20 Classic Photos Of Real Life In The 1980s
Woman on a cellphone in the 1980s
We may think of the 1980s as the decade of big hair, bright colors, and screamingly loud heavy metal, but the decade was so much more than the excess with which its identified. Every decade takes time to settle into itself, and the ‘80s are no different. The early years are obviously in a ‘70s hangover, but by 1985 the time period has clearly found an aesthetic all its own.
If you lived with through the 1980s you definitely remember the sights and sounds of a changing world, the blips of an Atari, the thrill of eating cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons, and the sense of wonder that came with the new inventions and electronics that seemed to come out every day. Whether you were a mall rat, a jock, or a straight A student these photos of the go-go ‘80s will fill you with nostalgia until you feel radical all over again. Click ahead to relive a decade in time that none of us will ever want to forget!
Anyone seeing this woman walk through an airport terminal must have thought that she was from the distant future. She’s talking on a telephone, but she’s carrying it with her, can you imagine the possibilities? While we carry around cellphones that are tiny computer in our pockets today, back in the ’80s these bad boys were like carrying around a brick in your briefcase, and they cost thousands of dollars. Some of these units couldn’t even be used outside the car, as they actually required a base that was attached to something tangible. To really stay on the move with your cellular phone you had to shell out big bucks. Carrying one of these babies around was a huge power move.
Carrie Fisher in a trashcan
Carrie Fisher was the low key queen of the ‘80s. Even though she was small enough to fit in a trash can her outsized personality more than made up for it. However, much of her gregariousness came from the fact that she suffered from bipolar disease, something that she didn’t shy away from. She explained:
Having had this illness my entire life, I accommodated it by developing a very big personality. Over the years, writing about [having bipolar disorder] did help me to be able to talk about my illness in the abstract, to make light of it. That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous.
Tailgating outside the Springsteen show
Is there any musician with as fervent a fanbase as The Boss? Bruce Springsteen is one of those once in a lifetime musician who not only speaks for an entire state, but a generation of people who work hard and dream of making it big. When Bruce comes to town - especially in the Northeast - fans with hungry hearts show up hours early to camp out in the parking lot and reminisce about their favorite songs before hearing them live. Fans in Philly are especially prepared - they come out with slow cookers to make sure they’ve got plenty to eat, there are even porta johns put in place for people who are making the long haul to see the Boss.
Steve Jobs riding a BMW bike in 1982
When National Geographic caught up with Steve Jobs in 1982 they wanted to take his portrait for their magazine, but he didn’t want to be thought about as an egghead who posed with his arms crossed in front of a bunch of computer processors, he wanted to be scene as the rebel who set Silicon Valley aflame. He had the magazine’s photographer follow him out on his bike and capture this amazing shot. One of Jobs’ friends interviewed for the article described the CEO as a pretty cool guy. He said:
In plaid shirt and jeans, [Jobs] still prefers to drive his motorcycle to my place, sit around and drink wine, and talk about what we’re going to do when we grow up.
So much soda, so little time
The soda aisle of the grocery store is a mini amusement park for kids and a landmine for parents. In the 1980s cola companies became increasingly prevalent because of their increased visibility through marketing and streamlined logos. Brands that had been around for decades like Pepsi and Mountain Dew were suddenly rivaling the sales of the monster Coca Cola thanks to commercials that named them as the drink of the new generation, while Coke faltered for the first time in a long time with the release of New Coke. What was your favorite cola to grab from the soda aisle?
Guardian Angels watching over the New York subway
In the 1980s the New York City subways were some of the most dangerous places to be regardless of the time of day. There wasn’t enough security on the subway, and the police were never around. In order to keep the metro safe, a group called the Magnificent 13 formed out of volunteers who rode the subways all night to make sure there was always someone around to take care of criminals. As their numbers grew the group changed their name to the Guardian Angels and riders could count on as many as 12 to 48 GA groups out at a time. The Angels clashed with the police quite often, but even though they didn’t have the support of the police they never abandoned the city they loved.
Drew Barrymore makes good on her "Firestarter" claims by lighting a cigarette for Stephen King at the film's premiere
Stephen King absolutely owned the cinema in the 1980s. Producers mined his fertile work for film and television adaptations that could range from the good to… well to the less good, and some of his most affecting adaptations featured a young Drew Barrymore in a starring role. 1984 saw Firestarter hit theaters, and even if you don’t remember exactly what happened in the movie you definitely remember the cover of the VHS, with a young Barrymore staring wild eyed into the camera as her hair flies around her against an orange backdrop. How did she get such an intense face? Barrymore told Harpers Bazaar:
I always said, 'Back off. Back off. Just back off, and don't make me angry.' Then I would clench my fists and scrunch my face a little bit and breathe rapidly, focus my eyes on something, and then blow it up.
