Why Sci-Fi and Fantasy Costumes of the ‘80s and ‘90s Were Totally Rad

The out-of-this world costumes of superheroes and goblin kings of our childhoods were nothing less than gnarly.

Batman and the Joker in Batman (1989)
Photo: Warner Bros.

Besides powers we all wish we could randomly wake up with, superheroes, time travelers, and magic makers have always had enviable wardrobes. These threads are also constantly upgraded. Futuristic fabrics have lately been en vogue in the supernatural realm, along with features that make you second-guess whether they’re part of the costume or the special effects. Case in point: the otherworldly flashing eyes on Bruce Wayne’s mask in Batman vs. Superman. 

While it’s true the past few years have ushered in a new crop of awesome fantasy and sci-fi movie costumes, we can’t help but grab our neon leggings and get all nostalgic about their past iterations. There’s just something that gets us amped about the costume closets and makeup arsenals from the decades that brought us a goblin king, the ghost with the most, the next generation of Star Trek, and a rainbow of spandex-clad superheroes.

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The colors were louder….

However high-tech the sci fi and fantasy costumes of today might be, they seem to have sacrificed something on the color front. The reds, blues, and rainbows from Superman to Star Trek seem so much more subdued today than they were several decades ago. While muted shades may have their merits, the saturated shades of yesterday have something to say—at blasting volume—when it comes to visual impact. Most superheroes and supervillains of the time look as if they just jumped, flipped, or flew out of the especially colorful comics of the time.

Can you even compare the color palette of later Jokers with that of Jack Nicholson’s ghastly grinning fiend? The purple suit was that much more purple and the dye job that much greener. How they were able to achieve that, only your undertaker knows for sure. Speaking of day-glo green, the question-marked bodysuit of Jim Carrey’s Riddler could have possibly emitted UV rays (and we have no doubt it was also blacklight responsive). Superpowers weren’t a prerequisite for radioactive colors, either. Could anyone forget that blinding flowered yellow shirt Cory Haim dares to wear in the comic-shop scene of The Lost Boys?  

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Those were hardly the only costumes brighter than an alien galaxy. If you set your TARDIS for 1984, the Sixth Doctor was a veritable rainbow of timey-wimey hijinks. Just dare Number Twelve to go out in public wearing that Technicolor scarf.

…and black was never so black. 

Even during the neon era, you could say that black has never been so black. Lydia from Beetlejuice might have started the Victoriana Goth trend with her layers and layers of black lace. Speaking of all things Victorian, the cast of The Lost Boys pretty much pioneered steampunk with leather vests, goggles and other gadgetry that could have easily fit into a fantastical scene from the turn of the century. While The Addams Family first aired as a TV sitcom in the ‘60s, it was Anjelica Huston’s Morticia who nailed the gothic goddess look in the early-to-mid ‘90s. No one had paler foundation, blacker hair, blood-redder lipstick or smokier smoky eyes than Morticia. Elvira was another gothic fashion icon for darker-minded fashionistas (though her plunging V-neck might have not necessarily met with parental approval). 

Not that makeup was limited to the ladies. With pitch-perfect pallor, blackened red lipstick, and hair that could have been swiped from Cure frontman Robert Smith, Edward Scissorhands obviously didn’t listen to his Avon lady. Even so, there was no better beauty routine to complement his all-black leather ensemble, envied by club kids everywhere. Beetlejuice’s naturally livid complexion and green-tinged blond hair were perfectly offset by inky black eyelids. His trademark stripes may have gone off the all-black grid, but no one will able be able to look at a black-and-white striped suit again and not feel inclined to say “Beetlejuice” three times.

There was more spandex. Everywhere.

If David Bowie’s unforgettable turn as the too-tight-leggings-clad goblin king Jareth is any indication, the ‘80s and early ‘90s were officially unofficially the Age of Spandex. You hardly had to puzzle your way through a labyrinth to find it. While many of today’s superheroes still rely on skintight bodysuits—how else could you be flexible enough to swing between New York skyscrapers?—those of decades past just seemed more… spandex-y. Batman’s bat suit still had some sculpting to it, but it stretched more than today’s Caped Crusader suit. Ultramodern textured materials were no kryptonite for Christopher Reeve’s Superman, whose super-stretch bodysuit in impossibly bright primary colors was never mistaken for a bird or a plane. 

While not as blinding as the Man of Steel, most of the male cast of Robin Hood: Men in Tights practiced their archery, riding and Broadway-esque singing and dancing in (what else?) forest-green spandex. If you’re looking for more color, look no further than Phaedos. The Power Rangers were a spectrum of the stretchy stuff. How else could they ninja their way through Tengu and Ooze men?

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Batman & Robin

Anything shiny was shinier to a power of ten. At least. 

One look at any recent superhero bodysuit that involves gold or silver, and it’s obvious today’s metallics tend to be somewhat muted. Not so if you dial back a few decades. The metallics then were not only metallic, but supernaturally so. Even supervillains required sunglasses in the movie theater. Mr. Freeze’s protective cryogenic suit in Batman and Robin could have easily doubled as a full-length mirror. Going for something more ethereal? Sarah’s shimmering cloud of a dress in Labyrinth wouldn’t seem quite as enchanting without tons of iridescence and and a bodice full of rhinestones. Even Jareth’s otherworldly eyes wouldn’t have spotted her half as easily in a ballroom full of masked goblins. Which was also full of glitter. Speaking of glitter, it was far beyond a craft store staple. The sparkly stuff was a sort of magical fairy dust. The more was showered (as opposed to sprinkled) on a costume, the more of an otherworldly aura it seemed to have. How else could the Childlike Empress of NeverEnding Story have gotten that glow?

