The first shoulder pads in women’s fashion were seen in the 1930s. The 1930s is an interesting time in the worlds history. The Great Depression saw millionaires loose everything, talking pictures brought hoards of people into movie theaters, and fascism was taking over Europe. Sportswear began becoming acceptable day wear clothing. Evening wear was cut on the bias with low backs and gorgeous drape. Times were rapidly changing and something new in fashion was needed.
Two 1938 Dinner Jackets by Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli, a designer known for her bold designs, designed clothing that daring women loved, and conventional women hated. Schiaparelli was known for being extremely experimental; she was influenced by the surrealist movement. Throughout the 1930s, Schiaparelli tried many different shapes, patterns, colors, and textiles. She experimented with shoulder pads in the 1930s, putting them in suits, coats, and even dresses. These designs made her customers feel courage and confident, demanding attention whenever they entered a room.

Chief costume designer at MGM, Adrian, implemented shoulder detailing when designing costumes for MGM throughout the 1930s. Joan Crawford, a big star at MGM, was self conscious about her shoulders so Adrian tried different ways to hide the “problem area”. A great example of this was in “Letty Lynton” (1932). Adrian kept using similar tricks when designing Joan’s wardrobe and eventually started padded 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.

Vintage McCall Sewing Pattern found on Etsy
1930s McCall Suit Pattern Found on

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

Dorothy Paley C. 1946

In Europe, the padded trend took longer to catch on, even with Schiaparelli’s influence. However, Paris knew war was on the horizon and when France and Britain declared war in Germany in 1939, the Parisian Couture houses delayed their showings of their winter collections to modify them to fit with the new political climate. As you might have guessed, politics usually have an impact on fashion. Think about the “Millennial Pink” trend we are seeing now and how U.S. politics are affecting women. The 1939-1940 winter collection completely banged from the long, bias cut dresses of the 1930s. This new look was heavily influenced by military silhouettes. Shoulder pads, of course, were a common theme.

After the war, France was in shambles. However, the French did not give up and began rebuilding. 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. Gone were the militant silhouettes with shoulder pads. Dior knew that women longed for something new, as the padded shoulders reminded the country, and world, too much of the war. Instead, ultra feminine lines were implemented. Without war rations, Dior would reportedly use yards upon yards of fabric for one skirt.

Yves Saint Laurent Fox Fur Coat from the 1971 Collection

Inspired by Paloma Picasso’s flea market fashion, Yves Saint Laurent create the infamous s/s 1971 collection, consisting of silhouettes taken right out of the 40s. 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 collection was hated by the fashion world. One critic wrote “…sad reminder of Nazi days.”. The General public response was tepid, with only 90 reported customers. However, other designers watched closely as they knew this YSL collection was really a first look at what was to come in fashion. Designers throughout the 1970s started using the 1940s as inspiration in their designs. I’ve once been told that “The 1970s are just the 1940s in polyester”.

Giorgio Armani Women’s suit, mid 1980s.

By 1980, women were working the same jobs as the men. These ladies had big ambitions. A decade before, shoulder pads were laughed at, but now, theyrepresented the power in the new working woman. With a growth in the economy, these business women could afford expensive designer suits. Designers like Giorgio Armani designed women’s clothing with a masculine twist. Armani tapped into a new market; the woman CEO. These women had the money to spend on expensive designer suits, wanting to look glamours and stylish while still being appropriate at work. 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 and PTA meetings alike.

Nolan Miller Costumes for Dynasty in the 1980s

Of course, shoulder pads didn’t stay in the workplace. Thanks to shows like Dynasty, women everywhere wanted the overly glamorous look, whether at work, a dinner party, or even at the super market. 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. 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.

Street Style Photo by Victoria Adamson

Recently, we have seen a resurgence in shoulder pads, especially in street style. Social media has expanded the audience for these trend setters and allowed everyday people to see new fashions in seconds, rather than waiting for runway season. Shoulder pads have also regained popularity thanks to the modern women’s rights issue. 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. Will we see a big comeback where everyone and their mom wears shoulder padded dresses, or will it be a fast trend that the fashion elite plays with for a season.  I personally love strong shoulders in jackets and coats. I think we will be seeing this trend for the next few seasons.

Shoulder Pad Style Icon: Joan Crawford

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