A Salute To Shoulder Pads Through History

Lets start at the very beginning; Fräulein Maria always said it was a good place to start.

Shoulder pads first jumped on the scene of life in the mid-1920’s. They were invented by a footballer of Princeton University, L.P. Smock.  This protective gear became a regular addition to footballers’ uniform along with pads for knees, hips, and thighs.

Now let us see how this protective gear made a debut in fashion history:

It began in 1931 with Elsa Schiaparelli. The House of Shiaparelli was the birthplace of many-a-fashion-twist including, but not limited to the use of shoulder pads. Just as Katniss is the face of the Mockingjay uprising, Joan Crawford was the face of the uprising of shoulder pads in the fashion industry in her role as Letty Lynton in 1932. After this iconic role, the craze had caught fire!


Joan Crawford as Letty Lynton, styled by Gilbert Adrian

1940’s Fashion & Patriotism – during World War II, women took to the workforce as men headed out to war. As women’s roles in the workplace changed, so did the clothes. Durable fabric was commonly used and shoulder pads were symbolic of strength and hard work.


vogue patterns40s womenssafetyandfashion40s

Eventually, World War II ended, men came home from war, and Dior’s New Look of 1947 shaped the trend. In his collection, Dior took to a sleek, slim shoulder in order to accentuate full hips, slim waists and full busts. This was all about replacing the gloom of rationing and the heaviness of war with lightheartedness and womanly seduction.

Christian Dior's "New Look", shook up the fashion industry in 1947.

Christian Dior’s “New Look”, shook up the fashion industry in 1947.

Thus, the shoulder pads took a backseat for a time. It was in 1966 that Le Smoking was coined by Yves Saint Laurent. This caused a rumble in society, as it was uncouth for women to wear trousers in public. Did that stop Saint Laurent or womankind? Hardly. In fact, this was a very fashion forward move, as trousers for women was exactly the direction the fashion world took. Below is a picture of the woman tuxedo, notice the return of a more defined shoulder.

Le Smoking suit for women by YSL in 1966

Now, we are going to fast forward a bit to many a dance party’s favorite decade: the 1980s! The era of the reign of power suits. In speaking of the power suits of the 1980s, it is important to take note of Madam Power Suit herself, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Britain. She described her sense of dress as “never flashy, just appropriate”.MargaretThatcherpowersuit


A selection of Margaret Thatcher’s suits.

The correlation between the history of shoulder pads and the history of fashion in the 1980s is that women were streamlining against looking “pretty” and “delicate”. Yes, this definitely includes the likes of the aforementioned, Prime Minister, she was the Iron Lady, after all. Certainly, a broader shoulder would is crucial to that fierce flair! The concept of the working woman look definitely pays tribute to that of the 40s – just with the radical 80s flair that we cannot resist.
Hairstyles and shoulders everywhere reached new heights, shattering glass ceilings everywhere.

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Now that we made it through the 1900s, we can see how the past has shaped the shoulder pads of the 2000s and today! A great example of this is found in the House of Balmain. Relaunched in 2007, his house has made many a shoulder-pad-heavy look. Here are a few looks from his Spring/Summer 09 show:

BalmainSS09-2 BalmainSS09-3 BalmainSS09-5 BalmainSS09-6

One common thing you can see through the history of shoulder pads, is the statement they make. This is true today as well. Something about the silhouette enhancement alludes to power, to strength, to fierce fashion.

As far as your everyday wardrobe is concerned, judge each article appropriately. Have no shame in ripping the shoulder pads out of your 1980s sweater from the thrift store, but try it on for size before you do!

When it comes to wearing shoulder pads, foam is your friend. You can actually buy egg-shaped foam shoulder pads. They are a happy balance between the broad shoulder of the 80s power suit, and Dior’s slender shoulders. Opting for these will allude to a slimmer waistline without making you look like you are ready to be tackled. (Braza On The Edge Adhesive Shoulder Pads, $15 at LaurenSilva.com)

Face it, shoulder pads will never die. May you find new and vintage clothes that are padded to your liking.


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