Spotted throughout the Fall/Winter 2018 runways and teased next season, for Spring/Summer 2019, too, shoulder pads are abound once again. But while the style—most synonymous with the 1980s—may seem old-fashioned, the pieces might actually be harbingers of change. Their popularity has aligned with significant moments in women’s history, and today’s return in designers’ over-the-top form is no mere accident.
Originally invented as a protective layer for American football players in the late 19th century, shoulder pads did not make their way into women’s fashion until the 1930s. It took the creative mind of Elsa Schiaparelli to dream up adding the padding to women’s clothes. The French designer, who was tapped into the surrealist art movement, was known for featuring trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) and other illusionistic details to her designs and experimenting with the shape of women’s silhouettes. Schiaparelli often used shoulder pads in her structured jackets, an early glimpse into the decades later, when the wartime chic look would dominate fashion.
Before that, however, Adrian Adolph Greenburg, widely known by his first name, brought shoulder pads to the silver screen in his designs, broadcasting the strong-shouldered look to a wider audience in the ’30s. His relationship with Joan Crawford was especially instrumental in this, as shoulder pads became a defining feature of her signature style. It began with Crawford’s character in the 1932 film Letty Lynton, who is largely remembered for her Adrian gown featuring fluffy, ruffled shoulders. This focus on the shoulders then developed into more structured iterations, like those abundant in Adrian’s costumes for Crawford in the 1945 drama Mildred Pierce. In the film, Crawford plays a determined woman who, after her husband leaves her, decides to create her own financial success and raise her two daughters on her own. The choice to outfit her in shoulder pads reflects the style’s connection to shifting gender roles, which was happening in the real world as women began entering the workforce during World War II.
With women taking positions in new professions, they needed a new look to fit in with the male-dominated industries. During this time, the slinky 1930s fashions made way for much more utilitarian, military-inspired styles, providing an opportunity for shoulder pads to become a fashion staple. The broad-shouldered silhouette created a way for women to assimilate into their male-dominated surroundings. After the war, women’s fashion became ultra feminine again, the Victory Suit style that arose in the ‘40s was soon replaced with Dior’s flattering New Look, and shoulder pads were on the outs.
Two decades later, the broad-shouldered look made a comeback in a major way. Shoulder pads became a defining feature of fashion in the 1980s. From political figures to Hollywood celebrities, everyone was sporting the look. Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, not only made an impact on politics, she helped define what we now call power dressing. Her public image was largely centered on her preferred uniform of skirt suits, which often included blazers with shoulder pads. As the first female Prime Minister, Thatcher assumed a traditionally male role, and thus used her dress to conform to accepted values. Much like the women of the late ’30s, Thatcher’s shoulder-padded suits offered a way for her to visually assimilate with the men she worked with and distance her femininity from her public office. More women followed suit as they began making strides into the upper echelons of corporate companies, and needed a way to simultaneously fit in and assert their power.
That’s not to say that women weren’t interested in more glamorous fashion, too. Along with the rise of the power suit was a more-is-more mentality that ruled ‘80s fashion. Looking at icons like Madonna and Grace Jones, ’80s styles, including shoulder pads, helped define the sense of fashion they’re still most strongly associated with. This was also apparent in the media, with TV shows such as Dynasty presenting images of women in decked out gowns, often enhanced by shoulder pads or frilly shoulder details. For the younger generation, teen dramas like Heathers featured the four girls in the clique wearing blazers with exaggerated shoulders. These pop culture references helped broadcast the popularity of the style and continued to associate it with strong female characters.
Fast forward to present day, and shoulder pads are again having a moment. This coincides with a general resurrection of ‘80s trends, largely promoted by the high fashion circuit. Shoulder pads, among other ‘80s themes like neon, lamé, and animal prints, ruled the Fall/Winter 2018 runways of Tom Ford, Miu Miu, Balmain, Saint Laurent, Gareth Pugh, and more.
The most prominent designer championing the return of shoulder pads, however, is Demna Gvasalia. Since he took the helm at Balenciaga and through Vetements, the designer has played with shape, form, and proportion of men’s and women’s silhouettes, with specific attention to their shoulders. Since the Spring/Summer 2016 season, he’s run the gamut, showing overly stuffed shoulders on blazers, T-shirts with concealed linebacker-esque padding, sloped yet padded broad-shouldered suit jackets, and dresses with cap sleeves voluminized by shoulder pads. He’s even turned to technology to enhance his vision. For Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2018 and Spring/Summer 2019 collections, Gvasalia used a 3-D molding process to create the strong-shouldered looks with precise tailoring. This was especially apparent in the square, angled shoulders in the Spring/Summer 2019 collection, bringing the trend into a futuristic realm.
The current shoulder pad revival again aligns with an important moment in history for women. Just as shoulder pads had appeared during other times when women were confronting their shifting position in society, the prominence of the style today coincides with women declaring their agency through the #MeToo movement and activism for women’s reproductive rights in public policy. These connections between shoulder pads and progressive moments for women show how the once masculine style has become ingrained in times of female empowerment.END
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