2016, the year the 80s returned
Balenciaga went "Working Girl," Netflix went "Stranger," Donald Trump went nuclear.
Balenciaga fall/winter 16. Photography Mitchell Sams.
They say it takes 30 years for a decade to come back in style. This would explain the brief and bizarre 70s resurgence in the mid-2000s, which resurrected roller rinks, feathered hair, and hot shorts (all of them play an integral part in Madonna's 2005 masterpiece Confessions on a Dancefloor, and, crucially, Jessica Simpson's "A Public Affair" video, released the following year). Though the internet has rapidly accelerated this cycle of nostalgia, the mid 80s arrived right on schedule in 2016. This was a year of shoulder pads, paranormal sci-fi, and — oh yeah — the revival of the nuclear arms race.
In 2016, Demna Gvasalia and Anthony Vaccarello showed their highly anticipated debut collections as the newly minted artistic directors of Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, respectively. And while the two offerings diverged in reference points, each designer steeped his vision for fashion's future in the same bygone era. In his adored debut for Balenciaga — presented at Paris Fashion Week in March — Gvasalia created sculptural suiting elements that drew on the Spanish house's legacy of innovative shapes. This power dressing proposition, critics noted, also took cues from films like 1988's Working Girl, in which savvy businesswomen navigate high-power Wall Street politics. Though the film's real star is Joan Cusack's Rothko-esque eye shadow, Gvasalia looked to the movie's trench coats, leather jackets, and checked suiting elements with nipped waists and broad shoulders.
Vaccarello's Saint Laurent debut didn't look all that much like Tess McGill or Katharine Parker — rather, like the Yves of the same era. Obsessed with a YSL collection from 1982, Vaccarello revived its leopard and leg o'mutton sleeves, pairing them with leather, lamé, and long legs. Critics noted that the collection's nod to archival glam wasn't too far out of step with Vaccarello's work at his own eponymous label. After all, the Italian-Belgian designer's daring breed of skimpy sexiness — for Saint Laurent rendered in plunging necklines and prom-ish shapes — is precisely what attracted loyal followers like Donatella Versace (Vaccarello had previously headed up Versace Versus). Another 80s element: logos. Yves Saint Laurent's iconic initials formed the heels of skyscraper stilettos, and a massive neon sign, suspended over show guests.
Speaking of hulking luminescent letters: the year's most buzzed about show — Netflix smash Stranger Things — was also profoundly inspired by the sounds, styles, and sci-fi fantasy films of the 1980s. Set in 1983, the series opens with flickering red lines, which twist and contort to form is title — a sequence scored by S U R V I V E's pulsing synths. This typeface references Star Wars, but Stranger Things's blend of paranormal activity and adventurous children on chopper bikes feels more E.T. or The Goonies than a galaxy far, far away. It might have initially drawn viewers in with Winona Ryder's star power, but Stranger Things (and its pint-sized breakout star, Millie Bobby Brown) has become a full-fledged phenomenon. Though Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to ratings, independent agencies estimate over 14 million viewers watched the show in its first month on the platform, topping another mega-viral series Making a Murderer. It's since inspired an 8-bit video game and a Charlie Brown Christmas parody. Wiz Khalifa released a synthed-out hat tip. Other fans fused the series theme with Twin Peaks's iconic score. Meanwhile, the Stranger Things kids paid a visit to Louis Vuitton HQ, then to the White House.
As Oliver Lunn noted in a recent i-D piece, the reason the show's particular breed of 80s nostalgia was received with such fanfare is two-fold. First: though most of its millennial viewers were born a decade after a supernatural kidnapping spree plunges the small town of Hawkins into paranoia, Stranger Things still ignites that nostalgic spark. That's because many of us were raised on the era's films as home video technology became more ubiquitous, and television networks began syndicating more of these films. One Vimeo user did a shot-for-shot comparison between Stranger Things and films including Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Stand By Me (set in 59, but released in 86), The Goonies, Explorers, Firestarter, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and even The Shining (Joyce Byers is pretty good with an axe). Commenters chimed in with It Follows, Altered States, and IT allusions, too.
Lunn's second point: Stranger Things depicts the era without irony or exaggeration, unlike, say, The Wedding Singer. Though many of these beloved slasher and sci-fi flicks have come to enshrine the 80s, they lack the blinding neon jazzercise gear, mullets, or other sky-high hair sculptures that reduce the era to a Culture Club caricature that those of us under 25 don't really feel connected to. Barring persistent paranormal invasions, these films more or less reflected the times they were made in: kids rode around on banana seat bikes, barked into walkie talkies, and played Dungeons & Dragons. They wore military surplus, ringer tees, and so many sweaters. And they listened to contemporary music: The Clash, The Cure, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division.
But the 80s didn't only return in fashion and popular culture. 2016 has seen a resurgence of the neo-conservative political currents of the era, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ruled the Western world in ideological harmony. Often called "political soulmates," the pair aligned on many issues: economic deregulation and the free market, small government, low taxes, a strong military defense, the crusade to win the Cold War, and a refusal to address the AIDS crisis. Following both Donald Trump's election and the United Kingdom's "Brexit" from the European Union, there's already speculation that Trump and Britain's Theresa May could work to revive the special conservative relationship that not only defined the sociocultural and political landscape of the decade, but, as some see it, altered history.
Just this week, the year's most terrifying 80s throwback arrived courtesy of Donald Trump. The president-elect spoke rather glibly about expanding America's nuclear arsenal -- where else but on Twitter. He later clarified his comments: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all." Trump's comments came just hours after Putin suggested his government would take steps to increase its own nuclear munitions, leaving many wondering if this could mean a revival of Cold War nuclear proliferation, and of the 40-year standoff between super powers. According to an interview Ron Rosenbaum conducted with Trump in 1987 (republished by Slate earlier this year), this is something the president-elect has been thinking about for quite some time. "He seemed genuinely aware of just how much danger nukes put the world in and how futile efforts thus far had been to deal with that danger. He didn't sound eager to pull the trigger, which I guess is good. There had to be a deal!" Rosenbaum wrote as a 2016 addendum to the piece. "I used to laugh when I thought back on Trump and me [...] talking nukes. I'm not laughing anymore."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Mitchell Sams