A 1980s Childhood: From He-Man to Shell Suits

A 1980s Childhood: From He-Man to Shell Suits

by Michael A. Johnson


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Rev up the DeLorean, switch on the Flux Capacitor, and take a cruise back through the decade that made you the person you are today

Anyone who remembers trying to solve a Rubik's Cube while dressed in their He-Man picture pajamas, or trying to make "cool" sound effects with their mouth like Jones from Police Academy is definitely a child of the 1980s. This amusing and entertaining collection of reminiscences will jog the memories of all who grew up in the same decade where greed was good and mullets were cool.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752463377
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael A. Johnson is the creator of the nostalgia website DoYouRemember.co.uk, which allows people from all over the world to share their favorite memories of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He is also the owner and director of a successful digital media agency.

Read an Excerpt

A 1980s Childhood

From He-Man to Shell Suits

By Michael A. Johnson

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Michael A. Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7891-3



Usually, the introduction to a book like this would include some kind of preamble giving an overview of the political and socio-economic developments of the 1980s, perhaps comparing how radically different the decade was from the seventies and summarising how the eighties came to influence life in the nineties and beyond. There may also be some sort of tedious discussion regarding the state of foreign affairs, industry, commerce and finance, along with some dates and figures presented in a neat chart. There may even be a pie chart or a Venn diagram.

But this is not that sort of book. There are no pie charts to be found here, and definitely no Venn diagrams. If you want hard facts, analysis and political commentary then you've bought the wrong book. If you want a light-hearted stroll down memory lane filled with frivolous comments and juvenile banter, rejoice! This is the book you've been looking for.

This is a book about the 1980s the way I saw it when I was there, busy being a kid. It's a collection of the things I remember best about the eighties through the eyes of a child who was 3 years old when the decade began and 13 years old when it ended; a child who laughed at the Spitting Image puppets because they had funny faces, not because I understood the political satire. Within these pages you'll be transported back to a time when shell suits were cool, Dave Lee Travis was the hairy face of Radio One and Agadoo was number two in the charts; a time when the must-have Christmas present was a Big Trak or a Rubik's Cube, and a time when white dog poos littered the streets like confetti.

This book is an unashamedly biased collection of the things that I remember, the way I remember them and, because there's nowhere near enough space for me to catalogue everything from the eighties, I've selected the things that I found most memorable or meant something special to me.

Now I like to think that I had a fairly normal childhood, except for that whole third nipple thing, and so I suspect that my recollections of childhood in the eighties are going to be pretty similar to those of most other people who grew up in that era. If you're a child of the eighties yourself, you're probably going to remember most of the same stuff as me and will be doing a lot of nodding, grinning and cringing as you read through some of the memories that we share. If you were an adult in the eighties, well, chances are you'll still remember the same stuff, but you might not be able to identify as easily with wearing He-Man picture pyjamas or trying to play the theme tune to The Flumps on your school recorder. Of course, if you weren't even born in the eighties, then you're about to learn just how many cool things you missed out on.

I suppose it might be useful if I share a little bit of background about who I am and where I came from before we get on with things. My name is Michael Johnson and I was born in 1977 at Bournemouth Hospital in Dorset. I was the second of three noisy and excitable blonde-haired little boys and, along with our mum and dad, three cats and a dog, we all lived happily together in a bungalow in a quiet residential area just outside the market town of Wimborne Minster.

Given that I was only 3 years old in January 1980, I'm a bit too young to have any interesting memories of the seventies (unless you consider my memory of doing a poo on the floor behind the sofa as interesting), but rather conveniently for the purposes of writing a book about the eighties, my memory started to function pretty well from 1980 onwards. In fact, I have one of those memories that is great at storing useless trivia from the past and, for some reason, I can more easily remember the registration plate of my dad's Datsun Bluebird from twenty-five years ago than I can remember what I was doing this time yesterday.

This bizarre memory for nostalgic trivia came in very handy in 2004 when I launched a retro website called www.DoYouRemember.co.uk which attempted to catalogue pretty much everything I could remember from the eighties into a series of neatly arranged articles. In fact, I got so carried away with the project that I decided to include everything I remembered from the nineties as well, and also began researching the seventies for good measure. Well, to cut a long story short, the website became hugely popular and I found myself filling my brain with even more eighties trivia and am now a kind of virtual museum curator of a glorious online museum of eighties antiquities.

I am also the married father of two little girls who tolerate my passion for eighties pop culture and who occasionally join me in watching reruns of Back to the Future or old episodes of Fraggle Rock on YouTube, never mocking me when I wear my A-Team t-shirt and always ignoring me when I tell them that the music today isn't a patch on the music of the eighties.

So anyway, that's enough about me; time for some eighties big hair and legwarmers as we dive headlong into the embarrassing world of eighties fashion. Enjoy!



