The ’80s Teen

Photo Credit: ’80s Teens: Credit: Rolf Haid/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Photo Credit: ’80s Teens: Credit: Rolf Haid/picture alliance via Getty Images

By David Cohea, ReMIND Magazine

If you were a high schooler in the 1980s, so much was cool beans.

In school it was Trapper Keeper notebooks, lectures on chalkboards and using the card catalog in the library. You passed notes in class and played dodgeball in gym. Many schools had computer classes where you learned COBOL and Pascal and saved files on 8-inch floppy disks that held an incredible 128KB. Social divisions included preppies, jocks, greasers, stoners and nerds. Bomb threats were common, and when it came to sex and drugs you were told to Just Say No.

At prom you could pretty well expect a theme based on one of the smash hits of the decade — “Time After Time,” “Forever Young” or “Take My Breath Away.” When it came to fashion, with girls it was monogrammed sweaters and oversized tops over slim-fitting Guess jeans, a tight-fitting tee over trousers topped with a “boyfriend jacket,” a sport coat cut like a men’s blazer. Lots of neon colors, sweatshirts with the neck cut to sit off one shoulder, leg warmers, bandanas, jelly shoes, lace socks and cross jewelry. You might get a Laura Ashley dress for the prom.

Hair reaching for the heavens was cemented in place with a fog of Aqua Net hairspray. For boys, it was acid-washed jeans with a matching jean jacket (often festooned with buttons), parachute pants and shirts buttoned all the way up with a skinny tie or a bolo, flannel shirts, white sneakers, bomber jackets, even spandex. Mullets became popular as the prom photo complement for dates in Big Hair.

Technology really infiltrated popular culture in the ’80s, or at least appeared to (now it all seems so quaint): cassette boom boxes and mixtapes, Walkman personal stereos, video games and early home computers. Still, some things were decidedly old school, like skateboards and talking half the night on the family’s landline.

On TV there were plenty of shows popular with teens — Growing Pains, One Day at a Time, Wonder Years, Family Ties — and they featured heartthrobs like Kirk Cameron, Michael J. Fox and Ricky Schroder. With cable TV came MTV and an explosion of music that was also visually enticing. Major artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Whitney Houston, the Police and Guns N’ Roses were favorites and covered the various styles of music including synth pop, new wave, heavy metal, goth, rap and alternative.

Teen movies were very popular in the ’80s, and high schoolers filled the local cinema Octoplex to watch Risky Business, Footloose, Back to the Future and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You can almost define the ’80s teen by watching John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles. And thanks to the introduction of VCR players in 1977, what you didn’t catch at the theater you could eventually watch at home.