Fashion In The 1980s Essay Contest

IN February, Sunday Styles asked college students nationwide to tell us — through their own stories, in their own voices — what love is like for them. When we first held this contest three years ago, the most popular essay topic was hooking up: the “no strings attached” sex that for many wasn’t turning out to be so carefree. The question that seemed to hover over hundreds of such accounts was: How do we get the physical without the emotional?

What a difference three years make. This time the most-asked question was the opposite: How do we get the emotional without the physical? The college hookup may be alive and well, but in these entries the focus shifted to technology-enabled intimacy — relationships that grow and deepen almost exclusively via laptops, webcams, online chats and text messages. Unlike the sexual risk-taking of the hookup culture, this is love so safe that what’s most feared is not a sexually transmitted disease but a computer virus, or perhaps meeting the object of your affection in person.

In poring over these submissions, we were struck by how routinely the Internet and smartphones are obliterating the geographical boundaries that used to define one’s dating pool. We read about high school couples that no longer split up when they go to separate colleges because, well, why should they when they can still spend practically every waking moment in touch and even in sight? The same goes for foreign-study flings that carry on after lovers are once again on separate continents.

Caitlin Dewey’s winning entry, which appears today, exemplifies the possibility and peril of this kind of pixelated long-distance love story. Although we can’t hope to capture the voices and experiences of the more than 1,400 students from 370 colleges who answered our call, we’ll try to round out the picture by publishing the essays of the runners-up through May.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Ms. Dewey and our other finalists, listed below, for writing such elegant, wise, funny and big-hearted essays. And thanks to our contest intern, Emma Rosenberg of Barnard, who assisted expertly in every aspect of this contest for five months, and didn’t flinch or flee when more than 800 submissions arrived on the final day.



Andrew Limbong, State University of New York at New Paltz

Anna Klenke, St. Olaf College

Elliott DeLine, Syracuse

David Mark Simpson, Rutgers


Lindsay Abrams, Wesleyan

Charlotte Alter, Harvard

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The 1980s birthed more fashion icons than any other decade.

Along with 1970s fashion, 1980s fashion was one of the most experimental periods in style history thanks to enduring style icons from Princess Diana to Madonna, Joan Collins to Boy George.

Clothes were used to define personalities and make big statements. Shoulders were padded right up to your ears, courtesy of Lady Diana and the cast of Dynasty. Meanwhile Boy George and the Blitz club crew were giving peacock punk a whirl. No doubt about it, it was a crazy era for all things à la mode – the later 1990s fashion was significantly calmer by comparison. Let’s take a look back.

Madonna’s 1980s fashion

Our beloved Madge burst onto the pop scene in 1983, working haute scrunchies, leathers and tutus like we’d never seen before. We fell in love (naturally) and the queen of pop reigned on for the rest of the decade, breaking style boundaries with her incredible physique and conical bras.

Princess Diana’s 1980s fashion

It would be silly of us to even try to sum up Princess Diana’s impact on fashion and culture in one short paragraph, but if we had to, we would say this: she was the trendsetter of a generation, a champion of the power shoulder and that super eighties wedding dress, which literally went down as one of the biggest in history.

Michael Jackson’s 1980s fashion 

This jacket is exactly what 1980s fashion was all about. The power jacket became a Michael Jackson style signature and one of the most copied cuts of the decade. This iconic piece went on to sell for $1.8million at auction in 2011, described by its new owner as ‘the greatest piece of rock memorabilia ever’. Enough said.

Boy George and the peacock punks 1980s fashion 

The leader of London’s peacock punks, Boy George saw 1980s fashion as art. With his gang of ‘Blitz kids’ including Leigh Bowery and Stephen Jones, he turned the club scene into a colourful catwalk, dressing up as though their lives depended on it and partying so hard that it made headlines. The only styling rule for this lot? Anything goes.

Joan Collins 1980s fashion

Ahhh Joan Collins. The queen of 80s TV show Dynasty inspired thousands of big hair ‘dos and heavy make-up statements throughout the decade. Her character, the soap’s villain Alexis Colby, had a wardrobe of puff shoulder dresses and trophy jackets that was so bad, it was so so good.

Katharine Hamnett’s 1980s fashion

If 1980s fashion was all about making style statements, then no one did it more literally than designer Katharine Hamnett. The inventor of the slogan tee, she used her design powers for good, conveying oh so subtle political messages and encouraging people to use their voices.

Jane Fonda’s 1980s fashion 

We couldn’t do an ode to 1980s fashion without mentioning the original queen of keep fit, Jane Fonda. First making waves in the style stakes and shaping 1960s fashion for her role in Barbarella, the award-winning actress was the first major star to do an exercise video. She made leg-warmers and Lycra as important to the decade as the power shoulders were.

Bananaram’s 1980s fashion

The hair bows, the pedal pushers, the slogan tees! This 1986 snap of Bananarama, aka Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey and Keren Woodward, was everything our school disco dreams were made of.

Molly Ringwald and the Brat Pack 1980s fashion

From The Breakfast Club to Pretty In Pink, the Brat Pack dominated the decade’s teen movies, with one idol always stealing the show as the prettiest, most popular girl in school. Oh come on, don’t pretend you didn’t want to be her.

Adam Ant’s 1980s fashion

New Romantic style and guyliner are two of our very favourite things to come out of the 1980s fashion scene. Adam Ant mixed punk, military, dandy and pirate references in fantastic effects – just look at that trophy jacket.

The 1980s supermodels

Lauren Hutton! Janice Dickinson! Iman! The 1980s heralded the first wave of truly super supermodels, as demand for the very best models increased tenfold and contract fees began to spiral towards the giant figures stars can command today. Chanel signed their first ‘exclusive’ booking, Debbie Parsons, in 1981 and everyone from Brooke Shields to Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson started to endorse household products. Meanwhile Iman (1987) is officially our new season jewellery icon.

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