At the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1979, millions of people joyously celebrated the end of the 1970s and the arrival of the 1980s. At the precise moment Big Ben tolled for midnight, every man around the world ripped off his flared trousers and his platform shoes, slipped on a pair of grey, flecked trousers, a pastel-coloured pair of espadrilles and rolled up the sleeves of his beige jacket. Meanwhile, the womenfolk used a variety of household objects to improvise shoulder pads in their tops and then cut the fingers off their lace gloves before stepping into some pink legwarmers.

The only people who didn't take part in this synchronised global fashion shift were the Chinese, whose new year didn't start until a few weeks later, and the French, who are always a few years behind.

Sadly, it would take a few months before the mullets and big hair would appear and in the first quarter of the year the hairdressing industry nearly collapsed as the entire nation started growing their hair long. The industry was only saved by a sudden and unprecedented demand for hairspray.

Well OK, I've exaggerated that slightly, but there really was an explosion in the pace of fashion shifts in the early eighties, largely driven by the ever-increasing influence of pop culture. Music and movies had certainly had an impact on the fashion trends of previous decades, but it wasn't until the eighties that it really gathered momentum to the point where virtually all fashion trends were now inspired by pop stars, TV shows or movies.

When Madonna burst on to the music scene in 1983 her outrageous dress sense caused a sensation which inspired as many as it outraged. Madonna was certainly to blame for a sharp increase in the number of horrified fathers telling their daughters, 'You're not going out dressed like that!'

In the early days, Madonna often wore short skirts over leggings with fishnet gloves, rubber bracelets, bows in her messy, bleached-blonde hair (with dark roots), as well as headbands, long strings of beads and lace ribbons. But as she moved into her 'Like a Virgin' phase, she clearly felt that her accessories were the most important part of her outfit and began ditching her clothing, bit by bit, until she was left in just her underwear along with some long lace gloves, a few bracelets and a Boy Toy belt. Alarmingly for parents, this actually inspired many young girls to start wearing bustiers or brassieres as outer garments, often accompanied by some large crucifix necklaces.

While this particular fashion trend was fairly extreme and limited mainly to attention-seekers, Madonna's influence was widespread and women of all ages began wearing short, tight, lycra miniskirts and tubular dresses, along with bolero-style jackets and lace gloves, often with the fingers chopped off. As for the new trend of wearing legwarmers as a fashion accessory, we can't blame Madonna this time, but pop culture is guilty again with inspiration inevitably drawn from the new genre of dance films such as Fame (1980), Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1987). Around the time Flashdance hit the box offices, teenage girls around the world that had never previously been interested in dance started buying legwarmers to wear over their leggings, jeans or tights.

Flashdance also gave rise to the ripped sweatshirt look that turned an ordinary grey sweatshirt into a fashion classic. Jennifer Beals, the lead actress in Flashdance, famously wore a grey sweatshirt with a large neck hole on the poster advertising the film and the large neck hole meant that the sweatshirt could slip down to show one bare shoulder. This was a fairly easy do-it-yourself fashion and many perfectly good sweatshirts were ripped up to emulate the look. Apparently, Beals said that the ripped sweatshirt look was a complete accident and came about when her sweatshirt shrank in the wash and she had to cut a large hole at the top so she could get it on again. Sounds a little unlikely to me, since the sweatshirt looked extremely baggy and I don't remember her head being especially oversized. A close cousin of the Flashdance sweatshirt was the Batwing jumper, which took the bagginess of the grey sweater and accentuated the effect under the arms to create a garment that looked like it might have the aerodynamic properties required for freefall gliding.

This new fashion of wearing sports clothing as casual clothing was partly inspired by the dance films and partly by the rather random eighties craze for aerobics. For some reason, the world went aerobics crazy in the mid-1980s with vast numbers of women (and men) buying Jane Fonda workout videos. In the UK we were treated to daily doses of the Green Goddess, who was clearly made of rubber, stretching and prancing about on BBC1's Breakfast Time almost every day between 1983 and 1987.

If you were a child in the eighties there's a pretty good chance you will remember the shameful sight of your mum standing in front of the telly, probably still in her nightie and without her make-up on, trying in vain to keep up with the Green Goddess as she danced effortlessly around the studio shouting words of encouragement to the viewers at home. You may also remember seeing women dressed in full aerobic outfits, often in neon colours, out walking the dog or doing the shopping. Olivia Newton-John didn't help matters with her music video to Let's Get Physical, which featured her dancing around in legwarmers, sweatbands and all the rest of it while doing aerobics with a bunch of sweaty, drooling men. But it wasn't long before this bizarre fashion got out of hand and a new trend evolved in the form of nylon waterproof trousers and matching jacket – the shell suit. Originally designed as outdoor sportswear, people (who obviously were not doing any sports) started wearing them out everywhere they went.

