IT WAS THE decade of the dialectic--10 years of "what goes around comes around," sometimes at an astonishingly quick clip. In the 1980s, our interpretations of beauty were so diverse that we seemed to swing quickly from extreme to extreme in only a season or two. Consider Madonna, who started the decade with curly brown hair and a zaftig body. She refashioned herself into a thin, muscular platinum blonde with cropped hair, replaced that with dark, shoulder-length hair that emphasized her ethnic looks and enters the '90s as a blonde with a softer silhouette. Her sheer number of transformations may be unusual, but reflects the sorts of changes that pulsed from Hollywood to Wall Street.
The '80s were the age of Reagan, and Nancy's diminutive size-4 body was a model for an aesthetic of thinness adopted by a host of women--dubbed "the social X-rays" by satirist Tom Wolfe in "Bonfire of the Vanities." Jane Fonda spurred an even greater number of women and men to plane their bodies with aerobics. By 1985, liposuction, a French surgical technique of sucking out fat, had become the most popular cosmetic surgery procedure in America, according to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.
But for every fashion, it seemed, there was an equal and opposite possibility for refashioning. By 1987, models and movie stars such as Paulina Porizkova, Elle MacPherson and Kim Basinger, with discernible breasts and prominent derrieres, created a new clamor for shape. Quick to respond, cosmetic surgeons soon developed ways to transplant the old fat to new spots--rear ends, cheeks, hands, even the mouth, as full lips became a sought-after symbol of beauty.
The push to extremes was equally evident in trends for hair. The hair-sprayed helmets of Nancy Reagan and Tammy Faye Bakker yielded to the moussed manes of Cher. Toddlers showed up for school with gelled spikes and tails that grew from otherwise short hairdos, returned to more classic page boys and then clamored for crew cuts. And the decade that began by embracing Brooke Shields' below-the-shoulder tresses ended with a new appreciation for the cropped-above-the-ears style of Vogue cover girl Linda Evangelista. Similarly, Don Johnson's cultivated, tough-guy stubble gave way to the clean-shaven, slicked-back look of Michael Douglas in "Wall Street."
More divergent '80s trends that changed the image of American beauty: The popularity of tanning salons faded quickly as men and women were told that any tan may result in skin cancer. Sunscreens and sunblocks thus became the single most important skin-care product of the decade. Paloma Picasso's bold red lips got the '80s kiss of approval--and she, along with every cosmetics manufacturer, marketed a version of true red; nevertheless, pale, natural looks such as those favored by Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen seemed sure to usher in the '90s. Olympian Florence Griffith-Joyner's 3-inch nails made almost as many headlines as her gold-medal dashes, sending lines of women back to nail salons for artificial imitations--a trend superseded by a demand for demure, white-tipped French manicures.
The face of the '80s was perhaps best illustrated on covers of Elle magazine, which features unpredictable beauties of various ethnic extractions and proves beyond doubt that a face need not look Caucasian to have newsstand appeal. But the icon of the decade had to be Michael Jackson, who used perms, makeup and plastic surgery to alter his image time and time again, proving that with plenty of time, money and effort, you could look any way you wanted to in the '80s.