America Forges Ahead 19802003

Hi listorians have yet to come up with good labels for the 1980s and 1990s. The 1980s have been called the "Decade of Greed" because of the aggressive business growth of the time, and the 1990s have been labeled the "New Economy" or the "Internet Age," recognizing the extraordinary influence of high-tech industries. These labels focus attention on the economic changes of the time, yet they may not fully recognize the extent to which the United States dominated Western culture. In world politics, economic innovation, and popular culture, the United States was the single most dynamic and creative force in the world.

The new world order

At the beginning of the 1980s world politics were dominated by the Cold War (1945—91), a long-simmering conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that forced nearly every country in the world to side with the capitalist, democratic United States or the Communist, state-run Soviet Union. Under American presidents Ronald Reagan (1911—) and George Bush (1924—), the United States began a program of weapon building like none in history. The Soviets struggled to keep up, but the American economy soon prevailed. By the late 1980s the Soviet system had begun to weaken and collapse, and by 1991 the entire Soviet Union collapsed

Gap is a successful worldwide chain of clothing stores, with many divisions, each of which sells variations of basic casual clothes. In 1969 Donald and Doris Fisher opened a small clothing and record store in San Francisco. Seven years later the company had grown enough to begin selling its stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, and the next year it opened a charitable foundation. In 1983 Millard Drexler became the company president. One of his first acts was to buy a small travel clothing store called Banana Republic, which became a profitable division of Gap, Incorporated, selling upscale "casual luxury" clothing. Over the next decades the company opened GapShoes, GapKids, and BabyGap. GapBody opened to sell underwear and sleepwear, and Old Navy, which opened in 1994 and is owned by Gap, sold discount casuals for the whole family.

Since the 1980s the Gap has become a multibillion-dollar business and a household word marketing such basics as T-shirts, blue jeans, and sweaters. Gap stores are designed to be accessible to busy shoppers who want to buy fashionable clothes cheaply. The stores are easy to recognize, as every Gap store has the same basic design and layout. The stores specialize in offering a few basic designs in a wide variety of trendy colors, and they receive whole new lines of clothing seven or eight times a year, making sure that the colors and styles stay up-to-date.

Beginning in 1987 Gap began to open the first of several hundred stores around the world. Not surprisingly, a Gap store in Paris, France, looks exactly like a Gap in New York or Hong Kong. Critics of the Gap disapprove of this mass production and marketing of fashion, claiming that it damages individuality with everyone buying the exact same clothes from the exact same store everywhere in the world. Others dislike the huge stores, which often change the tone and personality of the neighborhoods in which they are located. They say that because Gap is part of a large corporation it can sell clothes at lower prices, which drives smaller, locally owned stores out of business. Still others have called on Gap to take responsibility for the poor working conditions at the clothing factories in Mexico, Asia, and Central America where the company buys the clothes it sells. Regardless of the views on the chain, Gap continued to be a success into the twenty-first century.

San Fransico Clothes And Culture

This Gap store in San Francisco, California, looks the same as any other Gap store and sells much the same merchandise.

Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

This Gap store in San Francisco, California, looks the same as any other Gap store and sells much the same merchandise.

Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

and broke into a number of smaller countries, many of which immediately embraced capitalism and democracy. Without a shot fired at the enemy, the United States had won its greatest victory.

With the Soviet Union gone, the United States was now the world's greatest superpower. With the world's biggest army and the world's strongest economy, U.S. power truly dominated the world. President George Bush, explaining the role that the United States would play in world politics in 1991, proclaimed the existence of a "new world order," with the United States promoting peace and prosperity as the world's policeman. One of its first actions in this role was waging the Gulf War against Iraq, a country that threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East. This short war lasted just a few weeks in 1991 but flared up again in 2003 when President George W. Bush (1946—) sent troops in to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937—). The United States's continued involvement in the Middle East created great hostility amongst Arabs who did not like Western society and helped fuel terrorist attacks such as the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Though most Western countries supported the United States in the first war in Iraq, that support declined in the second war. Being the world's sole superpower was not easy for the United States.

Economic booms

Another area in which the United States led the world was economic growth. Fueled by the economic programs of President Reagan, who served from 1980 to 1988, the American economy boomed in the mid-1980s, as did the economies of most European countries and Japan, which had become a major economic competitor. Reagan cut taxes on the wealthiest people and gave businesses huge advantages. His economic programs created a climate where aggressive business practices were highly valued. American business expanded overseas, establishing factories in poor countries that could provide cheap labor and opening stores and branches in the more prosperous countries.

