Fact: The Wacky Fashions of '80s Romance Novels Are the Greatest Thing

In Depth

Kids today have access to Kindle and Wattpad and a million jillion pages of fanfic. But back when I was first venturing outside teacher-approved reading lists, you had to be sneakier, slipping battered paperbacks from your mother’s stash, for instance. Which is how I developed a deep, abiding love for the old-school romances of the ’80s and with it, an obsession with the fashion choices of vintage romance novel heroines.

My GOD people wore some amazing shit back in the ’80s.

The 80s were a big decade for overblown glamour: Dallas, Dynasty, Nancy Reagan, White Diamonds, you get the picture. And while Harlequin, Silhouette and other publishers were still pumping out plenty of mousy gals and stern cowboys, a great heap of romances starred models, actresses and sundry other wealthy women with enormous wardrobes. Naturally, they had to be dressed appropriately for every occasion.

Romances are, after all, grounded in the female experience, where (as we can all attest) clothing is generally ascribed outsized importance. Combine that with the fact that category romances in particular have traditionally been produced with magazine-like frequency and regularity—and are thus supremely of the moment—and you get a time capsule overflowing with synthetics and lurid shades of yellow.

So let’s take a second to salute some of the style icons of ’80s romance.

Let’s start with Diamond Spur, a Diana Palmer title from 1988. The main character is Kate, who has long carried a torch for the surly, emotionally stunted rancher next door. But he runs her off due to his deep and abiding and very masculine PAIN and ANGST, so she dreams a new dream. She’ll make a go of a fashion career. She shows some designs to the bosses at the textile plant where she works, one thing leads to another and the next thing she knows she’s showing her collection in New York. (That’s how it works, right?) Naturally, her muse is the great state of Texas:

The next morning, Kate rode into San Frio with her mother. She was wearing one of the outfits she’d designed herself—a simple, loose sky blue blouse with set-in cap sleeves with lots of embroidery in Indian patterns on the square yoke and bodice and sleeves, and an ankle-length full circle skirt of chambray that echoed the blouse’s embroidery around the hem. She finished the outfit with simply suede fringed boots in a powder blue and a matching bag.

It’s the powder-blue that really gives the game away. That’s Texas in 1988, all right. I’m picturing this shade, specifically:

But in the style of this spread, taken from a mid-80s McCalls:

Consider as well Elizabeth Lowell’s Dark Fire, from the same year. Cindy arrives in South America to look for her missing business partner in her boutique. (Her friend is shacked up with some sexy local the entire time Cindy is braving the backroads in a shitty Jeep. Some friend.) And so we are treated to this jumpsuit, coming soon to a vintage boutique near you:

“Trace’s cold green eyes looked Cindy over again in a very leisurely manner, admiring all the velvet curves and alluring shadows, noting with a kind of distant surprise that she had made no effort to enhance or even to announce the feminine bounty beneath her clothes. The off-white jumpsuit she wore was loose and wrinkled. The belt around her waist could have been tightened several more notches without cutting into tender flesh. She wore flat sandals rather than heels, which would have emphasized the sway of her shapely hips.”

It is very important that you understand that she does not understand her own allure. Otherwise, you’ll find it incomprehensible why she doesn’t tell Trace, the hero, to take a hike. This is one of several Lowell novels in which the heroine works herself damn near to death out of determination/stubbornness and the hero lets her, thinking it’ll be a teachable moment, only instead he winds up feeling like a complete ass (because he is). (I prefer her romantic suspense novels. Amber Beach remains a favorite, despite the fact that during one especially memorable scene, the hero comes running to save the heroine practically naked and carrying a pistol described as, I swear I’m not making this up, “a handful of matte-black death.”)

