Like Totally Tubular, Dudettes!

After last week’s walk down a very preppy lane, someone requested I keep tripping down eighties street and talk about what happened we put down our boat shoes, found a tin of hair gel, and listened to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

We lost our cotton-picking minds.

It seemed like overnight the pastels of earlier had been struck by lightning and were now electrified neon.

The hair that was worn in prim ponytails and demure page boys exploded into giant halos of teased and shellacked hair.  The boys’ hair soon followed suit.  If the higher the hair, the closer to God is true, we were all lounging on clouds, dancing to hard-rock celestial choirs.

On purpose, Gentle Reader. We did this to ourselves ON.PURPOSE.

Tank tops, which before “the ’80s” had been worn mainly by Italian grandpas were now required wearing, in multiple layers and shocking colors.  Torn sleaves, ripped edges, and deconstructed layers replaced grosgrain trim and hemmed cuffs.

To emulate Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, one only had to pull the first fourteen items from a rag bag and put them on.

Oh; and add some shredded lace gloves.

There also was a polished new aesthetic for dressier or professional situations.  The colors were still luridly bright and the hair was still colossal. 

But so were our shoulders.

Women’s shoulder pads were so large you could land an airplane on them, and sharper than a Ginsu knife.  I put shoulder pads in my t-shirts—no lie.

Men’s suits came in two designs.  One was the mate to women’s oversized, gargantuan-shouldered attire.  Big and broad.

The other style was inspired by revelatory ratings juggernaught, Miami Vice.  Very unstructured, Caribbean-hued jackets and pleated trousers.  Underneath jacket were either collared shirts with twig thin ties, or t-shirts.

It wasn’t only big hair bands and fierce women that influenced fashion. 

New Wave and Rap music were hits on newly launched MTV.  This meant even kids in tiny little towns in the very Northeastern corner of North Carolina had access to a 24-hour-a-day fashion show.  My hair was big, my skirts were little, and my socks were slouchy.

Yes, folks, that’s me…

It was around this time that I got into retail, working at a store in the mall selling uber-fashionable clothing to my peers.

I sold shirts so colorful that sunglasses were required.  Another popular item was genie pants in which no self-respecting genie would be caught dead.

Doesn’t everybody want a coat that looks like it has the mange?

Also a big seller in those over-the-top eighties were fur coats.  In Elizabeth City the dead animals of choice were rabbit, at about 60 dollars, and red or silver fox at around 100.

One day we received a shipment of a new type of fur jacket.  It was a familiar shade of gray, with long coarse hair.  I was afraid I knew what creature it was, but couldn’t imagine that someone would actually make a coat from it.

It looked almost exactly like this possum coat.

Reading the tag, my worst fears were confirmed.  The coats were made from the skin of…possums!

I called my boss and asked why.  I was informed that the fur of the Didelphis virginiana was lush and beautiful.

I informed my boss that in this agrerian region, one did not wear possums.  One swerved to avoid hitting them on dark country lanes.  A small percentage of young men I knew sometimes swerved in order to hit them.  Possums were not coats, they were road kill.  I didn’t think they would be a big seller.

My boss responded that with my defeatist attitude they probably wouldn’t.  So, I gave it the old college try.  If someone came in looking for a dead animal jacket I would urge the purchase of possum.

I got plenty of laughs, quite a few odd looks, but not one sale.

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Clothes Pony

She sat me down for a serious talk.

“This is Elizabeth City, not San Diego.  You can’t wear those disco jeans to school.”

The “disco” jeans to which she referred were my favorite jeans with a satin rainbow on the back pocket.  But they were much, much flashier than the Levis 501’s that Kitty and every other kid in our class wore.

So, she took me to the mall to buy my very first pair of 501’s.

Today you can go to a retailer and easily purchase a pair to fit.  If, like me, you have much longer legs than the norm (thanks to my 6’4”, all legs father), you can always go online and order a well-fitting pair on the interwebs.

But back in the day (1979), it didn’t work that way. 

One had to go big—four inches to be exact.  Raw, 100% cotton denim is eminently shrinkable.  Like a cashmere sweater washed in hot water and thrown into a dryer shrinkable.  For 501’s, the jeans weren’t pre-shrunk, the buyer was responsible for that part.

Just throw them into a washer on hot, and dry them until the desired size is reached, correct?


We were high schoolers, with a love of ritual and all things complex and convoluted.  Arcane procedure is a bonding experience.

And the procedure to shrink these Levi’s?

You had to fill the bathtub with the hottest tolerable water, don the duds and get in.  Then sit in the tub, wearing heavy, saturated pants.  For an hour or so, long enough to dye both legs and tub indigo.

The purpose for this lunacy was for the jeans to draw up to perfectly fit one’s own body. 

Of course, just like today’s so-called “miracle” life hacks on Facebook and the like, the hype is different than reality.  The jeans shrunk to size, but were no better fitting than the 501s purchased in one’s own size today.

As for shoes, Kitty informed me there was only one very specific type that was acceptable among our classmates.

They had to be white Nikes, with a blue swoosh.  And canvas—not leather.  Evidently, the leather version automatically declared the wearer was a parvenue.  Upperclassmen were allowed to own an additional type of shoe; Sperry (Lord help the child who wore no-name knock-offs) Topsiders, or as we called them, “boat shoes”.

For shirts, there were a plethora of options—as long as it was a 100% cotton, button-down, Oxford cloth shirt or a polo.

Ralph Lauren, from whom all preppy flows.

And the variety didn’t end there.  The button-downs could be in a rainbow of white, blue, pink (both boys and girls), and yellow.  Either solid or striped—the mind boggles.

An Oxford cloth-clad man can be hot.

As for the polos, a Lacoste pique cotton was the ideal.  But that little alligator came at a steep price—usually more than thirty dollars.  And most parents balked at paying the price, which was enough for a family to eat out, see a movie and buy some milk duds and popcorn.  Most kids only had a few, highly treasured Lacoste’s.

So, there was a concession to the realities of the economy.

If there wasn’t enough bank for a reptile to decorate your chest, a tiny little tiger was acceptable.  The Le Tigre shirt, which sold for about twelve bucks was, in every other respect, identical.

But regardless the animal on your shirt; collars popped, please.  It didn’t become the move of the obnoxious rich kid until Tom Cruise did it in Risky Business.  Add that pop to a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers and you had the rich, entitled villain of every single teen movie until 1990.

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