The 1980s in movies – that I watched for pop culture detail…

Part of my new novel, so-far called “The Forest Dark,” takes place in 1984 Los Angeles – in the summer of the Olympics, and the following fall and winter. My writing group was continually reminding me to add authentic touches of 80s flavor to my descriptions and characters, and of course they were right – but how to channel the 80s back into my head quickly? Of course, I lived through the era but remembering how one thought back then was a bit more challenging! The power of the movies to the rescue – I watched and made notes on the following classics (or classics wannabes):

Less than Zero

Robert Downey, Jr., in "Less than Zero"

Desperately Seeking Susan

Robert Joy and Madonna in "Desperately Seeking Susan"

Wall Street

Michael Douglas in "Wall Street"

Bright Lights Big City

Michael J. Fox in "Bright Lights Big City"

Slaves of New York

Bernadette Peters in "Slaves of New York"

Themes of that decade certainly included drug use (often cocaine) – please see stills of Robert Downey, Jr. and Michael J. Fox.

Here are some of the notes I took on just a few things:


In General: looser tops and tighter bottoms for both men and women.

Men: power suits, as people started to show off their wealth; oddly, this was newly fashionable.

Women – shoulder pads in dresses, red suits. Madonna’s influence: bustiers, lace, underwear as outerwear, dangly earrings

Big Hair, Spiky hair, oddly colored hair: blue, cranberry, etc.

Leggings, the “pirate” look, streaky eyeliner

Miniskirts –  tight ones

Headbands! Baggy sweaters. Baggy sweaters off the shoulder.

Acid washed denim!

Skinny leather ties for men.

Dancewear as fashion. (see Jane Fonda, Flashdance, etc.)

Miami Vice – the Don Johnson look, T-shirts under suit coats, pleated pants (see Rick Astley’s “Together Forever” video for a  good illustration of this:)

Hawaiian Shirts –  Tom Selleck

Members Only! (I still wear mine!)

Jim Arnold and Members Only.

Tom Selleck imitators – straight guys with moustaches

Raybans, aviators, leather jackets, Doc Martens


Lofts, warehouse parties

Popular NY Club: Odeon. LA, Revolver

Video walls in bars. Every happening bar had a video wall!

Obsession with getting an MBA…

Designer Vodka

CDs were just being invented, so it’s still albums, LPs. CDs are a new fangled invention.

Downtown Art scenes – names like Slash, Stash, etc.

Hairstyles where part of the head is shaved. (see: Flock of Seagulls, Echo and the Bunnymen –  please tell me, what is a Bunny Man?)

NY art scene – egomaniac artists – PERFORMANCE ART got really popular.  see Laurie Anderson

Putting Graffiti on jackets, like at a party with silver or gold pens

Coiffures that were amazing – gel, mousse dreams, etc

Designer sheets. (lyrics to “Call Me,” by Blondie)

Hard Rock Café – in LA

Telephone answering machines – the very height of modernity.

Girls with a lot of white powder on their faces.

Gaudy, glittery jewelry

In LA, the Park Plaza for events and dances and concerts.

Pastels –  pastel sweaters slung over shoulders. Preppy look.

Reflective surfaces like marble, glass,  mirrors.

A huge focus was on material success and the price paid for it. A theme that runs through all of these films.

Karen Voight – high impace aerobics.

Drug testing at work. Peeing into a cup.

Suspenders – greasy hair. See: Michael Douglas. ’nuff said.

Computer monitors were that greenish color – no graphics, no photos, just text. Ick.

“The Art of War,” Sun Tzu. In LA, CAA/ICM wars. Ovitz.

Words/phrases like “bimbette”, “kicking ass and taking names”

Conspicuous consumption

In “Wall Street,” they have a sushi machine and a pasta machine that they use to make a dinner for two!

Portable phones were ENORMOUS.

Miniblinds, very thin.

Faux wall finishes

Still lots of smoking — on screen, anyway.

Printed Personal Ads in papers for hook-ups, romance etc. You’d pick them up at the newspaper office or they’d mail them to you. Yes, mail, like in an envelope with stamps on it.

Vanity license plates – had just started them

80s bands, kind of a post-punk look, much spiky hair.

Girls wore colorful “rag” bows in their hair.

Designer water just beginning to be a fad: Perrier and Evian were the first big ones.

Caftans –  and not just for gay men. Everyone seemed to have one. (check out crushed velvet angel, gotta wear it, gotta have one)

Mr. T – I once saw him at the Venice Muscle Beach thing.

Gloves with no fingers (Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan”) – honey, don’t your fingers get cold?


~ by jimarnoldla on May 15, 2010.

One Response to “The 1980s in movies – that I watched for pop culture detail…”

  1. This sounds like a totally awesome assignment for yourself! You might also want to watch “The Breakfast Club” and “The Big Chill” again. Neither one of them is in LA, of course, but they’re both quintessentially ’80s and totally worth repeated viewings.

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