10 Awesome Fads of the 1980s

Madonna, circa 1984 -- pushing the limits of bracelet wearing.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

"The question isn't 'What are we going to do?' The question is, 'What aren't we going to do?'" said Ferris Bueller to Sloane and Cameron at the start of their joyride in Cameron's dad's Ferrari in the 1986 movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

But this quote could also easily apply to that decade's fads, which weren't exactly constrained by much of anything at all. From shoulder pads to boomboxes, the crazes of the 1980s pushed the limits of style and technology in a way that had rarely been seen before. Now, with the growing popularity of '80s-inspired parties and clothing, one has to wonder: Is the decade making a comeback?


Before you bust out your Madonna cassettes and neon spandex, read through our list of 1980s fads that helped define the generation that just wanted its MTV.

10: "Valspeak"

A 1980s stock photo. The caption reads: "Five friends smiling, wearing sweaters and eyeglasses."
Maria Taglienti-Molinari/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Did you, like, realize that in the '80s, like, everyone totally got pulled into this thing called Valspeak? Seriously!

The term Valspeak was used to describe a way of talking that combined 1960s surfer slang, hippie lingo and black street jargon. It originated in southern California's San Fernando Valley, and gained national attention in 1982 when Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit came out with the song "Valley Girl," lampooning the fad.


Valspeak talkers tended to raise their inflection at the end of a sentence, making a declarative statement sound more like a question. The elongation of words and phrases like "totally" and "for sure" also characterized the dialect. Notable Valspeak words include "skanky" (gross), "rad" (excellent), "geek" (weird) and "rolf" (vomit). Perhaps the most lasting effect of Valspeak is the proliferation of the word "like" in everyday speech -- just ask any high school English teacher.

Like, whatever!

9: The Walkman

Though the technology looks ancient to us today, the Sony Walkman was the iPod of its time. When it was introduced to the Japanese market in 1979, magnetic cassette technology had been around for 16 years. Sony expected to sell only about 5,000 units a month, but after selling 50,000 in the first two months it knew it was on to something. Consumers loved the privacy offered by the Walkman's headphones and the convenient power source supplied by its two AA batteries, but most of all, they loved the portability. Cassette tapes made it possible to listen to music on-the-go in a way that vinyl albums simply couldn't.

Sony introduced the Walkman in the United States in June 1980, and other companies like Aiwa, Panasonic and Toshiba soon came out with their own models. While many people still preferred to listen to vinyl albums in their homes, the popularity of these portable cassette devices undoubtedly helped tapes outsell records for the first time in 1983. Cementing its place in audio history, "Walkman" entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986. Sony still uses the term to brand its MP3 players, but none have enjoyed the success of the original cassette player.


8: Home Video Game Systems

Is this what your den looked like in the early '80s?
Dennis/Hallinan/Getty Images

Given their boxy graphics and simple interface, it might be hard to remember just how revolutionary home video game consoles were in the 1980s. When the decade began, the Odyssey was still game console No. 1. But it didn't take long for the Atari 2600 to take over the market, with games like "Space Invaders," "Breakout," "Missile Command" and "Combat." Mattel released a competing system in 1980 called Intellivision, which boasted slightly better graphics than its older counterpart and featured the first synthesized voices in video games. Coleco jumped into the fray as well, releasing the Colecovision in 1982. These consoles featured interchangeable game cartridges, which meant players weren't stuck with the games that came preloaded on earlier systems. They were a big hit -- perhaps too big.

By 1983, the once unstoppable video game industry fell onto hard times. A glut of new gaming systems and low-quality, unlicensed cartridges turned off consumers and opened the door for personal computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64 to gain a foothold in the market. Then, the home video game industry rebounded in 1985, thanks to Nintendo, a Japanese company that originally manufactured playing cards. It released the Nintendo Entertainment System with legendary games like "Super Mario Bros.," "Metroid" and "The Legend of Zelda," and licensed other high-quality games including "Contra," "Final Fantasy" and "Techmo Super Bowl." Nintendo's final success of the decade was the Game Boy, released in 1989. The first major handheld gaming system, the Game Boy opened up exciting new possibilities for the video game industry as the 1980s came to a close.


