Final Research Paper

Becca Levy

December 17th, 2015

Conflicts & Cultures in Amer. Society

Professor Gieseking


Fashion Through the Media in the 1980s


On August 1st, 1981 at 12:01 AM, young Americans throughout the country heard John Lack say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, rock and roll.” This was the start of MTV, with its foundation of being the first TV station to feature music videos 24-hours a day. This sparked a revolution for how teens could experience music that they never had before. Music videos became a staple for those who were part of the “MTV Generation.” As with most teenagers, the youth of the 1980s were trying to find their place in society. The culture of the time seemed to be one of rebellion against tradition and a creation of a new generation of people. The music videos and artists featured on MTV had a highly significant influence on these teen’s behaviors, one of the most obvious being fashion. Fashion is something that people use to express themselves and show society who they are. Clothing often represents ones gender role and class status within society, and can often be used as a source of rebellion against tradition. Artists like Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen have used fashion and music to express gender roles and class status in a different way. Through examining the fashion and images shown in the music videos “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Born in the USA,” it is evident that artists and music videos used the media to craft a certain new form of identity that redefined and reconstituted gender and class in the 1980s.

The radical youth culture of the 1980s is set apart from past generations in terms of gender, class, and fashion. Often called “Generation X” or the “MTV Generation,” those born between 1965 and 1975 sought to differentiate themselves from the baby boomers that came before them (Greenberg, et al., 2009). Both the male and female “twentysomethings” of this generation felt that they needed to further themselves from the traditional family values that their parents were taught. Their parents’ generation was often defined through specific roles and norms that people followed. They grew up with different ideas, such as the woman as the housewife and the man as the breadwinner of the family. But, as history shows us, the culture changes over time. Women started to gain more freedom and started working outside of the home. The youth of the 1980s were just trying to find themselves and, in a sense, the “youth created culture by developing their own concrete institutional means of cultural production” (Mattson, 2001, 72), fighting against previous gender roles and using the media as their influence.

With increased media exposure though outlets like MTV, these adolescents experienced more freedom than previous generations. Teens all over America gathered around their televisions to watch iconic stars like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen perform their music on MTV. Culture was circulated through MTV as it “vividly depicted American mainstream and subcultures through the lyrics of the songs and the images from the music videos” (Morikawa, 2011, 332). MTV quickly became one of the most significant outlets for American pop culture. The featured music stars re-defined style and challenged traditional gender roles (Greenberg, et al., 2009). The “men became more feminine, and women’s fashions became more masculine” (Greenberg, et al., 2009, 179). For example, women in the workplace were told to wear suits with little silk ties to look more like men (Levy, 2015). The media icons of the 1980s would use their stardom to influence the youth who just wanted to have a culture of their own.

One of the most defining characteristics of the adolescents in the 1980s was their fashion. Girls were wearing less clothing, brighter colors, big hair, full makeup, and higher heels. This was a way for women to express their sexuality that had never been done before. Men were seen wearing a lot of denim, tighter shirts, fitted pants, and longer hair. The rules for traditional masculine and feminine fashion were starting to become blurred and less regulated. The teen dress of the 1980s was hard to miss because they were so different and unmistakable from their parents’ generation. The “cool teens dismissed most adult fashions as bourgeois, but American popular culture reflected a middle-class mentality” (Greenberg, et al., 2009, 183). This showed that although teens were rejecting their parents’ fashion choices, they were avoiding showing social class distinctions. The pop icons and “the visual nature of the music videos greatly influenced the global fashion industry” (Morikawa, 2011, 333). Since MTV aired music videos twenty-four hours a day, “the youth of America were constantly exposed to these new, outlandish trends and instantly ran out to emulate their favorite new wave, heavy metal, or pop musician’s looks” (Chichilitti, 2). Artists like Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen used their music and music videos to tell the youth to rebel and create their own new culture around gender and class norms.

One of the most iconic songs for women of the 1980s is Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” This song’s lyrics and images presented in the music video created a new type of style trend for women to emulate, which expressed new forms of female sexual liberation. With the launch of MTV, female musicians were provided with “an opportunity to gain industry backing, assert their subjective vision within the videos, and build audience recognition” (Lewis, 1990). Never before had there been an outlet for female artists to widely express their views to a greater audience, while gaining fame along the way. This gave women the chance to use the media to liberate themselves. It also allowed women to break boundaries in the music industry and “put a female spin on a theme that typically was within a male domain” (Levy, 2015). Cyndi Lauper was one of the “earliest female icons to harness MTV’s influence and become a pop star” (“Cyndi Lauper Biography,” 2001) Her debut album produced four top 5 hit singles, which was a first in the history of women (Lewis, 1990). For Lauper, gaining this kind of fame caused her to be seen and heard around the country, giving her to opportunity to enact cultural change and give a voice to women.