Anyway, I’m picturing this, but with sandals:

Next: Sandra Brown’s 1983 category Temptation’s Kiss is a damn doozy. It features Megan, the hardworking sales manager for a metro Atlanta radio station, and Josh, who runs a regional advertising business. They’ve got a past, you see—she blames him for working her recently deceased husband into the grave. Also contributing to her anger: he made a pass at her the night before her wedding. They’re meant to be, of course, and so he manipulates her into working on a big project marketing the opening of a nearby coastal resort. (Worth mentioning for those of you who aren’t romance readers: This type of plot is, in 2015, almost impossible to get away with. The republished edition I read even includes a short intro from Brown, noting that the book is a bit old-fashioned.)

At one point, there’s a cocktail party. One woman wears “vermillion chiffon.” Another opts for “a copy of a Valentino blouse that was made solely of white organza ruffles, and a red taffeta tulip skirt.” (I like that Brown specified it’s a copy.) Meanwhile, on our heroine:

“As with all the new items she’d bought for her wardrobe before leaving on the trip, she’d purchased this dress because of its sexiness. The tight long sleeves and bodice were black crepe. Where it attached to the tulle, it was cut into petal shapes that seemed to have barely climbed up an invisible vine to cling to her breasts. Beneath the sheer tulle, her skin, sun-kissed now, shone warm, and inviting.”

Petal shapes! Tulle! Suntans! She’s hitting all the highlights! I’m assuming it’s some combination of these outfits:

But skirting DANGEROUSLY close to this:

That’s nothing on our heroine’s daytime ensembles, though. Her traveling outfit:

“The chic white pants suit gave Megan the confidence she needed to push through the glass door of the private airfield’s terminal. She knew how well the slacks fit her compact figure, how the rounded contours of her derriere were defined by their snugness. The jacket, styled like that worn by baseball players, went over a silk shell in bold stripes of green, yellow and blue.”

Talk to me, Joan:

And the real winner:

“Her dress was a crisp linen navy blue with smart brass military buttons down the front and on the patch pockets over each breast. She wore it with navy-and-white spectator pumps. At the time she’d bought the dress, she lamented that she couldn’t wear the red blazer that went with it—it clashed with her hair—so she’d settled for one in canary yellow.”


Nor does the hero escape. At one point he appears “dressed in a black-and-gold sweat suit and running shoes.” Wow.

But nothing tops Jayne Ann Krentz’s 1983 category romance, Corporate Affair. (The first-ever Silhouette Desire release!) Heroine Kalinda runs a data processing company that’s been targeted for takeover by her dickbag ex-fiance. She fights him with the help of Rand, a handsome man she meets in the mountains who just HAPPENS to be a retired hostile takeover specialist. It’s not my favorite by this author (I prefer her historicals written later as Amanda Quick)—but the outfits are solid gold. Here’s Kalinda’s idea of cocktail party attire:

“And you look quite perfect yourself tonight,” Mrs. Sebastian added with a warm smile, surveying her hostess’s printed beet-red silk jacquard sheath with its touches of peacock blue. A fine gold braid edged the neckline and wrists.

Rest assured that “the buttery material slid fluidly over her small breasts and rounded hips.” You’ll have to fill in the colors yourself but I’m completely confident in your powers of imagination:

But this getup she wears out to a restaurant is EVERYTHING:

Properly appreciative of the importance of fighting David Hutton on all levels, Kalinda dressed with care for the important evening. She chose a dinner suit of rich, printed velvet. The small, shaped jacket fit over a softer velvet skirt and a silk blouse complimented the chic combination. Over it she flung a dashing sequined and fringed shawl. Hair sleek and held with a glittering comb, she looked sophisticated and elegantly sure of herself. Which was exactly the note she wanted to set in front of David, she told herself.

Did you get all that? Velvet skirt AND jacket, plus a silk blouse, and a glittering comb, topped with a shawl that is both sequined AND fringed. What does a dinner suit even look like? Unfortunately, my exhaustive search of the Associated Press photo archives turned up precisely zilch that came even close to resembling this glorious concoction. And so it lives only in our hearts and deepest, most feverish wardrobe fantasies.

Photos via AP Images.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin