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Twenty-two-year-old Kelsie Todd loves patterns: polka dot sweaters, floral print dresses, Memphis style blouses that make her look like a geometric equation. She also loves shoulder pads, acid wash denim, chunky hair accessories, and classic Reeboks with the straps, getups that draw plenty of attention and even some compliments whenever she’s out and about.
“My mom hates it,” said Todd. She’s sardonic in her delivery over the phone, but a hint of exasperation seeps through. We’re halfway through our conversation, and it’s the first time she doesn’t sound chipper. “She’s like, ‘I’m over it. I never liked it in the first place. I want you to stop’ and I’m like, “No, I enjoy this! I’m going to wear what I like, and you’re just going to have to deal with it!’”
Todd isn’t arguing for her right to have a face tattoo or to dress like an I Am Gia model around the Detroit suburbs. Her personal style is less Dua Lipa and more Punky Brewster, and that’s what has her mother so perplexed.
“She doesn’t want to relive that time in her life,” Todd explained — “that time” being the 1980s when big hair and Day-Glo clothes ruled. It’s not that her mother hates everything ‘80s: She introduced her daughter to ET and The Goonies as a kid, and Def Leopard and The Bangles were the soundtracks of Todd’s childhood.
But there’s a difference between watching The Facts of Life and dressing like an extra from Degrassi Jr. High day in and day out, which is precisely what Todd does. And she has lots of company.
There’s an ‘80s community on Instagram and TikTok, dominated by Gen Z’ers who have such an affinity for the decade that they’ve decided to make the ‘80s part of their lifestyle. What begins as a cursory look into mom’s closet morphs into a harmless obsession with an era that was over nearly a decade before most of them were even conceived. Their clothes scream Pretty In Pink, their hair is straight out of Heathers, and even their bedrooms look like the set of Valley Girls.
The surface appeal of the ‘80s is obvious: the music was great and the fashion was out of control. But just as the ‘80s were marked by MTV, malls, and Madonna, they were also plagued by the nearly decade-long reign of President Reagan, the AIDS epidemic, and the last vestiges of Cold War paranoia. One of the most popular pop songs of the decade was “99 Luftballoons,” an upbeat pop song about nuclear annihilation. But the young members of the ‘80s community are savvy enough to acknowledge the era’s faults, and after interviewing several of them, it’s clear that their love of the ‘80s goes well beyond an affinity for Caboodles or synth. Coupled with their passion is a yearning for a time when adolescence was synonymous with freedom. Less meticulously curating feeds, more hanging out with your friends at the food court.
“It was kind of like the last decade before social media, cell phones...internet,” explained Anja Arvesen, a 19-year-old who goes by @offbrandpollypocket on Instagram. “Obviously it’s easy to romanticize something that you never experienced. But it sounds nice, in theory, the way people interacted.”
There have never been more ways than now to interact with friends, family, and strangers. But for a generation whose lives have been dominated by social media and smartphones — and the hypervisibility and hyper-curation that has come with it — it’s not a leap to understand the appeal of a more analog past. The carefree sheen of the 80s represents a pre-algorithm fantasy marked by spontaneity and authenticity, in comparison to someone born in 2002, who can be GPS-tracked by their parents and has had their biggest adolescent milestones snatched away from them by a global pandemic.
“I get this nostalgia for a decade I never really lived in,” Todd said. “It’s really weird, but it’s just that feeling it gives me. It makes me feel warm.”
Clementine is a New Kids on the Block megafan. She owns band shirts, cassettes, posters, and even action figures of the popular ‘80s boy band, kept pristine in their plastic box for over three decades.
She’s also 14 years old.
“The first time I heard about New Kids On The Block was from the movie It from 2017,” Clementine told Jezebel. “I listened to them whenever that movie came out—I was about nine or 10—but I wasn’t a superfan or anything. But when I started getting into the ‘80s a couple of years ago, I started listening to them again and got really into their music.”
As Clementine (@clemmyelizabeth), who preferred to have her last name withheld, provided me with an inventory of her New Kids on the Block merch, I heard her mother chuckling in the background.
