Shoulder pads (fashion)

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Jazz singer Ann Hathaway, wearing a coat with shoulder pads, walking on Washington Square, New York, 1947

Shoulder pads are a type of fabric-covered padding used in men's and women's clothing to give the wearer the illusion of having broader and less sloping shoulders. In the beginning, shoulder pads were shaped as a semicircle or small triangle, and were stuffed with wool, cotton or sawdust. They were positioned at the top of the sleeve, to extend the shoulder line. A good example of this is their use in "leg o' mutton" sleeves, or the smaller puffed sleeves which were revived at this time, and were based on styles from the 1890s. In men's styles, shoulder pads are often used in suits, jackets and overcoats, usually sewn at the top of the shoulder and fastened between the lining and the outer fabric layer. In women's clothing, their inclusion depends by the fashion taste of the day. Although from a non-fashion point of view they are generally for people with narrow or sloping shoulders, there are also quite a few cases in which shoulder pads will be necessary for a suit or blazer in order to compensate for certain fabrics' natural properties, most notably suede blazers, due to the weight of the material. They were popular additions to clothing (particularly business clothing) during the 1940s, 1980s, early 1990s, late 2000s and early 2010s.

1930 to 1945[edit]

Shoulder pads originally became popular for women in the 1930s when fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli included them in her designs of 1931. The following year Joan Crawford wore them in the film "Letty Lynton"[1] in a dress designed by costume designer, Adrian. This dress was widely copied and sold in Macy's department stores, helping to popularize the look.[2]

After World War II began in 1939, women's fashions became increasingly militarised. Jackets, coats, and even dresses in particular were influenced by masculine styles and shoulder pads became bulkier and were positioned at the top of the shoulder to create a solid look. In 1945, Joan Crawford wore a fur coat with wide, exaggerated shoulders also designed by Adrian in the film Mildred Pierce.

Soon the style was universal, found in all garments excepting lingerie but tapering off later in the decade after the war was over and women yearned for a softer, more feminine look.

In men's fashion, zoot suits had own share of popularity. Basically, a zoot suit is based on "regular" 2-piece suit, yet one or two sizes larger, so it was supposed to be padded "like a lunatic's cell".

1945 to 1970[edit]

During the late 1940s to about 1951, some dresses featured a soft, smaller shoulder pad with so little padding as to be barely noticeable. Its function seems to have been to slightly shape the shoulder line.

By the 1950s, shoulder pads appeared only in jackets and coats—not in dresses, knitwear or blouses as they had previously during the heyday of the early 1940s. By the early 1960s, these slowly became less noticeable and midway through the decade, shoulder pads had disappeared.


Shoulder pads made their next appearance in women's clothing in the early 1970s, through the influence of British fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki and her label Biba. Biba produced designs influenced by the styles of the 1930s and 1940s, and so a soft version of the shoulder pad was revived. Ossie Clark was another London designer using shoulder pads at the time. These styles did not, however, reach mainstream acceptance, and so the popularity was relatively short lived.


During the early 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in the ladies' evening wear styles of the early 1940s: peplums, batwing sleeves and other design elements of the times were re-interpreted for a new market.[3] The shoulder pad helped define the silhouette and was reintroduced in cut foam versions, especially in well-cut suits reminiscent of the World War II era. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was internationally noted for her adoption of these fashions.[4][5] Before too long, these masculinized shapes were adopted by women seeking success in the corporate world and became an icon of women's attempts to smash the glass ceiling, a mission that was also added by their notable appearance in the TV series Dynasty.[6]

As the decade wore on, shoulder pads became the defining fashion statement of the era, known as power dressing and bestowing the perception of status and position onto those who wore them. They became both larger and more ubiquitous—every garment from the brassiere upwards would come with its own set of shoulder pads. To prevent excessive shoulder padding, velcro was sewn onto the pads so that the wearer could choose how many sets to wear. By the end of the era, some shoulder pads were the size of dinner plates.


The shoulder pad fashion carried over from the late 1980s with continued popularity in the early 1990s, but the wearer's tastes were changing due to the backlash against 1980s culture. Some designers continued to produce ranges featuring shoulder pads into the mid-1990s, as shoulder pads were prominent in women's formal suits, and matching top-bottom attire, highly exampled in earlier episodes of The Nanny from 1993 and 1994. But as the decade wore on, the styles were outdated and were shunned by young and fashion-conscious wearers. Appearances were reduced to smaller, subtler versions augmenting the shoulder lines of jackets and coats.

2000s and 2010s[edit]

The late 2000s and early 2010s saw the resurgence of shoulder pads. Many young women imitated pop artists, mainly Lady Gaga and Rihanna, who were known for their use of shoulder pads in their stylistic outfits. There was a large presence of shoulder pads on many runways, in fashion designer collections, and a revival of 1980s trends became mainstream among many people who were interested in them. By the 2009-2010 seasons, shoulder pads had made their way back into the mainstream market.[7] By 2010 many retailers like Wal-Mart had shoulder pads on at least half of all women's tops and blouses.[8]

The late 2010s saw another resurgence of shoulder pads. With the rise of the Me Too movement and other female empowerment movements, the increase of women being elected to political positions, and a continuing revival of 1980s trends, many are opting to wear clothes with shoulder pads.[9][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Amy De La Haye 1988, Fashion Source Book, London, Quarto Publishing, 69, ISBN 0-356-15928-0
  2. ^ "Adrian, The Hatmaker's Son Who Dressed America - New England Historical Society". Retrieved 2018-08-15.
  3. ^ Katan, V. "Women's Shoulder Pads". Retrieved 19 November 2015.
  4. ^ "Shoulder pads: A history". The Independent.
  5. ^ "Style Icon: Margaret Thatcher".
  6. ^ Amy De La Haye 1988, Fashion Source Book, London, Quarto Publishing, 170, ISBN 0-356-15928-0
  7. ^ "Poof! Shoulder pads puff back". New York Daily News.
  8. ^ Glamour Magazine. "Trend Alert: Shoulder Pads Are Back!". Glamour.
  9. ^ "Our Favorite Throwback Trend Has a History of Female Empowerment". Coveteur. 2019-04-04. Retrieved 2020-12-19.
  10. ^ Kim, Leena (2020-11-09). "Long Live Alexis Carrington: Dynasty Shoulders Are Back!". Town & Country. Retrieved 2020-12-19.

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