How did we all survive the 1980s? I’m not talking about the Cold War, Iran-Contra, or New Coke. I’m talking about the horrific proliferation of feathered hair, shoulder pads, and acid-washed jeans. It was truly an unattractive decade, as if America’s communal sense of style was suffering from a ten-year glitch.
For the past few months, I’ve been up to my elbows in photographic evidence of my own unfortunate fashions of the 70s and 80s, the era of unflattering Dorothy Hammill hairdos, outfits made of materials that were probably as toxic as they were itchy, and so much hairspray. This is because my parents, who are no longer able to drive, cook, or navigate stairs, finally agreed to sell their suburban split-level house and move into an assisted living facility. As we pack up the house they lived in for 50 years, I’ve been wading through endless boxes containing every report card I ever received, every program from every play and recital I was ever in, every letter home from camp, and every photograph taken of me from birth through last week.
It’s truly been eye-opening. I open a dusty old photo album with kittens or flowers on the cover, and moments that I thought were lost to time suddenly reappear before my eyes: Here I am in my baseball uniform! It was 1975, the first season girls were allowed to join Little League, and my town hadn’t yet updated their supplies to include uniforms that would fit an 8-year-old girl who barely came up to the chin of the other players. I’m swimming in way too many yards flannel, with scruffy sneakers and a couple of uneven pigtails sticking out from my red baseball cap. Hilarious and adorable.
And then there are the images that are not so cute. Let’s talk about that bridesmaid dress from 1984. I was 16, and my cousin was marrying a girl I had only met a couple of times. She seemed perfectly nice, but we had nothing in common, so I was surprised when she asked me to be in her wedding party. I guess I was also a bit flattered—until she sent a picture of the “dress” she wanted me to wear. It was cranberry-colored. It was long-sleeved and high-necked. It had many layers of poufs and ruffles. It may have been appropriate for some steam-punk version of A Christmas Carol, but did I mention this wedding was in June? And there was a heat wave that week that sent temperatures into the 90s? And that she asked all the bridesmaids to match this cranberry horror show with white patent-leather pumps? I had no sense of fashion back then, but even I knew that this was blasphemy!
Wait, it gets worse. A few months before the wedding, I had gone to my mom’s hair salon and asked the stylist to simply trim the ends of my frizzed-out, shoulder-length perm. Somehow, she interpreted this as “Give me an even uglier version of Mary Lou Retton’s boy cut.” Maybe that look helped Mary Lou win Olympic gold, but it was a disaster on me, and it took all of senior year to grow out. I remember an older boy approaching me in the school library, staring quizzically at my head, and announcing, “You look like Yentl.” Fun times.
Well, that wedding turned out to be as successful as the dress was chic—after about three weeks, the couple called it quits, and I had presumed all photos of the sorry affair were tossed in the garbage heap of wedding disaster history. But no. In an old photo album stuck in a box under the “tool bench” that my father never used once, I found what must be the only remaining photo of that dress. I’m standing outside the catering hall, squinting into the midday sun, with a look on my face that says, “How long do I have to wear this hideous thing until I can change into gym shorts and sweat socks and forget this day happened?”
I’ve uncovered photos of me with my hair in a perfectly round bowl cut, in a granny dress, in a long denim skirt with the Frye boots that everyone had to have in sixth grade, in a bowtie, and in the requisite turtleneck and Fair-Isle sweater of junior high. The photos of my brother in his cowboy hat and bell-bottoms at an early-70s birthday party are pretty hilarious, too. And then there were the baggy pants and rainbow suspender years—a look that worked for a hairy-chested Robin Williams, but not so much for an awkward teenage girl.
As I stare at my younger self, in these unflattering hairdos and “what was I thinking?” outfits, however, I can’t help but smile. Because one fact comes up as clear as day and as indisputable as gravity: I look so much better at age 50 than I did at age 16.