The hair was literally out of this world.

While today’s sci fi and superhero hair is glossed and ironed to perfection, inspiring hundreds of YouTube tutorials, there’s something we still miss. The ‘80s and ‘90s pumped up the volume quite literally. Whether it was Edward Scissorhands’ towering raven coif, the perpetually windswept (with the help of hair gel) look in Dune or Miracle Max’s unintentional tribute to Flock of Seagulls in The Princess Bride, follicles were anything but flat in the age of big hair. Rufio couldn’t possibly be so commanding as the leader of the Lost Boys in Hook without his flashy red-and-black locks. 

Stylists had limitless creative license to spray, tease, dye, and embellish. Fantastical and futuristic characters called for equally outrageous hair. Not everybody had to spend hours washing out gallons of hairspray after filming was over, though. The secret behind Deanna Troi’s elaborately beaded vertical braid in the earlier episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation? The whole thing was a hairpiece, she confessed. In Labyrinth, Sarah’s skyscraper ‘do was not just piled into an enormous pouf but also crowned with glittering silver vines. No word yet on the number of teenage girls back then who tried to convince their hairdressers to turn them into a goblin princess for prom.

The “no-makeup makeup look” was an alien concept. 

Nowadays, it seems that makeup artists go out of their way to make sure that their characters look lipstick-free and foundation-less on the big screen. While the natural look might be a one your boss might approve of, characters that have superhuman powers or hail from a planet thousands of light-years away are just screaming for something unnatural. There is a reason Rita Repulsa later became the inspiration for drag queen Phi Phi O’Hara’s Halloween costume: outlandishly long lashes, eyelids dark as her plots, and contouring that could even challenge David Bowie.

Speaking of Bowie, besides being the king of the goblins, Jareth is also the king of eyeshadow. The white shadow that extended all the way to his browbone in an upturned sweep was perhaps even more epic than his quasi-mullet (though perhaps not so much as the spandex). Titanium white greasepaint and bloody lipstick breathed life into Jack Nicholson’s zombified Joker—no smearing like in later incarnations of the character. If there was any character in Batman more made up than the Joker, than it had to be Mr. Freeze. Bluish-white foundation is just a good look for anyone who wants to appear cryogenically frozen.

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The sleeves were bigger.

There is absolutely no question that the ‘80s and early ‘90s were the era for epic sleeves. Whether it was the princessy puffs that could swallow Sarah whole in the ballroom scene of Labyrinth to the Romulans’ strong shoulders on Star Trek: The Next Generation, everyone from goblin city captives to alien explorers alike were not shy about their sleeves. The Romulans probably didn’t even need weapons with those massive pointed shoulder pads that could have easily taken an eye out. Potentially lethal padding not your thing? As you wish.

The long and flowing look was everywhere in The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Those faux-medieval bell sleeves could have easily hidden several cats—or rodents of unusual size. Captain Hook’s ruffled, lace-trimmed sleeves in Hook were so massive they almost swallowed up the iconic hook that gave him his name. These days everything seems to be so much more streamlined. Not necessarily a bad thing, but sleeves that could warrant their own zip code made the sci-fi and fantasy movies of our childhoods just a little bit more magical. 

In fact, everything was (much) bigger…

With the exception of Thor’s Mjollnir, it seems that weapons and other necessities for magic, mayhem, and super-heroism have gradually shrunk over the past couple decades. Today’s tricked-out costumes are all about those undetectable compartments for stashing daggers and tranquilizer darts. While stealth couture has its advantages, there’s nothing like an enormous, imposing weapon to strike the fear of doom into your enemy. Just ask anyone facing a Klingon warrior. First developed for Star Trek: The Next Generation, this huge multi-pointed arc of metal is just one of those things you run from the moment it flashes before your eyes.

Aliens weren’t the only ones with the weapons advantage. Even more terrifying than Mr. Freeze was his freeze ray gun in Batman and Robin, big enough to plunge New York City into a temporary ice age. Outsized gadgets and gizmos didn’t just accessorize the characters that wielded them, but defined those characters. Would the Ghostbusters be the same without their traps and proton packs? Would Edward Scissorhands be Edward Scissorhands without those massive scissor-blade digits? Would Rita Repulsa be as repulsive without her massive moon staff? Maybe not, but that staff sure knew how to enter a room—or a snowglobe. 

Not long after the date Marty McFly was catapulted into the future, fantasy and sci-fi costumes may be more about function rather than form, stealth rather than showiness. So why are there still so many cosplays channeling characters from the era of excess? Maybe there’s something to say about black light-reactive spandex or makeup you just can’t miss. Colors that couldn’t possibly exist in nature, enough glitter to qualify for a UV rating and shoulder pads that could claim their own zip code were exactly what made these costumes (and the characters who wore them) memorable. What Jareth and Rita and Beetlejuice wore is now nothing less than iconic. Kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s—and those who wish they were—remember these costumes because it’s just about impossible not to. And just like any reanimated fashion trend, they could jump into a Delorean and travel through time again at any moment.