I have a sign in my shop explaining that the 1980s are vintage because 1980 was 40 years ago. People are shocked, just shocked about this. I try to explain in terms of automobiles since most people recognize that a 40 year old vehicle is a classic car.
With that in mind, let’s look at American cars and their sartorial counterparts through the decades. First up, the 1940s.
Cars and clothes from the 40s are practical yet stylish and both look great on film. They’re classic and classy- film dames like Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck exemplify this stylish maturity. They feel solid and grounded; both 1940s cars and and clothes (and the shoes!) are chunky and built to function. Both have wonderfully dramatic architecture and really stand out when it comes to accessories-hats and jewelry for the ladies, chrome and grilles for the cars.
In the 1950s, American fashion and automotive design were exuberant, bold, attention-seeking and fun. The skirts were wide and the cars were huge. Both were lush, rounded, curvy and colorful. The aesthetic was mirrored by Hollywood bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren.
Exaggerated proportions were 1950s design hallmarks. The sharp fins on cars, echoed by bullet bras and stiletto heels on ladies, are memorably and identifiably 1950s flourishes.
1960s design was all about the emerging youth culture. Proportions were lean and spare, more like Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy than the womanly ideal of the 1950s. The space age 60s were focused on the future and the visual cues were streamlined, aerodynamic and modern.
The 1970s aesthetic veered wildly from Studio 54 sparkle to hippie commune chic. For our purposes, picture the 1970s California cool portrayed by Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen: lithe, louche and languid. It’s nicely paralleled by the muscular minimalism of an early 70’s Chevy Chevelle.
Next, the 1980s. I’m picturing the more-is-more, big haired glamazon style of Kathleen Turner and Joan Collins. American made cars and clothing tended to be big and bold with lots of wild detail. Women wore boxy oversized shoulder pads and sported dramatic silhouettes while those big square gas guzzlers were designed to make an impression in the “greed is good” years.
After 1990, automobile design was no longer intertwined with fashion. Modern cars are much more generic looking and harder to pin down to an era.
Some might argue that the 1980s is the last decade of great stylish American made automobiles. It also marks the end of the American garment industry. By 1990, almost all clothing sold in the US was made elsewhere.