“My mom was a fan of them in sixth grade!” Clementine added with haste. “And then she decided that she hated them and she gave away a New Kids on the Block CD in college as a joke.”
But it’s what Clementine’s mother held onto—a litany of clothes and accessories—that provided the catalyst for Clementine’s fascination with all things ‘80s, from Cabbage Patch Dolls, to Labyrinth, to Tears for Fears. It didn’t take long for her to find others who shared her interest. With a click of a few social media tags and follows, she fell into the ‘80s community with ease.
For Arvesen, it began with “decade day” during spirit week at her high school. Arvesen chose the ‘80s out of convenience: All she had to do was dig up the clothes her mom wore as a teenager.
“I wore it to school and stuff, and I was talking to my friends and I was like, ‘I really like this, maybe I should just like this more,’” she said. “From there it escalated into, like, ‘Okay, I really, really like this and I’m only going to dress like this.’ So it became like my whole thing.”
Arvesen’s entire Instagram account is a homage to 80s fashion, from bold blushes and eyeshadows to her deliciously tacky sweaters emblazoned with kittens and butterflies. She also shares her pop culture influences, from stills of cult classics like Sleepaway Camp and The Last American Virgin to photos of the one ‘80s celebrity nearly every single person I interviewed cited as an influence: singer Debbie Gibson.
“Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, Samantha Fox,” said 21-year-old Violet Sky after I asked about her biggest style inspirations.
In Sky’s case, it was the 1985 film Girls Just Want To Have Fun that turned her into an ‘80s obsessive. “I heard the soundtrack and listened to all the synthesizers in the music, and I was like, this is really cool,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t have my own personal style, and I was like, you know what? I really like all the fashion in this, and I just figured, why don’t I just do that? And then it kind of just snowballed.”
Snowballed is an understatement: Sky (also known as @glitterwave80s) has amassed a following of over 200,000 TikTok followers and nearly 35,000 Instagram followers thanks to her authentic approach to ‘80s aesthetics, right down to her hair that screams queen of the mall rats: hair curled, bangs straight, with a whole lot of hold. She’s a walking can of Aqua Net (if only Aqua Net worked in her hair).
Sky has collaborated with retro brands like Trapper Keeper and even released two singles, “Heartbeat Away” and “What’s a Girl To Do.” If the songs sound like they’re straight out of the 1980s, it’s because they technically are. After discovering a little-known ‘80s band Shy Talk, Sky befriended the band’s keyboardist, David Bravo. Bravo dug up some music he wrote and produced in the ‘80s but never used and offered them to Sky. “Heartbeat Away” was one of them.
While Sky is extending her ‘80s flair into another arena, most of the other visible players in this community are content with just showing off their outfit of the day or their burgeoning collections of ‘80s memorabilia.
The people I spoke to raved about the community they’ve cultivated, one that has increased dramatically since 2020 thanks to pandemic boredom. From the United States to Ukraine, there’s an endless stream of young people living and breathing everything ‘80s, encouraged by Gen Xers and young Baby Boomers who lived through it in both the comment sections and out in the wild.
“I absolutely love the community,” said Jessie, @80sretrobeat on Instagram. Jessie is a millennial who has been an ‘80s enthusiast since childhood thanks to her older siblings. “I’ve met so many great people through it, I’ve made best friends through it.”
While TikTok is a slightly more combative environment for their hobby, the community also has a Discord channel where they discuss all things the ‘80s. Overwhelmingly, the community is made up of women and many of the most visible personalities were white. So, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Ricky Jordan (@radicalrickyy), a 20-year-old Black man who is the king of a good color block moment.
While he hasn’t felt any less welcome in the community, some of his influences differ: a little less Debbie Gibson, a little more Janet Jackson and Prince.
“I feel like a lot of the Black people that contribute to the ‘80s really don’t get their shine,” Jordan said, noting the massive impact that streetwear had on the ‘80s and beyond. “Roxanne Shanté, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte... I feel like those girls really paved the way when it came to fashion: Acid-washed jeans, the Nike high tops, the leather jacket, the bamboo hoop earrings.”
He doesn’t hesitate to incorporate their contributions into his own look, which he described with an arresting preciseness of a true fashion curator.
