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Behind the Rebirth of the Shoulder Pad

It was acceptable in the 80s. Here’s why its back.

It seems as though everyone - from designers and top runway models Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, to high-street stores - is going crazy for shoulder pads. But what has caused this seen-before trend to arise once again in mainstream fashion, and why do powerful women seem to love it so much?

The shoulder pad was first introduced as a form of “power-dressing”, a trend first popularized in the 1930s during the Second World War, when women began dressing in more militant and masculine styles embellished with shoulder pads, in resemblance of soldiers’ uniforms.

This is because, as women were liberated by the freedom to pursue skilled labor and more traditionally masculine careers enabled by their contribution to the war, they felt it fitting that they dress the part too. As shoulder pads are seen to extend and enlarge your shoulders in a traditionally ‘masculine’ way, they are regarded as emulating power, status and other tropes of conventional masculinity.

In the same decade, Adrian Adolph Greenburg, a stylist and designer tasked with styling starlet Joan Crawford, helped introduce shoulder pads to mainstream fashion through film. Joan is pictured below in two costumes both exhibiting dramatic and exaggerated shoulder padding.

The trend declined in popularity towards the end of the 1940s, until, three decades’ later, the shoulder pad was revived when the 1980s brought them back in with tremendous gusto. The Eighties played with shoulder pads in more ways than ever before, including them in almost every garment from coats, to dresses, to even swimsuits.

This rebirth of the trend was synonymous with another period of female liberation, as the 1980s saw a rise in women working in business and growing talk of “breaking the glass ceiling”. Women operating in largely male dominated fields felt comfort in donning shoulder pads to imitate the “power-dressing” of the 1940s, and exemplify their status and position to the men around them.

Shoulder pads boomed in the Eighties in all aspects of fashion, used in both professional suits and cocktail dresses. Television shows, such as ‘Dynasty’, popularized the shoulder pad in mainstream media alongside glitter and exaggerated jewels, contributing to the growing craze for the trend in high-street fashion. In a more professional illustration of the trend, Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher, became renowned for her iconic shoulder-padded suits, as they resembled the pinnacle of “power-dressing” in a male-dominated career.

The previous two decades have repelled the shoulder pad as a sign of empowerment, over-exhausted by the obsession of the Eighties; however, in recent years it has been making a slow resurgence in fashion.

Many Eighties trends have recently made a return to the spotlight in modern fashion, including neon, animal print and more. Alongside the shoulder pad, they’ve been exhibited for the past two years on runways by the likes of Tom Ford, Saint Laurent, Jacquemus, Miu Miu, Balmain and many other influential designers, such as Gareth Pugh.

Why has the shoulder pad once again risen to fame in mainstream fashion? If our notes on the past are correct, then a moment of empowerment and liberation for women is key, as is reflected in the media today. One of the most influential instances of this in recent years was arguably the # MeToo movement, which emboldened women to speak up against their oppressors and abusers. Do women need shoulder pads now more than ever?

In another era of vast political, social and economic unrest, similar to the climates of the 1930s and 80s, women’s fashion has once again turned back to the comfort of “power-dressing” confidence and authority it provides in times of insecurity. Its empowering and incredibly reassuring to know that even today, when hiding in plain sight is the easiest its ever been, women in the face of unrest don’t shrink but look to bold, exaggerated clothing to provide them with the empowerment that they need.

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