More from Groovy History

The Evolution Of Fashion Shoulder Pads

Fads | January 18, 2022

Grace Jones rocked one of most iconic uses of 80s shoulder pads. crfashionbook

Perhaps more than any decade the 1980s defined strange fads, headlined by the Koosh ball, Cabbage Patch Kids, and of course, shoulder pads. While the origins of the scapular raising fashion statements began in the 1930s, they really rose to prominence during the era of excess. Shoulder pads represented equality and a women’s desire to move beyond the confines of “homemaker.”

Women entering male-dominated workplaces looked to fit in amongst their male counterparts, who sported suits the size of circus tents. At a time when a woman's desire to work still received criticism, “power suits” helped them fit in. Somehow that understandable desire for acceptance at work also made its way into Hollywood. Daytime soaps and sitcoms stars unveiled their linebacker-sized shoulders and the fad was on. This is the evolution of shoulder pads.

Early 20th century shoulder pads were a bit different. witness2fashion


Ironically, the increasing size of shoulders in women’s clothing simply followed that of their male counterparts. In an attempt to look more manly and powerful, shoulder pads were sewn into coats and jackets starting in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the self-awareness of how ridiculous a scrawny man with shoulders around their ears still lay many years away. That growing suit jacket would eventually lead to something of an arms race for puffed-up shoulders.

Designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Rochas took that literal growing trend in men’s fashion across gender lines. In the same way men wanted to look more manly, designers attempted to change, hide, or emphasize other parts of the female form.

By borrowing from the surrealist art movement, designers toyed with women’s silhouettes, emphasizing new parts of a women’s body by enlarging others. Joan Crawford in “Letty Lynton” gave shoulder pads a splash on the silver screen. However, the look really went mainstream thanks to World War II.

Women weren't the only ones rocking shoulder pads. rediscoverthe80s

World War II

With roughly a third of all American men shipping out to fight in the war, women picked up the mantle. Fashion designers decided that since women were taking over the traditional work roles of men, they might as well fill out more than their shoes. By enlarging the shoulders using wool, cotton, or even sawdust, (thanks to supply shortages) women could match the literal width of men and by extension, their role in the workplace.

Two queens of shoulder pads refused to give them up. pinterest

Pop Culture Shoulder Pads

Two women, above all others, gave rise to the ‘80s rendition of shoulder pads: Linda Evans and Joan Collins, the stars of CBS soap “Dynasty.” Amusingly, not everyone was thrilled with the high-rise shoulder pad fad. Apparently, executives at CBS wanted Evans and Collins to ditch the pads and lose the distinctive V shape they created.

Representative of the shoulder pads’ feminist roots, the stars not only refused but “almost mutinied” to keep their distinctly ‘80s look. It’s worth noting that not all pads were equal. For example, Evans preferred a thicker foam that bordered on a neck brace while Collins detested any such material touching her neck.

We'll have to wait and see if shoulder pads make another comeback. toofab

Power Of The Pads

By the mid ‘80s, the “power dress” floodgates gave way and suddenly they were everywhere. In the political realm, Margaret Thatcher led the way. In what seems unnecessary today, Thatcher felt the need to disassociate with her gender in order to fulfill her role as Prime Minister, a job only ever held by men. The number of working women steadily increased throughout the ‘80s and shoulder pads went right along with them.

The working women’s shoulder pad enhanced silhouette also went well with the era. Everything was big back then from hair to cars. Mel Griffith in “Working Girl” epitomized the size matters approach. Bigger was better and by the late ‘80s, women could pack in multiple sets of shoulder pads thanks to the introduction of velcro. Relatively recently, the shoulder pad attempted a comeback to marginal success. We’ll see how the inevitable next cycle of shoulder pads plays out.

Tags: 1980s Fashion | shoulder pads

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!