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Padded Power — Shoulder Pads
Padded Power — Shoulder Pads

Padded Power — Shoulder Pads


Can an outfit give a woman power? Giving women dominant and dynamic look has always been the idea behind the power suit. It radiates confidence. At least it used to, let’s take a look at the origin and the future of the power suit with Padded Shoulders.

Year 1920,This is where it all started. Before this era women were forced into corsets. Coco Chanel gave women air. She made them able to breathe again by designing a suit consisting of a jacket and skirt, made of comfortable material. It was the new ‘woman’s uniform’.

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.

Times were rapidly changing and something new in fashion was needed. Padded shoulders appeared. It took the creative mind of Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli to dream up adding the padding to women’s clothes. Elsa Schiaparelli designed bold clothing that daring women loved but conventional women were reluctant to try. She was the first one to experiment with shoulder pads in the 1930s, putting them in suits, coats, and even dresses.

Elsa Schiaparelli Jacket

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.

Designed by Elsa Schiaparelli

Schiaparelli was extremely experimental because the surrealist movement influenced her. Her designs made her customers feel strong and confident, demanding attention whenever they entered a room.

In 1930s America, it was still uncommon to see women in the workplace, but because of the Great Depression, some women had to find jobs to help care for their families. Women wanted to be seen as strong and independent by their male counterparts. The strong shoulder that a few designers started using really captured the way women wanted, and in some ways needed, to dress.


This trend continued in the 40s but instead of economic depression, there was a steady increase in the economy because of WWII. Now, women had to replace men in the workplace.


1940, As women moved into arenas previously dominated by men, fashion mirrored the trend of masculinity by embracing an exaggerated shoulder silhouette. The shift is actually quite logical, as women typically take up less physical space than men. In order to bridge that divide, designers implemented a sartorial solution to widen a woman’s frame.

Clothing usually becomes more excessive and daring with growth in the economy and shoulder pads definitely had an audacious feel to them.

Designed by Elsa Schiaparelli 1938

In America, the chief costume designer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Adrian Adolph Greenburg implemented shoulder detailing when designing costumes for MGM throughout the 1930s. Joan Crawford, a big star at MGM, was self-conscious about her big shoulders so Adrian tried different ways to hide the “problem area”. A great example of this was in “Letty Lynton” (1932).

Letty Lynton” (1932)

Adrian kept using similar tricks when designing Joan’s wardrobe and eventually started padding the shoulders of her dresses and jackets to exaggerate, rather than hide her shoulders. Adrian left MGM in 1941 to start his own line, which, of course, prominently showcased padded jackets and dresses.

Joan Crawford

In Europe, the padded trend took longer to catch on, even with Schiaparelli’s influence. When France and Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the Parisian Couture houses delayed their showings of their winter collections to modify them to fit with the new political climate. The new look was heavily influenced by military silhouettes. Shoulder pads, of course, were a common theme.

Leather Jacket by BalmainLeather Jacket by Balmain

After the war, the French fashion houses were scrambling, trying to restart their businesses. One designer, Christian Dior, started working on a revolutionary collection that completely changed how women would dress post-WWII. Dior’s “New Look” debuted in 1947. Christian Dior’s “New Look”, shook up the fashion industry in 1947.Thus, the shoulder pads took a backseat for a time .

Dior, New Look

Gone were the militant silhouettes with shoulder pads. Instead, ultra-feminine lines were implemented. 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 light-heartedness and womanly seduction.

New Look by Christian Dior ,1947

In 1960’s ,‘Le Smoking’ was introduced into the world by Yves Saint Laurent. The first power suit featuring pants. This sexy look was very popular among celebrities. Le Smoking would gain a permanent spot in all Yves Saint Laurent’s future collections and ignite a revolution in women’s fashion.


1970s Yves Saint Laurent created the infamous s/s 1971 collection, consisting of silhouettes taken right out of the 40s. He was inspired by Paloma Picasso’s flea market fashion. Fox fur coats with insanely padded shoulders, double-breasted jackets and vests with peak lapels trimmed with grow-grain, and platform heels were all present. The fashion world hated the collection. One critic wrote ‘…sad reminder of Nazi days’.


However, other designers watched closely as they knew this YSL collection was determined what was to come in fashion. Designers throughout the 1970s started using the 1940s as inspiration in their designs and shoulder pads reappeared again.

Looking fast forward a bit towards a dance party’s favorite decade: the 1980s! The era of the reign of power suits. By 1980, women were working the same jobs as men. A decade before, shoulder pads were laughed at, but now, they represented the power in the new working woman. With a growth in the economy, these businesswomen could afford expensive designer suits.

Fox Fur Coat by YSL ,1970

A selection of Margaret Thatcher’s 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”. The Broad, square shoulders returned to prominence at the end of the 1970s. Arguably inspired by the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who used large shoulders as a means of communicating power and to be taken seriously in a traditionally masculine environment. ‘She opted for tailored suits so that she could stand quite literally ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with men’. Thatcher’s clothing was distinctive, ‘Her signature pearls, shoulder pads, handbags and lurid blue suits stand out as a medium of control’ .

Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Britain,1980

The look became known as Thatcher Style and her regal, highly groomed appearance symbolized a political technique. The 1980s businesswomen quickly adopted shoulder pads to give them a squared off silhouette and this became the defining look of the decade.