Shell suits really hit it off in the mid-1980s and it was around that time that fluorescent materials were at the peak of their popularity. This meant that all manner of garish colours and fluorescent strips were thrown together and it didn't even matter if they clashed; in fact, if they did clash that was all the better! It's an odd fact to get your head around, but the most iconic figure to sport a shell suit in the eighties was probably Jimmy Savile, enjoying a spot in the limelight for a respectable amount of time due to the popularity of Jim'll Fix It. It was very rare to spot Jim without his beloved shell suit and infamous gold chains. In fact, to his dying day he still loved the swishing sound of his nylon attire and the baggy freedom that it gave him.

Although various manufacturers created different shell suits, the principle of the design was always basically the same: the lightweight top featured a small, rounded collar with a full zip down the centre; arms were generally puffy and it was preferable to have a shell suit that was slightly too big than have the elasticated wrists riding halfway up the forearm. If you wanted to ride the sleeves up on purpose, though, that was OK. The arms might feature brightly coloured strips down the side of them, and it was also possible to find plenty of jackets with fluorescent arrow-like computer-generated designs down the front.

Of course, unless you wanted it to look like you were just wearing a nylon jacket then you simply had to have the matching bottoms to complete the image. Based on the design of a jogging pant, the loose trousers always featured an elasticated waistband with elastic around the ankles. Team this up with a pair of ultra-white socks and chunky white Reebok or Nike's with the tongue out and you had the look! White sock fear just didn't exist in those days; in fact, Michael Jackson had made it positively fashionable to show off your white socks so it was preferable to hitch your trousers up slightly and puff the bottom of the nylon out like an eighties' Aladdin. The beauty of separates is that you can mix and match, so if you wanted to wear the top with jeans (stonewash only, please) or don the bottoms with a jumper, that was fine too.

Even though a shell suit-donned figure was more likely to be seen browsing the shelves of C&A or John Menzies than tearing around a hurdle track, the shell suit's roots were firmly in the sportswear section. The elasticated waists and forgiving movement of the baggy bottoms were perfect for outdoor activities. Kris Akabusi for one loved them very much as he was able to lunge and run to his heart's content without the fear of chafing.

At the same time that some people were dressed as Madonna and others were dressed as aerobics instructors, another group of people were dressed like characters from Dallas or Dynasty in a new fashion dubbed 'power dressing'. Power dressing was characterised by women wearing shoulder pads in their dresses, showing off their ostentatious jewellery and styling their hair to make it as large as possible without it collapsing under its own weight.

The origins of power dressing are fairly clear and can, in large part, be attributed to the American soap opera Dynasty which was watched by over 250 million viewers. One of the main characters was played by actress Linda Evans, whose naturally broad shoulders gave the Dynasty costume designer, Nolan Miller, the idea of emphasising them with small shoulder pads. She then decided that every other actress had to be shoulder-padded with even bigger pads to match Linda and consequently the shoulder pad war began.

The shoulder pad became an iconic status symbol that represented both power and wealth, and the size of the shoulder pad seemed to correlate directly with the social status of the wearer. The bigger the shoulder pad, the more money you had, and the eighties was definitely a time for shouting about how much money you had (remember the Harry Enfield character 'Loadsamoney'?). Dresses were available with Velcro shoulder pads that could be removed or replaced with different-sized pads. I wonder whether women carried a range of shoulder pads in their handbag for different social occasions.

I don't want to overanalyse the whole power dressing thing, but there was a lot more to it than just copying the characters from Dynasty. The 'equality for women' movement actually had quite a lot to do with it, with women playing an increasingly important role in business but still feeling the need to power dress to gain the respect of their male colleagues. You only have to look at the 1980 film Nine to Five with Dolly Parton to get a taste of the sexism, bigotry and chauvinism that was still standard fare in many workplaces for much of the eighties.

I'm sure no one would like to think that Mrs Thatcher in any way inspired their fashion sense, but at that time, Mrs T was a leading example of a very ballsy woman power-dressing to gain respect in the almost entirely male world of politics. There is no doubt that her daily appearances on television dressed in power suits reinforced this particular trend. A more appealing ambassador for power dressing, perhaps, was the Princess of Wales, who had to overcome similar challenges as a member of the royal family, and I think we'd all prefer to think that we got our inspiration from Princess Di than from Mrs T.

Power dressing wasn't such a big thing for men, except for uncool yuppies, although many men still had some padding in their shoulders. Instead, an alternative fashion emerged that was way cooler since it was inspired by the American TV series Miami Vice. Leading man Don Johnson teamed expensive Armani jackets with casual t-shirts and a few days' beard growth to create a look that told the world you had plenty of money but were still cool with it. It didn't take long before men everywhere were wearing pastel-coloured t-shirts under their expensive designer jackets (or in most cases, their cheap imitation designer jackets).


Excerpted from A 1980s Childhood by Michael A. Johnson. Copyright © 2012 Michael A. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


One Introduction,
Two Fashion,
Three Music,
Four TV and Movies,
Five Toys and Games,
Six Technology,
Seven Famous People,
Eight World Events,
Nine Street Life,
Ten Skool Daze,

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