When we think of shoulder pads today, what usually comes into our minds are the overstated wear and funny photos of our relatives and friends in the 1980s. It was in the said time when power dressing with large shoulder pads reached its peak. However, these fashion pieces were more than just extravagant wear or an old-fashioned costume. Shoulder pads were the harbingers of change, an insignia of women being equal to men, in pay, respect, and status.
The Start in the 1930s
Early football American uniform with shoulder pads
Originally, shoulder pads were invented for men in 1877 as a protective layer for football players. It was only until the 1930s when they paved their way into women’s fashion. Thanks to the creative mind of Elsa Schiaparelli that envisioned adding the padding to women’s clothing. Being part of the surrealist movement, the Italian fashion designer was renowned for designing bold clothing that quickly drew attention and provided customers courage and confidence. She continued to be extremely experimental, incorporating shoulder pads in her structured jackets – a peek of a trend that happened decades later.
Soon enough, other designers followed suit, such as Marcel Rohmas, who applied it to his styles, as well. America, Adrian Adolph Greenburg, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios’ chief costume designer, added shoulder detailing for his styles for MGM throughout the decade. The look finally catapulted into Hollywood mainstream when Joan Crawford, one of MGM’s biggest stars, wore a formal gown with a massive fluffy, ruffled shoulder for her role in Letty Lynton.
Taking Steps in the 1940s
In America, it was still unnatural to see women taking jobs. But, World War II required men to be on the frontline and forced women to find employment to help sustain their families. The situation ignited women as they wanted to be regarded as independent and strong as men. As they fought and moved into workplaces generally dominated by men, designers resembled the trend by implementing an exaggerated shoulder silhouette. The strong shoulder perfectly fits the way women wanted to be seen. While women take less physical space, the broad shoulders served as a stylistic solution to broaden a women’s frame and served as a symbol for resurgence, equality, and women empowerment.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the trend was slower to build on, even if it was backed by the influence of Schiaparelli. Paris knew, however, about the looming war. As you know, politics typically has an impact on clothing trends. So, when Britain and France declared war in 1939, the Parisian designers held up their winter collection preview in order to adjust the styles and make them reflect the political climate. It was the said collection that brought the trend of bias-cut dresses from the 1930s into oblivion. This time the look was immensely influenced by the military. Like in America, shoulder pads became a staple in the fashion industry as it became an avenue for women to sneak their way into the once male-dominated environment.
After the war ended, France was in chaos. Nevertheless, the French people never lost hope and began rebuilding their country. Even if they are in shambles, French fashion houses also started anew to regain their businesses. Christian Dior, a designer, focused on a revolutionary design collection that brought existence to a new way women dress post-war. “New Look” was introduced in 1947, and shoulder pads were no longer part of the equation. Dior recognized that women yearned for something fresh and eradicated the padded shoulders as it only reminded the French people about the war. Fashion sense became extremely feminine again, and the shoulder pad trend was on the outs.
Catapulting to Popularity in the 1980s
When World War II ended, men went back home from their wartime jobs, and women were pushed back into their primary roles as caregivers and homemakers in the family. Few decades later, women re-entered the working industry. Shoulder pads also had a massive comeback and became the prominent picture of the ’80s. From Hollywood celebrities, to politicians, to renowned personalities, everyone was wearing the look.
Margaret Thatcher and her power suit
Former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the one who helped introduce what was known now as power dressing. She was then famous for her fashion taste, sporting skirt suits, and blazers with massive shoulder pads. Being the first female Prime Minister, Thatcher broke a tradition and held a position that was once only for men. Just like how shoulder pads were used in the 1930s, Thatcher utilized them to bridge the gap between femininity and masculinity, and visually resemble herself as equal with the men she worked within the office. More women followed the style, and became a hit in corporate offices where women started asserting their power.
It doesn’t mean that shoulder pads only made strides in corporate fashion alone. Of course, women were also interested in glamour. With the emergence of power dressing, icons like Madonna and Grace Jones followed suit and brought existence to a sense of fashion they’re still strongly known for. In the media industry, teen series like Heathers showed women sporting blazers with exaggerated shoulders. The TV show Dynasty, on the other hand, presented women with frilly shoulder detailing or large shoulder pads. These personalities, entities, and pop cultures, like in the earlier decades, used shoulder pads, to exude strength, confidence, and female empowerment.
Fast forward to today, shoulder pads are regaining their popularity in fashion, mainly due to the extensive promotion in the fashion circuit. Moreover, it’s a great thing that fashion is now losing its gender restrictions. So, what once used to be a symbol for female empowerment, shoulder pads are now here for each one of us to wear and enjoy.