People typically think of the 1980’s as a fashion blackhole: acid-wash jeans, teased hair, neon leg warmers. We think of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, David Bowie. It’s not a decade known for classic feminine silhouettes. I found this All That Jazz vintage dress for a couple of dollars at the Salvation Army and was surprised to learn that All That Jazz was started in 1981 in California.
In contrast to all the clichés about bad 80’s clothes, this dress is actually a perfect example of the resurgence of 1940’s dress styles that also dominated clothing design in the 1980’s. With its gorgeous peplum detailing on the back, this dress is a brilliant modern reinvention of those ‘slim’ dress styles of the war era.
It’s a fascinating history, those narrow styles. Born out of the textile rationing instituted by the American government, clothing manufacturers could only use so much fabric in preparing civilian clothing before the American military would come calling for its war uniforms.
What we consider to be a chic evening look (the slim waist-defining dress) was actually a necessary sacrifice of style to the “sober” necessities of war. This is now a well-known piece of fashion history, but it was Christian Dior who broke the silhouette, with the “New Look” girl, in 1947.
It’s kind of amazing, really. Standing in this beautiful auditorium, wearing a modern version of a dress that once defined the look of a war. Fashion seems ephemeral, inconsequential and yet we all wear this living history on our backs. It remembers for us, even when we forget or deny it. It’s an old second-wave feminist cliché to toss fashion into the bin with patriarchy, but there’s a tangible history here, a history of women’s bodies and their daily lives borne out by the cloth they wore.
But in a decade so notorious for its cocaine and money-fueled excesses, why would womenswear designers want to return to such severe silhouettes from an era of austerity? One answer might, in fact, lay in the most hated part of 80’s fashion: the shoulder-pad designs on the woman’s “power suit.” This too has its roots in the 1940’s which used the shoulder pad to balance out the “thin” profile of dresses made with less fabric.
Since that decade is also the same decade that saw women entering the factories by the thousands (forever changing the landscape of American labor), the 40’s shoulder pad is effectively a symbol, conscious or not, of women’s participation in the workforce.
That it ended up in the power suit is perhaps not surprising at all.The 1980’s likewise represented a major transformation in labor demographics. Between 1980 and 1985, the percentage of women holding full-time jobs increased dramatically in part due to the rise in “data” jobs and managerial positions.
Think of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, or those other countless examples of the wide-shouldered power executive. The look of the woman’s suit, football shoulders and all, wasn’t just a reference to the idea that women needed to look like men to make it in the workplace, it was also a direct reference to the history of American women’s labor. In effect, by borrowing from the 40’s look, the power suit was an homage to the factory workers, a kind of redoing, if you will, of Rosie the Riveter (and lest you think Rosie was white, take a look at this.)
Think about that the next time you angrily cut out the shoulder pads from a thrifted find! That’s really feminist history there, friends! Give it a good salute! Either way, keep your eye for these kinds of pieces. They are an interesting bit of sartorial history, criss-crossing two decades and ushering in major historical change on both ends.
Like a lot of vintage pieces, mine has a little bit of discoloration and wear (it loves to wrinkle too) but that’s not a reason to leave it behind. Vintage stores now price these reinvented dresses a little higher (according to a few online vintage experts) so it’s worth grabbing them if you find them.
**In case you are wondering how to style something that risks looking too “period,” I modernized this dress by removing the shoulder pads, adding leather ankle-strap heels, statement earrings, a gold belt and a navy jacket topper. **
Details: All That Jazz vintage dress circa 1980s, made in California (Salvation Army), vintage gold belt (Goodwill), black leather ankle-strap shoes (Emerson Fry), black triangle fringe earrings (Buffalo Exchange), Urban Decay Revolution Lipstick in F-Bomb.
Location: Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota campus
Photo credit: Marla Zubel. Thanks also to Marla for teaching me about the 1940’s influence on the 80s!