Though the economy declined between 1987 and 1992, a new surge under President William Jefferson Clinton (1946—) helped to sustain American economic supremacy. This new boom was driven by the growth of the computer industry, especially industry giant Microsoft, and the many offshoots of that industry, called the high-


Power dressing, the wearing of expensive business clothing to indicate status, became fashionable among working men and women in the United States and Great Britain during the 1980s. At a time when jobs were plentiful and businesses were thriving, power dressing enabled people to convey an image of success. The centerpiece of a power dresser's wardrobe was a tailored business suit, or power suit. In addition, power dressing included expensive accessories: cellular phones, electronic date books, laptop computers, and luxury sports cars made by BMW, Jaguar, or Porsche. The goal of power dressing was to look like an executive whether you were or not.

For more than fifty years, the gray flannel suit had been a popular style for working men. But power suits were different. Power suits gave the wearer a look of authority and style that had previously been affordable to only the rich. Italian designer Giorgio Armani (1 934—) created the most popular brand of power suit. Armani's custom suits were beyond the budgets of regular working men, but the demand for power suits encouraged Armani to introduce less expensive lines of ready-to-wear suits. These suits became a symbol of business success for fashionable white-collar working men.

Power dressing for women made even more of an impact. Before the 1970s most working women were confined to such traditional female occupations as secretaries, bookkeepers, and typists. By the 1980s, however, women were becoming lawyers, politicians, and corporate executives. To complement their new authority, women power-dressed. Such attire communicated the impression of confidence and authority. Power dressing enabled women to be taken seriously in a male-dominated corporate workplace.

Like men, women sought designer label clothing for their business wardrobe. Designers such as Karl Lagerfeld (1938—) and Valentino (1932—) offered fashionable business ensembles of jackets with large shoulder pads and straight skirts to be worn with color-coordinated shoes and handbags. Women softened their look by wearing blouses in muted colors under their suit jacket or blazer or accessorizing their outfit with an ornately designed scarf or pin.

Other than designers, power-dressing styles were influenced by celebrities and television shows. England's prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-) popularized tailored evening suits; Diana, princess of Wales (1961-1997), popularized hats, which usually were worn after work; and stars of nighttime soap operas of the 1980s such as Dallas (1978-91) and Dynasty (1981-89) popularized padded shoulders and costume jewelry.

tech industry or the "New Economy." Stock markets around the world soared and the economy was further boosted by the emergence of the Internet as a means of exchanging goods and information. Again, American businesses led the way. This boom finally ended around 2000, and a sustained recession, or economic downturn, was felt throughout the world in the first years of the twenty-first century.

Popular culture

Not only was the United States the dominant political and economic power in the 1980s and 1990s, it was also the world's leading producer of popular culture: movies, television, music, food, and more. The entertainers and movies that made a hit in the United States were soon exported throughout the West. Musicians such as Madonna (1958—) and Michael Jackson (1958—), and sports stars such as basketball player Michael Jordan (1963—), became worldwide celebrities. American filmmakers provided the majority of the world's films. American restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King opened stores across the globe, including such once-forbidden spots as Russia and China.

The spread of popular culture meant that the world was becoming Americanized, and sometimes the world did not like it. In the countries of Europe, which had traditionally been the United States's greatest allies, or associates, hostility toward American dominance grew. French people protested the opening of a Disneyland amusement park in Paris, France, in the 1990s, and the European Economic Union worked hard to counter American economic dominance by easing trade between European countries and introducing a single currency to be used throughout Europe in the early twenty-first century. Hostility toward the United States was greatest in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and Far East. Facing these hostilities is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the United States in its role as world leader.

Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, when politically oriented social groups and movements like the hippies, a group of young people who rejected conventional values and dress, and the Women's Liberation movement had a great effect on what people wore, clothing customs in the 1980s and beyond were rarely touched by world events. Fads were more highly influenced by the entertainment industry. While the consumption of high-priced and high fashion clothes increased in the 1980s, the general prosperity of people in Western countries meant that almost everyone had access to a range of comfortable and even stylish clothing and accessories.


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Feinstein, Stephen. The 1990s: From the Persian Gulf War to Y2K. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.

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Lomas, Clare. 20th Century Fashion: The 80s and 90s, Power Dressing to Sportswear. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.

Nevaer, Louis E. V. Into—and Out of-—the Gap: A Cautionary Account of an American Retailer. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 2001.

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