrower sleeve on the forearm. Here’s a Gunne Sax with Mutton sleeves that I think is gorgeous:
on a dress maker's dummy, a blue velvet mutton sleeve top with lines of white lace.

Le Bishop sleeve (the Gathered sleeve as you put it) which is full the whole length and gathered at the wrist:

Adolfo Ribbon Plaid 80s Navy Lime Silk Bishop Blouse

I’m a costumer more than a vintage person. But I thought quick primer on the sleeve types that are all pretty darn close and commonly confused by non-costumers/seamstresses would be a good idea.

Why these shapes? Late 1970’s and the 1980s- Particularly Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley from what I recall- were heavily influenced by and drew inspiration from the 1880s fashion. Thus the prevalence of the “modern” Mutton sleeve. (Here’s a link to some Mid-victorian Mutton sleeves)

Speaking of, the jackets on these walking suits look familiar, maybe minus a few inches of volume in the sleeves?:

black an d white sketch of two women in fashionable 1894 walking suits. Long full skirts, blouses tucked in, with boleros with large mutton sleeves and large lapels

Some of the more, erm, “ornate” 80s dresses that we mock or concede are okay today are based on the concept of the Bustle Dress, but updated into something “modern.”

Love the Victoriana look that Gunne drew from? You are in luck, because there’s a Magazine dedicated to Neo-Victoriana. Victoria Magazine is a little more home and garden than fashion, but the look is there. For a while I had a HUGE stack of back issues- primarily from the  late 80s and early 90s- but my mother I think was forced to get rid of them. The magazine started in 1987, discontinued in 2003, and relaunched in late 2007.

I had a Gunne Sax, it was hideous. I got it at the Goodwill for a fancy dance, but it ended up making me look like a mix of Laura Ingalls, a flour sack and my grandma’s couch. I was hornswaggled by all the prom spreads in Seventeen magazine. I still hold a grudge.

I still have a bunch of (quite probably) tacky 80’s jewelry, made out of bright colored plastic. I don’t usually have much chance to wear it, but I still like to look at it.  (COLOR IS GOOD!)

If your unicorn jewelry turns up missing, I totally have an alibi. *shifty eyes*

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