The 80s Called: Take a Step Back in Time at the Bata Shoe Museum

For those old enough to remember, the 80s – in all of their neon, big hair, and soft rock-filled glory – the nostalgia of the last pre-digital decade is real (RIP).

This is especially the case when it comes to footwear: from pumps to jelly sandals (we can still feel the blisters), the shoes of the 80s tell a distinct tale of the time. And now, guests, can take a well-heeled trip down memory lane – even if they aren’t old enough to recall the decade first-hand – at Toronto’s famed Bata Shoe Museum.

Dressed to Impress: Footwear and Consumerism in the 1980s features 80 pairs of shoes spanning the decade and is organized into six sections: Dressed for Success; Work Hard, Play Hard; Let’s Get Physical; Mainstream Rebels; Pump it Up; and Designer Highlights.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the decade – and something that’s glaringly apparent when leaving the museum, if it wasn’t before –  is that its known for so many looks. This means everything from Jane Fonda-inspired workout gear, to fancy pumps and sneakers that have stood the test of time (think: Converse and Nike Air Jordan).

“Fashion in the 1980s is so interesting because there is no single, cohesive look that is emblematic of this era,” said Bata Shoe Museum curator Nishi Bassi. “There were so many different trends, like preppy tennis sneakers, jelly shoes, and professional pumps, that were popular in this period and that allowed consumers to play with different identities. Many footwear trends from the 1980s can also be linked to larger cultural concepts such as status, success, personal fitness and rebellion.”

The main goal, says Bassi, was to showcase this diversity of the 80s – from preppy to goth – and invite visitors of all ages to learn or reminisce about this fascinating decade.

The whole exhibit is set in a shopping mall, the common ground for style-conscious consumers in days past. This shopping mall is complete with a “movie theatre,” space, which broadcasts commercials, music videos, and movie clips from the 80s.

“Shopping malls were expanding across North America in this period, and remained central to consumer culture,” says Bassi. “Malls were the place to both shop for the latest trends and be seen wearing them.” In short, shopping malls were sort of like the modern day social media.”

So, what are the most notable shoes in the exhibit? Well, it depends on who you ask. But here are just a few stand-out examples.



Launched in the mid-80s, the Air Jordan remains incredibly popular today. “By the end of the 1980s, Nike was one of the most successful producers of athletic footwear,” says Bassi. “Much of its success can be attributed to its new focus on basketball shoes and the release of the Air Jordan I in 1985.”

Canadian shoe designer John Fluevog released a pair of winklepickers, a type of footwear popular with Goth consumers, in the 1980s. “Goth style was on the rise as musicians like Siouxsie Sioux and The Cure helped set the sound and style for the genre,” says Bassi.



New York-based designers Susan Bennis and Warren Edwards created a pair of what Bassi calls “show-stopping” pumps. “Their limited-edition styles were beloved by glamourous celebrities such as Cher and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis throughout the 1980s,” says Bassi. “The comic-book-like font of the ‘Pop’ and ‘Power’ is reminiscent of pop art, which had a revival in the early part of the decade.”


The Gucci horsebit loafer has remained a classic item of menswear since its invention in the 1950s. “It was associated with an elite, wealthy consumer, as signified by the fine craftsmanship and equestrian-referencing metal snaffles across the vamps,” says Bassi. “These leather slip-ons were a popular choice among executives in the 1980s. By the early 2010s, they had earned the nickname ‘deal sleds’ and were worn by ambitious bankers hoping to ‘close a deal.’”



Aerobics was one of the fastest-growing forms of exercise in the 1980s, especially among women, highlights Bassi. “Sneakers with soft leather uppers were popular for this activity, and brands sought to capitalize on this trend,” says Bassi. “Reebok was the most successful, with the debut of their Freestyle in 1982. The original model was a high-top with two Velcro straps and glove leather uppers that were designed for flexibility. They were first released in white, but a slew of bright colours quickly followed. The Freestyle became one of Reebok’s best sellers, turning it into one of the most profitable producers of athletic footwear in this decade.”

Whether you have a soft spot for the 80s based on memories, or are inspired by the looks and themes of the time, this exhibition is not one to miss.

“Guests are having so much fun with this exhibition,” says Bassi. “It brings back feelings of nostalgia for those that grew up in the 80s and it inspires new ideas for those that have only heard of the 80s. We have a full lineup of programming for visitors to experience that will keep them coming back time and time again.”

Watch for a full slate of 80s-inspired events on the website here.  This exhibit runs until March 2024.

Erin Nicole Davis

Erin Nicole Davis

Erin Nicole Davis is a Toronto-based writer and actor. When she’s not writing the day away in a face mask, she’s taking in the city’s vibrant arts scene, doing a red carpet interview or brunching with her leading ladies (at least, in pre-COVID-19 times). Follow Erin: @erinnicoledavis