Thatcher Suits

The costumes from the 1980s television programmes, Dallas and Dynasty, worn by the actresses, Linda Gray, Joan Collins and Linda Evans, epitomized the apex of the shoulder pad, suggesting they were women strong enough to survive in a male dominated world. Dormant shoulder pad factories reopened their assembly lines, but the craze was short lived. In their pursuit of new silhouettes, it was not long before designers, returned women to softer shoulders.


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.

Joan Collins ,Dynasty

Hairstyles and shoulders everywhere reached new heights, shattering glass ceilings everywhere. After WWII ended and the men returned to the States, women were pushed from their wartime jobs, causing many to fall back into their roles as homemakers and primary caregivers. But a few decades later, the next swell of women re-entered the workplace, and this time they were here to stay. According to 1990 census data, the number of working women increased by 27 percent throughout the 1980s. The phrase “smash the glass ceiling,” which originated in 1986, embodied the feminist goals of the era, namely achieving equal status with their male counterparts. Margaret Thatcher, an icon of both the women’s movement and the shoulder-pads trend, had just taken office as the first female prime minister of the UK.

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.

Lady Gaga in Dress with padded Shoulders

Designers like Giorgio Armani designed women’s clothing with a masculine twist. Women and designers knew shoulder pads would give these clothes and the women who wore them the strength, demanding attention that would be useful in board meetings alike.

Thanks to TV shows like Dynasty, women everywhere wanted the overly glamorous look, whether at work, a dinner party, or even at the supermarket. Costume designer Nolan Miller put his leading actresses in crazy ensembles with exaggerated shoulders to emphasize the power these women held, but also, to give the viewer something to drool over.

Michael Jackson ,Padded Shoulders

It seemed like by the time the 80s were coming to a close, shoulder pads were in every article of clothing. Shoulder pads began to bore the fashion elite, hungry for a new trend. The overkill of shoulder pads in 80s fashion made it so that they would not be seen in fashion for a long time.

Designed by Balmain

But why are shoulder pads suddenly trending again? The modern women’s rights issue might be one reason. Like in previous decades, women have turned to broad shoulders when they want to be seen as equals with men, strong and independent.


Designers like Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, and Saint Laurent have started putting strong shoulders into their coats and jackets. Gemna Vasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga and the former head designer of Vetements, debuted the over-exaggerated shoulder for all genders and made it a big street style trend.


Women began to embrace the idea of dressing for the job you want by, quite literally, dressing more like their male colleagues. Designers like Anne Klein, Georgio Armani, and Ralph Lauren were the first to show power suits on the runways, easily distinguished by their exaggerated shoulder silhouette.

This power-dressing look was typically composed of heavily padded shoulders on a double-breasted jacket, either pants or a skirt, a sensible pair of heels, and often very, very large hair. These oversize silhouettes acted as a shield to hide the actual shape of the body and further combat the omnipresent male gaze. Mel Griffith’s iconic look in Working Girl brought the silhouette into the mainstream in 1988. Adapted from the construction of the ’40s, shoulder pads were made of foam and enclosed by Velcro so that the wearer could insert multiple sets, if she so desired.

Designed by Pierre Balmain ,spring /summer 2021

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!

Pagoda sleeves, Pierre Balmain ,S/S2021

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.

Women have once again adopted a broader shoulder as the women’s movement enters the mainstream; however, there is no longer a singular way to dress for the office. Twenty-first-century fashion in general is losing its gender restrictions. Instead of women’s clothing becoming more like men’s clothing to gain equality, the two are now borrowing from each other.

Ralph Lauren ,Power Suits

Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga showed shoulder pads on both men and women in his recent fall/winter ’19 collection. Designers like Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Anthony Vaccaerello at Saint Laurent use a shoulder pad to channel ’80s glam, while others like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Martin Margiela of Maison Margiela use add-ons in a genderless way to better illustrate how clothing accentuates the body. Today’s designers are using shoulder pads in a much less restricted sense to convey the full spectrum of masculinity, femininity, and everything in between.

Pierre Balmain, spring /summer 2021

This year Pierre Balmain, spring /summer 2021,Models featured loose-panted wide-shouldered suits, females in pagoda-shouldered suits, whose garments were powerfully fluoro pink and green. Layered flowing jersey looks (pagoda shouldered) gray suiting (pagoda shouldered), a fluoro green distressed bouclé jacket , then a jolt of red what-looked-like latex (un-pagoda-shouldered, actually) followed in a series of Armani-style grouped charges.

Pierre Balmain, spring /summer 2021

Throughout history we see examples of shoulders enhanced through padding, transforming the human silhouette and physically altering its structure in order to conform to a fashionable aesthetic. It also reveals how garment making technology has developed the manufacture of the shoulder pad, ranging from manual production, to the use of moulding technology. Shoulder padded garments are described as giving the wearer a sense of empowerment. By focusing on female fashion from 1930, this article emphasizes how the social and political climate, particularly in the 1940s and 1980s, encouraged women to emancipate themselves within the workforce. Fashionable clothing reflected this through their exaggerated use of shoulder padding.


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


While the trend may seem cringe-worthy as we look through photos from the past, you can’t deny that big shoulders create the illusion of armor for the modern woman, and what better time to embrace your strength than now. ?


Shoulder pads are now for everyone to wear and enjoy and has a comeback in fashion of 2023 

A model at Saint Laurent ready-to-wear fall/winter 2023-24 in Paris.

The author of this article is Dr. ​Vinita Mathur (​),she is an ​esteemed educationist, and the visionary owner of a prestigious college , Dezyne École College . Her intellectual prowess, dedication to education, and innovative leadership have made her a prominent figure in academia and a source of inspiration for countless students and educators alike.

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