Betsey Johnson sweater, 1983-84

Is it a sweater or is it a dress? A sweater dress? For the fan of Betsey Johnson's playful, eye-catching designs, this question would be of little concern. According to the designer herself, people who wear Betsey Johnson, "don't get stuck in fashion-says-do-this, fashion-says-do-that…The important thing is to be playful. And experiment."1 Like her clientele, Johnson was aware that strict fashion rules had fallen by the wayside in favor of a more eclectic approach to fashion. Instead of a strict formula for success, Johnson preferred to think of fashion as a catch-all "vegetable soup," a mix of different textures, flavors and colors that changed from person to person.2

20034096Betsey Johnson
Gift of Anonymous Donor


In the early-to-mid 1980s, fashion was fueled by on-screen icons. MTV launched in August 1981; its 24 hour-a-day music videos offered a continuous fashion show of the latest looks worn by Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Madonna and other icons of the 1980s. These musicians paid careful attention to their wardrobes, and what was seen on-screen often appeared on the street. Betsey Johnson was inspired by this interplay of fashion and popular culture. In 1985, she acknowledged the importance of popular culture to her designs, especially music: "Music gives me leads to what people are going to be doing…I sure would like to know who's the next Madonna."3

A slew of dance and theater oriented films also impacted fashion. Fame, Flashdance, Breakin' and Dirty Dancing created a trend for dance attire, including legwarmers, loose-fitting tops and leggings. Oversized shirts or sweaters were frequently worn over leggings, stirrup pants or stretchy knit skirts. This casual style even infiltrated the pages of Vogue; an October 1984 editorial in the magazine featured neon bright sweaters, including a hot-pink Betsey Johnson turtleneck sweater, over slim black leggings. According to Vogue, this look was the perfect weekend uniform. At 30 inches long, the in-between length of Betsey Johnson's hand-print pullover sweater is perfect for this look. Pair it with black leggings and this winter white hat, and you're ready for MTV.


1 Rourke, Mary. "Betsey Johnson: Dynamo of '60s on a Roll Again." Los Angeles Times 9 Nov. 1984: K10.

2 Ibid.
3 Gross, Michael. "Rock Videos Shape Fashion for the Young." The New York Times 27 Dec. 1985: B8.

2 responses to “Betsey Johnson sweater, 1983-84

  1. Christa says:

    FYI MTV was launched on August 1, 1981 not 1984.

  2. Rachel Harris says:


    Thanks for pointing out my typo. I had 1984 on the brain when I was writing! I’ve changed the typo in the post.

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