Beauty Standards Throughout The Decades: The 1980s

The 1980s was a decade that refreshed America's glimmer of empowerment and inspired new confidence.

By Simone Sydel4 min read
Beauty Standards Throughout The Decades: The 1980s

The 1980s is one of the most interesting decades. Dealing with the stock market, the introduction of new technologies, and fashion, all the way to the styles of music people were listening to.

Many Americans had a lot of fun throughout the 1980s with the beauty industry, and the decade is known as the era of the bright, the bold, and the big.

Therefore, in this article, let's go back in time and discuss the beauty standards in the 1980s as well as a few other cultural novelties that shaped the decade.

The Culture in the 1980s

As a huge political and social twist after the 1970s, the 1980s was an era in American culture defined by a proud political and social conservatism. For many people, the symbol of the decade was the "yuppie" – a baby boomer with a college education, a well-paying job, and a taste for the finer things life had to offer.

The election of Republican Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 was the high-water mark of late twentieth-century American conservatism. On the other hand, liberals, represented by the Democratic Party, favored a stronger central government. They believed in political reforms that extended democracy, distributed wealth more evenly, and brought about social change. But all in all, the ‘80s were a peaceful decade when it came to social unrests such as protests, which had been a huge deal in the previous two decades.

However, the true highlight of the ‘80s was definitely the music, the style, and the movies.


At the movie theater, the 1980s was the decade of blockbusters. Movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Beverly Hills Cop appealed to moviegoers of all ages and made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

return of the jedi luke salutes

The 1980s was also the heyday of teen movies with films like The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Pretty in Pink, which are still popular today.

the breakfast club girls dancing

At home, people watched family sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Roseanne, and Married...with Children. They also rented movies to watch on their new VCRs.

family ties pipe

By the end of the 1980s, 60% of American television owners got cable service – and the most revolutionary cable network of all was MTV, which made its debut on August 1, 1981.


More than anything, ‘80s music was heavily produced. Everyone knows the classic ‘80s sound: huge reverb snare drums, lots of delay on the vocals, electronic rhythms, and synthesizers.

The decade made stars out of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club, and made megastars out of artists like Michael Jackson, whose elaborate "Thriller" video helped sell 600,000 albums in the five days after its first broadcast.

As the decade went on, MTV also became an outlet for those who went against the grain or were left out of the yuppie ideal.

Rap artists such as Public Enemy channeled the frustrations of urban African Americans into their powerful album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Heavy metal and rock acts such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also captured the sense of malaise among young people, particularly young men.

Beauty Routines

In the 1980s, people sure did not hold back on expressing themselves, and both men and women were compelled by the beauty industry, trying to fit the ideal beauty standards.

Beauty consisted of the fitness and nutrition craze in the ‘80s, encouraging athletically toned bodies, bodysuits, and tracksuit bottoms. Aerobics and bodybuilding became a sensation, along with leg warmers and big hair. 

80s aerobics

Anti-aging skincare products really made a name for themselves in the ‘80s, although being present on the scene since the ‘70s. In fact, according to the National Center of Biotechnology Information, it was in the ‘80s that tretinoin (a powerful prescription skincare product) was first recognized for its potential in the treatment of aging. As I mentioned in my 1970s article, tretinoin was already being prescribed to people with problematic and acne-prone skin, but they weren't using it for anti-aging purposes just yet.

Over-the-counter anti-aging products during this time were often formulated with collagen and other extracts and were used to diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

saved by the bell

Women also began exfoliating regularly with homemade or store-bought scrubs to remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin and reveal a smooth complexion from underneath.

Other acne products such as cleansers and astringent toners also boomed onto the scene, and the tingling, stinging sensation of many of them was a staple of the time.

Electric Makeup Was All the Rage

Makeup in the 1980s was aggressive, bright, shining, and colorful.

Women emphasized their lips, eyebrows, and cheeks by using a lot of blush, eyeliner, highlighter, brow pencils, and lip pencils in usually darker colors than the lipstick. The "it" eyeshadow colors were blue, purple, and silver, and it was fashionable to add an electric color up to the heavily penciled brows.


As for the complexion, there wasn't much of the 1970s "natural is beautiful" thought process. Women in the ‘80s constantly powdered their faces, and matte foundations and powders (usually in lighter shades than the natural skin tone) were the most important complexion products of the decade.

Princess Diana was one of the beauty icons that shaped the decade, and since she famously had beautiful skin and rosy cheeks, everyone wanted to steal the look by using tons of powder and blush.

Bushy eyebrows became popular, but the thin brows were still seen on many beauty icons of the decade. Stars like Brooke Shields and Madonna flawlessly worked a full set, and many women followed in their footsteps by completely leaving out the tweezers and letting their arches grow out, while celebrities like Whitney Houston set the trend of brushing the individual hairs upwards for an exaggerated look. On the other hand, the fashion-forward crowd, including supermodel Grace Jones, opted for graphic brows with a severe upward slant.

Nails Went Wild

Madonna led the trend on long squoval nails in the 1980s by decking her nails out in neon in her smash hit video clips.

Also, 1985 was the year that Lee Press-On Nails launched, and women no longer had to sit in salons, waiting for someone to slap layers of product onto the ends of their fingers to achieve a stylized look. Besides being quicker and easier, this was also the cheaper alternative loved by so many.

As for the colors, there were so many to choose from, and oh, did women choose from all of them. It's hard to determine which color was the most popular, but, as per these 1980s nail polish ads, the classic reds alongside rose, mauve, beige, peach, nude, and lilac were all super popular.

Big Hair, Don't Care

The first thing that crosses your mind when you think of the ‘80s hair is BIG! And that's because the bigger, the better was the mindset that shaped the decade when it came to hairstyles. In fact, if you couldn't get your hair to be big, you were likely considered to be a child who was made fun of by your peers.

Big hair was often permed to achieve the desired volume and is especially associated with women of the mid-1980s, as well as with male rock stars of that era, especially of the glam metal genre. Television shows also helped popularize the high-volume bouffant and the glamorous image associated with it.

But besides that, the mullet, tall mohawk hairstyles, Jheri curls, flattops, and hi-top fades, also became popular hairstyles that stuck around for some time.

'80s Fashion Loved Jewel Tones & Geometric Patterns

As with everything else for most of the 1980s, fashion was also all about excess.

The early part of the decade was still heavily influenced by the late 1970s style and didn’t really start to evolve until the mid-’80s when postmodernism took hold of American culture. As pop stars like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna adopted postmodern fashion, the classic style we associate with the 1980s took hold.

Early ’80s clothing tended to be more minimalist, practical, and subdued. The color palette was made up of earth tones, with brown, tan, and orange shades. But by the mid-1980s, fashion had taken a turn to statement looks with bright colors, big shoulders, and bold jewelry. Common outfit essentials during this time included bulky sweaters, shoulder pads, trench coats, nylon jackets, and Levi 501s.


Preppy outfits associated with wealthy teenagers of the era also became popular and consisted of button-down shirts, polos, cuffed khakis, and argyle sweaters, with tasseled loafers, Keds, or boat shoes.

Closing Thoughts

Whenever I think of the 1980s, I think of big and excessive hairstyles, crazy and over-the-top makeup, mattified and bright faces, athletic bodies, and the music hits we still enjoy to this day.

If you enjoyed this article, check out what the 1950s and the 1960s looked like!

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