The Hags, an all girl skateboarding crew hanging out in 1984
Started by Sevie Bates in the early ‘80s, the Hags were a raucous all-girl, punk rock skateboard club who were all skating on the periphery of Tony Alva and his Z-Boy skate crew in Los Angeles. Because they were girls they weren’t allowed to join any of the crews, so rather than give up, Bates made some back patches and started skating together. Early Hag Mimi Claire told Bust:
We’d skateboard around, go to shows, and be our own little posse of Hag girls. There was camaraderie with that. If one of us just skated around with a vest on, it was different than seeing a handful of us together. When you have a group like that, there’s a level of untouchability that comes with it. Your power seems to multiply.
The family that wears 3D glasses together stays together
Let’s just put it out on the table, family photos in the 1980s weren’t just off the wall, they were seriously weird. As odd as it is for this family to hang out in their 3D glasses, it’s entirely in tune with the decade’s obsession with the 1950s. During this decade so much of the culture was looking back to the post war era, be it through music or fashion, and that includes the not so new invention of 3D movies. Maybe it was just the kitsch quality, but the ‘80s gave us everything from 3D episodes of Elvira’s Movie Macabre to Friday the 13th in 3D, so it makes sense that this family would have a few excess pairs of 3D glasses just hanging around.
Filming the crawl for "Empire Strikes Back" was as time consuming as watching "The Phantom Menace"
Every science fiction fan knows that the Star Wars films always open with crawl explaining exactly what’s going on in the galaxy and what’s up with our favorite characters. Inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of his childhood, George Lucas sought to pay homage to the films while getting out a lot of exposition in a short amount of time. To film the crawls physical models were built on the floor with the entire segment typed out. From there, the camera of slowly pan across the model until everything was just so. Lucas explained that the crawls weren’t just hard to film, they were hard to write. He said:
The crawl is such a hard thing because you have to be careful that you're not using too many words that people don't understand. It's like a poem.
Caroll Spinney, the man behind the Grouch and the Bird
Everyone growing up in the ‘80s remembers getting planted in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street, Jim Henson’s educational program hosted by childlike muppet creations. Thanks to the show we learned about serious life subjects while discovering the ins and outs of our ABCs, and it was all made possible thanks to puppeteers like Carroll Spinney, who worked on the show for nearly 50 years playing Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and numerous other minor characters. Spinney finally retired from the program in 2018 and there’s word as to whether he walks around in his Big Bird costume at home.
The K-Mart Easter Bunny has a blue light special on nightmares
Everyone loves a visit from the Easter Bunny, unless of course it looks like the pure nightmare fuel that exists in this photo. What’s happening here? And just what is this creepy rabbit handing out? Growing up in the ‘80s, kids had to put up with a lot of weird stuff, from strange cartoon characters to people in costumes that looked like they were pulled out of the dumpster behind the underworld. To be fair, none of the kids look like they’re having a full on panic attack, so maybe kids in the ‘80s were just used to this kind of thing.
People lining up outside the theater for "Empire Strikes Back"
On May 21, 1980, the world finally found out what happened after Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance blew up the Death Star in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It turned out that Darth Vader was still out there, and that there was more to that whole “force” thing than we realized. At the time of the film’s release fans weren’t sure what to think about the film, and they definitely didn’t know if they could believe what Vader told Luke. One viewer wrote:
Is Luke related to Vader? Most think so now that Vader came right out and said it. Well, I say, do you believe everything you hear? Vader may have lied just to enlist Luke to his side. Vader would then dispose of Luke once he got what he wanted.
A dangerous hang at the subway station
Venturing through any American city on the metro in the 1980s was a bit like putting your life in the hands of fate. Some days were a breeze; there was no one to bother you as you rode across town, but other days could be a minefield of gang members, broken down trains, and problems with the rails. Subway stations of the ‘80s were desolate locals that could be starkly beautiful if the time was right, or they could be the perfect setting for a horror film. In the '70s and '80s, over 250 felonies were committed every week in the New York Subway system, earning it the infamy of being the most dangerous mass transit system in the world.
Plastic Halloween costumes, 1985
What do you wear for Halloween when your parents aren’t adept at making spot on recreations of your favorite characters? A plastic version of the character, duh. These cheap boxed costumes were seriously ugly, but now that we’re decades away from having to wear them (hopefully) it’s clear that they have a lot of campy value. Most of the boxed costumes were just a molded plastic mask and a smock, usually they had a logo on the front of the top to remind you which show your character was from, even so, most people who wore these costumes had to explain to their neighbors who they were moments after knocking on the door. These costumes were all trick and no treat.