7: Cabbage Patch Kids

Cabbage Patch Kids have made a come-back in recent years. Here's one displayed at the Toy Industry Association & Toy Wishes Holiday Preview show in October 2004.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It seems like every Christmas season has its "must-have" toy. In 1983, it was Cabbage Patch Kids.

The dolls, originally known as Little People, were invented in the late 1970s by art student and Georgia native Xavier Roberts. Initially, they were handmade and sold from BabyLand General, a flagship store in Cleveland, Ga., where children could witness the "birthing" process before signing the adoption papers and receiving the doll's birth certificate. After Roberts appeared on the television show "Real People" to promote his creation in 1980, sales spiked, catching the attention of toy manufacturer Coleco. The company began mass-producing the dolls in 1982 under the name Cabbage Patch Kids, selling them for between $20 and $40 each (though the handmade dolls from BabyLand had sold for about $125).


Demand was so high during Christmas 1983 that stores across the nation were running out of the dolls. In some locations parents even became violent in an effort to get their hands on one of the few dolls still in stock. By the end of 1983, stores had sold more than 3 million Cabbage Patch Kids, and many orders remained unfilled. Sales of the dolls peaked in 1985 before falling, along with Coleco's fortunes. In 1988, the company filed for bankruptcy, but since then toy manufacturers like Hasbro, Mattel, Toys "R" Us, and Play Along Kids have carried on the brand. BabyLand General still produces the dolls for a new generation of Cabbage Patch Kids fans.

6: Rubik's Cube

Rarely does a toy command the wide appeal and lasting popularity of the Rubik's Cube. Invented by Hungarian Professor Erno Rubik in 1974, the six-sided, multicolored puzzle was originally known as the Magic Cube. It was imported to the United States by the Ideal Toy Company in 1980, and launched at a Hollywood party hosted by Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The Rubik's Cube became an instant sensation, enjoying popularity among the young and old in many countries. The fad was so inescapable, in fact, that a popular collectable during the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana was a Rubik's Cube emblazoned with the royal couple's image. In the three decades since the toy first hit the shelves, more than 350 million units have been sold. Why? According to Rubik himself, "People like its beauty, simplicity and form. It's really not a puzzle or a toy. It's a piece of art."


5: Swatch Watches

Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall poses for a photograph with two teenaged girls in 1986. Notice the Swatch on the girl's wrist.
Tom Gates/Getty Images

If you wanted to know what time it was in the 1980s, you probably got your information from a Swatch watch.

In the late 1970s, the Swiss watch company Swatch struggled to sell its fine watches, thanks to competition from digital watchmakers in Japan. To stay profitable, the company needed to make a more practical, inexpensive watch. The resulting prototype, completed in 1981, contained fewer components and came in a standard size and shape so it could be assembled entirely by robot.


Designers decided to make the watches more appealing by varying the color and design of the dial and straps. The new Swatches went on sale in 1983 for $35 each, and were an instant success. By 1987, Swatch had produced more than 10 million watches, some of which even had scented bands. Swatches had been made in more than 500 different styles by 1992, including the "Jellyfish," which was completely transparent, and the "Mozart" which featured lace cuffs on the straps. Many people chose to wear several styles at once, loading as many as six Swatches on their wrists at the same time.

Though the designs have changed throughout the years, Swatch continues to produce an inexpensive line of plastic watches; sales totaled $333 million as of 2006. Today, the 1980s styles are making a comeback thanks to Swatch's new Color Codes collection.

4: Hair Metal Bands

Motley Crue in 1985
Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

If '70s bands had long hair, then '80s bands had big hair. At least that was the style for hair metal bands, whose flamboyant fashion and hard rock sound emerged from the music scene on the Los Angeles Strip. Groups like Van Halen, Twisted Sister, Motley Crue and Def Leppard rocked the 1980s with more power chords and monster ballads than you could wave a Bic lighter at. And while their extensive use of spandex, hairspray and makeup may have suggested femininity, don't be fooled: In the end it was all about raunchy lyrics, freeflowing booze and backstage flings.