In the music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Lauper, who was born a working-class girl from New York City, shows a similar theme to her upbringing. The video features scenes that many girls growing up in working-class families can relate to. For example, she disobeys her father when he does not let her talk on the phone with her friends. The music video is about typical girl who wants to break free from male domination and the traditional woman’s place in the home and go “have fun.” She is showing that women do not have to be stuck in their ascribed gender roles and they are free to do whatever they want. In the video, Lauper is wearing brightly colored revealing clothes, has short spiky hair, and has big statement accessories. These fashion choices are very different from what women are traditionally seen wearing. By doing this, Lauper is, again, trying something different and is showing how women do not need to follow traditional women’s fashion rules. She is expressing alternative clothing options that begin to take over the fashion world in the 1980s. Girls around the country start dressing like her and similar female artists. This causes a different kind of liberation for women, showing that they all have the right to do whatever they want, wear whatever they want, and (most importantly) “have fun” without being trapped in society’s expectations.

Another iconic song for the men of the 1980s is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” The lyrics and music video for this song expressed a new type of masculinity for the middle-class American male. Springsteen, who was born in to a working class family in New Jersey, wanted to give a voice to those he identified with. Springsteen, who has long since been a household name, has been regarded as a working-class hero because of his insights to everyday lives, even in small town America (“Bruce Springsteen Biography,” 2001). Springsteen wanted to bring his message to a mass audience, and in 1984 with his song “Born in the USA,” he became a superstar (“Bruce Springsteen Biography,” 2001). This song depicted poverty, expressed troubles with the Vietnam War, and protested Reaganomics, among other things (Morikawa, 2011), all of which were real-life struggles for the middle-class American. It gave a voice to this group of underrepresented people who were usually forgotten about and overlooked.

The album cover for this song quickly became the mainstream image of masculinity for American men because “he himself was macho” (Levy, 2015). Springsteen is wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a red baseball hat in his back pocket and tousled hair. This style was a move away from previous generations, where men dressed typically in a suit and tie with their hair brushed and parted. This shows Springsteen’s attempt to bring the white, working-class men’s style to the mainstream. Men’s fashion in the 1980s emulated this style that Springsteen promoted, showing his influence across the country and a shift in what was considered to be masculine. In his songs he also “depicted the hopes and fears of the ethnic working class from which he emerged” (Cullen, 2005, 7). This shows that he did not only represent the social class he came from in how he dressed, but also showed it in his lyrics.

The fashion and lyrical messages in both Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” redefined gender and class roles for American culture in the 1980s. Both of these songs were ranked in the top 10 of the Top 100 Billboard hits of 1984 and 1985; they both spent more than 15 weeks on the chart (“Cyndi Lauper – Chart History”; “Bruce Springsteen – Chart History”). This shows how hugely popular both of these songs were in American pop culture. Everyone wanted to emulate these music icons that sought to challenge traditional norms and values. The fashion depicted by these artists created the stepping-stones towards the liberation of working class men and women. It gave these underrepresented people a voice and a way to express themselves outside of their cultural boundaries. The fashion of the 1980s was revolutionary in redefining and reconstituting both gender and class status in American pop culture.

Since writing our initial reflections back in September, I feel as if my knowledge and understanding of the 1980s had increased immensely. In my reflection, I had referenced the iconic fashion of the decade as well as the importance of MTV, showing my continued interest in those topics. It also shows how significant the study of youth culture is to me. I find it very interesting to see how the culture of a society shapes individuals. Because of the heightened use of media during the 1980s, there seems to have been a greater influence of pop culture on the masses. Through this course, my thoughts have grown because of the wider array of information I now have on this important decade. I now have a heightened interest in the 1980s – more than I did before – which leads me to want to explore more about the time period. The different conflicts and shifts in culture during this time make it a decade that is well worth studying. It makes me aware of the different events that are happening in my own lifetime and how they may be analyzed in the future. Looking back in time has made me more aware of my present generation and the possibilities for my future self.


Wikipedia Edit Link:




“Bruce Springsteen Biography.” In The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Simon & Schuster, 2001.


“Bruce Springsteen – Chart History.” Billboard. Accessed December 5, 2015.


Chichilitti, Nicole. The MTV Generation: 1980s Fashion. 2013.


Cullen, Jim. Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition. CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.


“Cyndi Lauper Biography.” In The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Simon & Schuster, 2001.


“Cyndi Lauper – Chart History.” Billboard. Accessed December 5, 2015.


Greenberg, Brian, Linda S. Watts, et. al. “Pop Culture, Leisure, and Amusement.” In Social History of the United States: 1980s, 180-204. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


Levy, Maryliz. 2015. Interview: Role of Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper on 1980s Fashion. On phone.


Lewis, Lisa A. “Female Address on Music Television: Being Discovered.” In Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 35: 2-15. 1990.


Mattson, Kevin. “Did Punk Matter?: Analyzing the Practices of a Youth Subculture During the 1980s.” In American Studies 42, No. 1: 69-97, 2001.


Morikawa, Suzuko. “Reading MTV: proliferation of United States culture in the age of globalization.” In The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade, eds. K.R. Moffitt and D.A. Campbell, 325-338. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011.

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