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What kids needed for back to school in the '80s

Shoes with pop-out wheels, Star Wars notebooks and acid wash denim were just three of the options when families went back-to-school shopping in the '80s.

Parents looked for good value, but kids just wanted to be cool

A sign at a Halifax store in 1980 promised to send kids back to school in style. (Newsday/CBC Archives)

You could wear shoes with wheels, sport acid wash denim from head to toe and carry notebook branded with the movie The Return of the Jedi — if you were headed back to school in the 1980s. 

No matter the year, kids were been looking for what was cool for school, and parents were looking for good value.  

1980: Start with overalls and sneakers 

Back to school in 1980

41 years ago
1:55
Parents and kids find shoes and clothes to get ready for school in 1980.Halifax. 1:55

CBC reporter Stan Johnson visited a Halifax mall for CBC's Newsday in early September to find out what people were buying for back-to-school season.

"Overalls, jeans, shirts, sneakers," said a young boy, who agreed with Johnson's suggestion that his mother had spent "a lot" of money on new things for school.

"He's taken a growth spurt this summer," said a woman, nodding at the boy. "Probably a couple hundred dollars."

Johnson surveyed a store mannequin's attire and outlined the prices for what it was wearing: a jumper for $28.99 and blouse for $19.99. (That's about $93 and $64 in 2021.) 

Footwear with pop-out wheels was available for back-to-school shoppers in 1980. (Newsday/CBC Archives)

A pair of plain white sneakers was offered for sale at $11.88, the equivalent of $39 today — but they weren't the only kicks available.

"Inflate the price to about $30 if you want wheels on the shoes," said Johnson.

1983: Search for supplies that will last

Good buys on school supplies

38 years ago
3:02
A consumer reporter has tips on good values in getting set for the 1983-84 school year. 3:02

The then-recently released movie The Return of the Jedi might have seemed like a cool motif for a spiral-bound pad with lined paper, but as Halifax consumer reporter Dorothy Grant noted, the wire "can break easily." 

The camera also showed a "scribbler" with the band Rush on the cover, which was already damaged and coming loose.

In addition to its breakable wire, the movie-themed notebook was a poor value.

"A 50-page scribbler with The Return of the Jedi on the cover cost $1.99," said Grant. "A plain one with 300 pages is a much better buy at $2.99." 

For school bags, parents were advised to look for school bags with wide shoulder straps, double stitching and reinforced corners. (1st Edition/CBC Archives)

She also cautioned shoppers against plastic binders, packaged items containing "frivolous" things, and erasable pens, which posed problems to the left-handed due to smudging.

Then there was the question of how to carry all that stuff.

"School bags now come in dozens of shapes, materials, and prices," said the reporter.

She advised parents to look for school bags with wide shoulder straps, double stitching, reinforced corners and with buckles and handles that would withstand treatment by an an "active child."

1987: Be cool with acid wash denim

The must-have fashion for 1987

34 years ago
1:27
For style-conscious kids headed back to school in 1987 Sydney, N.S., acid wash is de rigueur. 1:27

In September 1987, Peter Downie of CBC's Midday introduced a story from Sydney, N.S. about what people were buying beyond the "usual stuff" like books, pencils and erasers.

"Going back to school without something in acid wash denim seems to be a fate worse than death," said the CBC's Joan Weeks in her report. "Heaven help the child who wears the wrong designer label."

A woman noted that acid wash was "what everybody's wearing."

A teen girl singled out the denim brand she preferred, and that seemed to contradict another woman's perspective on what kids liked.

"The girls are pretty flexible, but ... my son is getting very particular," she said. 

A teen knew exactly what brand of clothes were right while shopping for back-to-school clothes in 1987. (Midday/CBC Archives)

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