By the early 1990s, hair metal music lost much of its popularity thanks to the newly-minted grunge bands like Nirvana, and never really recovered. Today, many of these acts are limited to the stages of state fairs and casinos, but their epic guitar solos and in-your-face sexuality won't soon be forgotten. In fact, hair metal is currently the subject of a popular Broadway musical, "Rock of Ages," where scantily clad women walk the aisles selling drinks and each audience member gets a disposable flashlight to wave during the power ballads.


3: Preppies

Four UCLA students model the latest in college "preppy" fashion in this 1980 photo.
George Rose/Getty Images

While some kids were playing video games and others were rocking out to Poison, preppies were busy buying chinos, talking about sailboat races and checking on their stock portfolios. The tongue-in-cheek "Official Preppy Handbook," written by Ivy Leaguers in 1980, popularized the style that originated among wealthy New Englanders. Soon, young people all over the country were trying to look like the benefactors of "old money" even if they'd never even heard of a trust fund.

Preppy clothing included layered twin polos, Nantucket red canvas pants, deck shoes, ribbon belts and sweaters loosely tied about the neck -- all made by companies like Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, L.L. Bean and Brooks Brothers. Lifestyle was an important aspect of the preppy fad as well, so participation in sports like tennis and sailing had to at least be implied. While the preppy style hasn't always enjoyed the same level of popularity it experienced in the 1980s, we have it to thank for making polo shirts and khaki pants a part of the national wardrobe.


2: MTV

"Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll." Those words, spoken by co-creator John Lack, marked the beginning of MTV: Music Television on Aug. 1, 1981. The cable network's music-oriented programming featured news and music videos hosted by "video jockeys," or VJs, who promised viewers, "you'll never look at music the same way again." They were right. The music industry quickly realized the promotional potential of music videos and began pouring money into their production. This focus was evidenced by Michael Jackson's 1983 video "Thriller," a 14-minute feature directed by John Landis that included a storyline, dialogue and guest appearances.

Capitalizing on its newfound success, MTV expanded its programming throughout the 1980s. In September 1984 it held the first MTV Video Music Awards, featuring Madonna's provocative rendition of "Like a Virgin" in which she rolled around the stage in a wedding dress. The network launched its first non-musical program in 1987 entitled "Remote Control," an irreverent pop-trivia quiz show that featured Adam Sandler as a recurring contestant. Then in 1988 "YO! MTV Raps" hit the airwaves, popularizing hip-hop music by bringing it to a mainstream audience. Finally, MTV got into the history business with its "MTV Rockumentary" series, which examined the careers of artists from R.E.M. and Aerosmith to Michael Jackson and the B-52s. While the 1992 program "Real World" opened the door for today's extensive reality show programming, the 1980s will always be remembered as MTV's most music-centered decade.


1: John Hughes Movies

Ah -- so young. A few members of the so-called "Brat Pack" -- Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez -- photographed in 1982.
Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images

Perhaps no one is responsible for more cult classic films of the 1980s than filmmaker John Hughes. Beginning in 1984, Hughes wrote and directed a series of teen-themed movies that spoke to the generation that came of age during that decade. His first success in the genre was "Sixteen Candles" (1984) followed by "The Breakfast Club" (1985), "Weird Science" (1985), "Pretty in Pink" (1986), and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986). The actors that Hughes assembled to star in these films -- including Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Jami Gertz, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy -- became collectively known as "The Brat Pack" (lists of who exactly is included in this "pack" vary). Hughes also wrote National Lampoon's "Vacation" (1983), "European Vacation" (1985), and "Christmas Vacation" (1989).

After his 1990 box office success "Home Alone," Hughes kept a low profile, often writing under the pen name Edmond Dantes. Sadly, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2009, but not before leaving us with some of the most beloved movies of the 1980s.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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