Meatloaf and Debbie Harry on the set of “Roadie”
You may find yourself sitting in a large automobile, and you may ask yourself, “Why is Meatloaf here?” While they may not seem like they run in the same circles, Debbie Harry and the rest of Blondie were coming up at the same time as the “Bat out of Hell” singer and they even appeared in the oft forgotten 1980 flick Roadie together. The film follows hapless roadie Travis W. Redfish as he tries to get to New York City to meet Alice Cooper. Along the way he drinks, fights, and rubs elbows with everyone from Blondie, to Asleep at the Wheel and Roy Orbison. More fever dream than movie, it's worth checking out during a late night movie marathon.
A vintage Pizza Hut ready to serve
The 1980s belonged to Pizza Hut. Sure, Dominoes was helping us avoid the Noid, and Little Caesar’s was teaching everyone to say “Pizza Pizza” but Pizza Hut was the only place that offered families the sit down dining experience with a price that didn’t destroy their budget. Pizza Huts of the greatest decade were outfitted with booths, tables, and even a salad bar, you could eat from a buffet or order a specialty pizza, there was something for everyone. While they didn’t have an arcade like Chuck E. Cheese, most Pizza Huts were outfitted with at least a Pac Man machine. Pizza, games, and family conversation, Pizza Hut could do it all.
The official bird of the 1980s
The mullet, that maligned hairdo that’s business on top and a party in the back wasn’t invented in the ‘80s, but it came to embody the decade thanks to the sheer amount of people who came to see this hair cut as an acceptable style. Everyone, young and old, famous or just someone walking down the street, had this haircut. It was a force of nature that couldn’t be ignored. The mullet wasn’t just for one subculture, everyone from Metallica’s James Hatfield to Little Richard had one, and it even became known as a way for lesbians to identify with one another in public. In the documentary American Mullet, one woman tells the filmmakers, “I absolutely think it’s a lesbian haircut because it’s always my hair that gives me away.”
The Bad News Bears all grown up
For a lot of folks in the ‘80s there was no better way to spend a Saturday than by playing slowpitch baseball in their local beer league. Played more for fun than a need for a trophy, the teams in these leagues were usually filled with guys from the same company and their games were specifically tailored to making sure they didn’t go one forever. For instance, teams who hit too many home runs were penalized, the games were meant to be about having fun, not winning. These guys look like they were masters of the beer league, and they weren’t bad at growing facial hair either.
Does it get any cooler than a Cure fan in the '80s?
The Cure were staples of the post punk scene in England long before they were household names in America. The band had not only been kicking around since ’77, but they had legitimate hits. Still, they were mysteries to people living in America until 1987 when their single “Just Like Heaven” hit the radio and MTV. With the success of their album “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me” American fans started teasing out their hair and draping themselves in black just like singer Robert Smith. Members of the band believe they appeal to fans in so many different places because they’re all from the same kind of downtrodden areas, and that it doesn’t matter what country they’re from, they simply understand the human experience. Cure drummer/keyboardist Lol Tolhurst explained:
In general, we’ve always appealed to people from small towns in suburbia like ourselves. People ask me why is it that out of all the bands from the ’80s, the three bands that are still huge are in America are The Cure, Depeche Mode and The Smiths. It’s because we came from the same kind of place, so it doesn’t matter if it’s suburbia in South London or suburbia in Southern California; it means the same thing to people and that the thing that we were able to express, and people understood that. That’s why it kept going, that and we played an awful lot and went on very, very long tours.
David Lee Roth's hotel room during the 1982 Van Halen tour
By 1982 Van Halen was on top of the world. With the release of “Diver Down” the band went on the grueling “Hide Your Sheep” tour that took them across the world. Known as much for their hard partying as their stellar sound, rock ’n roll pirate David Lee Roth led the boys through a hedonistic ocean of fun and fame. Roth definitely loved the ladies, but when asked if he was thinking of settling down he said:
When you’re on the road for nine months a year and you always have all these cute little chiquitas running around in their halter-tops, it’s kind of hard to worry about things like nuclear proliferation.
Kids are dressed up and ready for Halloween on the bus
The 1980s were the last decade where it was totally cool to wear your Halloween costume to school; it wasn’t just sanctioned, it was encouraged. Kids could throw on their costumes - be it a funky plastic smock or a well thought out witch costume - and head off to school for a day of Halloween hijinks. The best part about these dress up days was the fact that there was no way anyone was going to get any work done. Not only were the costumes one more barrier to separate the students from their teachers, but the students were likely so sugar high that they couldn’t focus anyway. Long live Halloween.
A thrilling game of Pac Man in 1982
Remember the struggle of playing Pac Man? Regardless of whether you were using the classic sit down cabinet, standing in an arcade, or hunched over one of these mini-machines the rules were simple - lead Pac Man through a midnight maze while he munched down little dots and tried to avoid get gobbled up by ghosts. The game was a phenomenon among the American public who showed up in droves to guide the little yellow guy around. As hard as the game could be, it was even harder when someone was trying to give you advice while you played. There was nothing worse than an arm chair Pac Man player.