Shoulder pads: A history

They’ve been the epitome of power dressing since the Forties – and now, thanks to Posh, they’re back. By Carola Long and Harriet Walker

Wednesday 14 October 2009 00:00 BST

Joan Crawford, 1945

The post-war skirt suits of the Forties incorporated the strong shoulder as a foreshadowing of the Eighties power look. After a war in which women had done men’s jobs on the home front, tailoring took on a more capable and androgynous look, with boxy proportions and – but of course – shoulder pads. After the drapery and floatiness of the Twenties and Thirties, this was a new vision of women’s clothing. Thankfully Crawford’s top here is very girlie, so she isn’t too threatening or “can do”. Phew.

Barbara Hulanicki, 1975

In the age of flower power, the floaty blouse was king and strong shoulders lost out when everyone took their tops off at Woodstock. But designers and trend-setters were influenced by high glamour and streamlined, futuristic looks, as Biba queen Barbara Hulanicki’s shouldered fur coat proves. Whether it’s technically padded, or simply a great big furry sleeve is unclear, but the Seventies were about volume, floaty or otherwise and designers like Ossie Clark and Bill Gibb lent a little definition to their romantic chiffon pieces with a sneaky shoulder pad or two.

Margaret Thatcher, 1979

There was no such thing as society, sorry subtlety, when it came to Thatcher’s shoulder pads. Big shoulders were part of the first female PM’s armoury for being taken seriously in a traditionally masculine world. She deepened her voice, she bouffed up her hair for extra height and she piled on the pads. She may have added pearls and a brooch for a touch of traditional femininity, but these token accessories fooled no one.

Bianca Jagger, 1980

Bianca famously married Mick Jagger in a white tuxedo jacket with nothing underneath it, a move which spun masculine workwear on its head, and no doubt distracted the vicar. With the rise of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking”, the suit took on a sexiness it didn’t have before, thanks to the careful contouring provided by a nipped-in waist and a statement shoulder. No longer simply the preserve of fusty librarians or spinster aunts, suits (and shoulder pads) were for sirens too.

Adam Ant, 1981

And they’re not just for girls: new romantic Adam Ant rocked a fashion shoulder as part of his 18th-century highwayman meets tribal space hunk garb, a look which inspired teenage boys across the country to brush up on blusher and breeches. Adam Ant recalls being woken at 4am by a telephone call from Michael Jackson himself, who wanted to know where he could find a similar jacket. Then Jacko’s gilt and epaulette shoulders were the inspiration behind Balmain’s spring/summer 09 collection – and lo, a look was born.

Melanie Griffith, 1988

The ultimate power dressing figurehead Melanie Griffith – not to mention her glass ceiling-smashing shoulders – starred in 1988’s Working Girl, a tale of mergers, acquisitions and moulded foam. With Glenn Close working a similar silhouette a year earlier in Fatal Attraction, the corporate look was in and women were using their shoulder pads to barge their way to whatever they wanted. Although, given the amount of attendant polyurethane and hairspray, hopefully not into a career in the fire brigade.

Lady Gaga, 2009

The outrageous pop star’s wardrobe is heavily influenced by the Eighties club scene, and her cartoonish take on fashion (this was the woman who wore a Kermit the Frog coat, remember) means that there is no room for low-key interpretations of a trend here. Compared to pop princesses such as Britney, Gaga is less concerned with looking conventionally pretty and sexy than in pushing boundaries.

Victoria Beckham, 2009

Exaggerated shoulders are the dare-to-wear statement of the season, but we hope Posh doesn’t think she’s being original; structured shoulders are nothing new. They’ve ,been tried and tested throughout the twentieth century. What is new is the slightly disturbing extreme doorknob effect of this ultraexpensive Balmain jacket, which costs around £7,000. Achieve this look on the cheap at home by leaving the hanger from the dry cleaners in an old leather jacket, then stuffing two oranges under the shoulders.

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