As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
tagged in: Amazon, Beth Morgan, Black Mirror, Chris Trujillo, Das Erste, Dave Andron, Deutschland 83, Frank Godt, FX, GLOW, Katrin Unterberger, Lars Lange, Monika Hinz, Netflix, RTL, Snowfall, Stranger Things, Weissensee