“I’ll wear a pair of Gecko Hawaii pants, which is part of ‘80s California culture, and then I’ll wear a Def Leppard t-shirt, for some ‘80s rock culture, and then I’ll wear a Nike equipment windbreaker, which is part of ‘80s urban streetwear culture,” Jordan said. “I just mix it and make it my own.”
Grace Chan (@gracemarian), a Chinese-American woman in her 40s who peppers the word “rad” into her sentences just as seamlessly as I pepper in the word “like” as a sentence filler. Chan is the ultimate ‘80s pop culture collector, amassing a collection so large that even her boyfriend’s home has become inundated with memorabilia. Her most prized collections: her Jem collectibles (“I am one doll short of getting all of them, and we’re talking maybe 30 plus dolls, in the box unopened,” she said) and a commissioned portrait of herself from the late James Mathewuse, the artist of the original Sweet Valley High book covers.
But when I asked about her influences, her answer was telling.
“Claudia Kishi, fictional character from the Baby-Sitter’s Club,” Chan said. “To see a fellow Asian-American plastered on the cover of these books that I absolutely adore and cherish was monumental to me.”
Considering the typical media portrayal of Asian-Americans in the ‘80s—Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles remains one of the worst offenders, occupying the role of the clueless and passive foreigner—it’s no wonder Chan latched onto Kishi.
“She was artsy, she was quirky, she was so stylish, she was outspoken,” Chan said. “She was freakin’ rad as fuck.”
Despite the influences, or how and when they came into their ‘80s lifestyle, the one constant wasn’t so much their love of acrylic sweaters or their Depop finds, but rather the wistfulness they all have for the decade and its youth culture.
“You could have big hair and nobody would judge you for it... you could wear the craziest, brightest colored clothing, and everything was really over the top,” Sky said. “I feel like, in this generation, it’s very minimalistic. Everything has to be perfect and airbrushed.”
“You actually went to the mall, you hung out with friends,” explained Jessie, whose last name has been withheld. “You socialized with people. I feel like it was a time when people were finally able to be themselves.”
“They will never know just the absolute freedom you know, that we had as kids growing up during this time,” Chan said, referring to Zoomers. “We were untethered. You know, we didn’t have phones to be reached, we had the street lamps to tell us it’s time to go back home... We had a sense of wonder, of imagination, of play, and that’s sorely missing from kids of today.”
Though the ’80s were a nightmare politically—a point many were willing to contend—the cultural and political climate then was no more sinister than what young Millennials and Zoomers have been acquainted with for most of their lives.
“There’s the dark side of the ‘80s... Reagan, trickle-down economics, the cocaine crisis... rampant racism,” Chan said. “There was so much nastiness, but that’s a given with any decade! We have that crap now!”
Gen Z is, indeed, all too familiar with political strife, existential threats, and government incompetence. There have always been teens who are convinced they were born in the wrong decade, but there’s a difference between lusting over vintage clothes and longing for something as simple as socializing—touching—freely without the looming threat of a highly contagious disease. This has already become an obsolete luxury, one taken for granted, and something as simple as watching an old ‘80s teen movie reminds them of what they’ve been deprived of.
Who could fault their reluctance to take off those rose-colored glasses?
To an extent, I empathize with Todd’s mother: It’s unsettling to see the era that raised you make a comeback. As a child of the 2000s, Y2K revival has left me both nostalgic and dreading the return of low-rise bootcut jeans worn underneath knee-length skirts. It’s one thing to listen to The Strokes and early Beyonce; it’s another to dress like Ashley Tisdale on a red carpet circa 2006.
Vintage styles and trends are always reinventing themselves. The cool kids are wearing mullets again, so it’s only a matter of time before the ‘80s have a full-fledged return, complete with slouch socks and kitten heels. And the ‘80s community will be there, waiting...hopefully, with minimal gatekeeping. After all, isn’t not giving a fuck part of that ‘80s appeal?
“The only people who like are not the nicest are older women who are like, ‘that’s not exactly how we did our hair, so you’re fake, it’s not giving ‘80s right now,’” Clementine said. “I dress like this because it makes me happy, not to please 40-year-olds.”
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