As they went about blinding people with their wardrobe choices, the divas on primetime soap operas like Dynasty, Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest aptly reflected the confidence and bravado of the time, the feeling being, “Who’s going to have the nerve to laugh at me? Besides, I look utterly fabulous. Come on, agree!”
Knots Landing (1979-93) was loosely based on an Ingmar Bergman art house film, believe it or not-Scenes from a Marriage, with four couples instead of one-but American audiences didn’t really need to know that. More accessibly, it involved large-scale histrionics in the fictional cul-de-sac of Seaview Circle somewhere in California, with elaborate clothes to match the plus-sized emotions. Donna Mills as town troublemaker Abby got to wear the sexiest stuff, but Michele Lee as activist/entrepreneur Karen had some fashion fun, too; Lisa Hartman’s singer Ciji added to the glitz with her rock-and-rollish hair and sexy wedding gown; and Joan Van Ark’s valiant Val specialized in some very sensible chic. The show sported lots of cleavage, spangly gowns and fur trims, with every shade of blond under the sun. (Brunette Michele was one of the few to let more than her roots show). The net result came off like an even more scripted precursor to the Real Housewives, though the menfolk like Ted Shackelford and Alec Baldwin were pretty well turned out in their own right.
Style was also the star of Falcon Crest (1981-90), which was set in the California wine biz and as a result became labeled “Dallas with grapes.” But it was more than that, because Jane Wyman centered the show with a lot of authority, and unapologetically wore the outfits to match. Oscar-winning Wyman was Angela Channing, the moxieish matriarch who held the reins of Falcon Crest Winery, and her clothes were a bold assortment of coverups that suitably said, “Don’t mess with me, people!” They were schoolmarmish ensembles with big shoulders and often large bows, too, and-when you factored in her Chia Pet-like hair-Wyman radiated a certain first lady appeal (which she would have also exuded offscreen if she’d stayed married to Ronald Reagan). And if Wyman seemed to be wearing too much at times, Lorenzo Lamas (playing her runaround grandson, Lance) was often wearing not much at all.
TV at the time was also benefiting from another no-holds-barred designer, Bob Mackie, who had made his biggest mark in the 1970s designing for wildly unself-conscious TV stars such as Carol Burnett and Cher. But he was still zhooshing up the ‘80s with swanky outfits and wonderfully designed overkill.
And whether she wore Versace, Valentino or Ferre, Elizabeth Taylor was the ultimate glam icon of the ‘80s-a real-life Alexis Carrington, but without the witchery. (And with two Oscars! Joan Collins was always thought of as the poor man’s Liz-that is, until Dynasty gave her career some zing along with the shoulder pads.)
When she accepted a special Golden Globe award in 1985, Taylor sported spiky, two-toned hair and a cleavage-flashing dress with a very loud and exciting floral print on the upper left side. It really was a sight-especially in a famous photo from that evening where she’s standing alongside Liza Minnelli, infringed epaulets, and Rock Hudson, looking relatively humble in a tux. When Hudson tragically died of AIDS a few months after that, Taylor devoted herself to the cause, alternating between hawking perfume and selling awareness, always with a flair for the glammy glitz. And by the way, guess who happened to have designed that Golden Globes dress for Liz? Dynasty designer Nolan Miller! (Miller sadly passed away this year, leaving a legacy of primetime glamour.)
On TV, question lady Barbara Walters rode the ’80s wave of boldness, dabbling in floral prints and large necklaces. And along came Oprah Winfrey, who sported fluffy hair and truly arresting patterns en route to world domination. Before she went national, I was on Winfrey’s show with a bevy of New York club kids, and remember being terribly amused as she kept asking us, “Why do you dress like that?” Funny, we wanted to ask her the same thing!
And as music became a more visual art form, a new posse of pop divas grabbed audiences via their sacrilegiously sexy chic (Madonna), crinolines and combat boots (Cyndi Lauper), and embroidered jackets enhanced by a leaning tower of tresses (Janet Jackson).
But that was a more rebellious form of expression than the ritzy one embraced by the era’s upper-crusty socialites. In a sphere far removed from pop stars, ‘80s society dames made their own kind of music by flaunting their wealth anywhere there was a camera, from cultural events to charity balls. Their idea of something shocking was mixing pricey samples from two different designers, while their zaniest achievement was dabbling in good taste so fervently it sometimes came out kitsch.
The primetime soaps pretty much came to life at uptown to-dos, where the regular attendees included Bill Blass-wearing rich lady Judy Peabody and big-spending socialite Nan Kempner, usually in Yves Saint Laurent. Kempner once sardonically claimed to want to be buried naked because “I know there’s a store where I’m going.” And she surely had credit there.
Validating all this haute-ness, even the White House took pains to send out the message that high-end shopping is good for you. Couture-crazed first lady Nancy Reagan and her husband, Ronald, reigned from 1981 to ’89-the peak years of Knots Landing! And just like Jackie Kennedy in the ’60s, fancy Nancy promptly made fashion her mission. As intently as she was determined to get kids to “Just say no” to drugs, Nancy was resolved to just say yes to swanky chic.
Even if she got some of them for free, Nancy’s ensembles radiated unrepentant wealth while affording endless exposure to three favorite designers of the uptown doyennes-Adolfo, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. Perhaps her best-known outfit of all was her first inaugural gown-a beaded, one-shouldered number courtesy of James Galanos, all aglow in pristine white. It was so ‘80s, though the leading ladies of the hit CBS melodramas surely would have jazzed it up with a lightning-bolt motif and some asymmetrical features. After all, they personified the fashion credo of the entire decade: “More is more!”
THINK YOUR FAVORITE SHOWS ARE CRAZY? Wait until you read comments from their most ardent viewers. Ray Faiola directs the Audience Services department at CBS, which fields comments and answers questions from viewers around the world. Here are just a few of the comments that landed in his mailbag this issue-and our first reaction, before sending one of our carefully crafted replies.
“A Romanian political party is using How I Met Your Mother’s actors’ photos and brand to get votes through Facebook.”
You might suggest they would convey a bit more gravitas if they used the cast of 60 Minutes instead.
“As a former writer for NASA I am amazed at the number and frequency of grammatical errors used by characters on television.”
As compared to … Martians?
“Hello, I would like to ask what is point of jokes about New Jersey? I am fun of serial from Czech, and I don’t have no idea. And apologize my grammar.”
No need to apologize. You write like every other viewer from New Jersey.
“Last night, I was watching an episode of CSI: NY when one of the characters said, ‘Me and the guys are going out for a beer. Would you like to join us?’ Has it come to a time when writers do not even know good grammar and respect?”
This is an old show business strategy called “letting the audience think they are smarter than you are.”
“Have you ever considered that Sheldon Cooper would attempt to correct the grammar used in Star Trek’s mission statement? It should read: ‘To go boldly where no man has gone before.’ The original (‘To boldly go’) incorrectly splits the infinitive.”
It was originally supposed to be “to go baldly,” but that was before Captain Kirk decided to wear a divot.Back to top