The return of the shoulder pad ...and why it’s proof women have finally elbowed their way to the top
Shoulder pads are back. Models are once again striding down the catwalks sporting those iconic emblems of the 1980s, this time with a swagger and a confidence that far outstrips the decade when ambition for women was still something of a dirty word.
And I, for one, can’t wait to get my skinny shoulders back into a bold, shape-shifting blazer.
Take the new designs at Saint laurent, just unveiled at Paris Fashion Week. At 41, creative director Anthony Vaccarello was a babe-inarms when women in shoulder pads stormed the citadels of male-run institutions across the globe first time around, but he produced an Autumn/Winter collection which not only rejoices in pinstriped power dressing, but is so out there it may require you to enter the room sideways.
Then there’s Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, where the gender-blurring tailoring is pinstriped, Savile row perfection, ties included. At Balmain, mega-broad shoulders take centre-stage in blazers, jackets, blouses and boleros. one black velvet trouser suit with a nipped-in waist and giant silky white lapels is so breathtakingly beautiful that I’d take out a mortgage on it if only there was a lender out there to take me seriously.
It references both Princess diana’s style and Melanie Griffith’s smash-hit 1980s movie Working Girl. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Joan Collins — whose signature look was sealed with her role as the evil ex Alexis Colby in dynasty — has already earmarked this dazzling suit for herself. Its silhouette is certainly a boon for middle-aged women with waists on the wane, instantly creating a flattering hourglass look.
This is a trend that has been bubbling under for a while, but one which is now tipping over into the high Street, as well as being embraced on the red carpet by Cate Blanchett, Jemima Khan, Adele and Christina ricci among others. Given that it is awards season, it is easy to see why nervous nominees would look to confidence-boosting shoulder pads.
BACKin the 1980s, when I was editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, my shoulder pads were nothing short of a career strategy. The larger they became, the more I felt my confidence growing alongside. A suit with shoulder pads, possibly pinstripes, too, might have seemed mere male mimicry, and unlikely to convince anyone, but I swear it worked. We didn’t want to look or feel delicate, we wanted to look — and feel — strong, invincible, even when we were quaking inside.
Whenever I donned one of those Armani or donna Karan trouser suits, I acquired a mantle of self-assuredness that helped me deal with the big boys in boardrooms where I was often the only woman. open my wardrobe and it might well have been mistaken for my husband’s — although not many men back then wore a silky camisole peeking out under their double-breasted jacket. or, as in Maggie Thatcher’s case, a pussy-bow blouse.
When I think back to that era — and pictures of myself during that time — I have to acknowledge that, occasionally, those shoulders verged on the ridiculous. even some of Princess di’s outfits look dreadful in retrospect, and none of it was helped by the questionable hairstyles of the era — from puffed-up perms to mullets, everything was big, bouffant and bold.
Then, too, there were the fashion mishaps associated with power dressing. While jackets generally had their shoulder pads safely sewn in, when it came to tops and dresses, they were often just slotted in under the fabric. one time, while I was giving a speech to a mostly male audience of potential advertisers, a pad slipped from the blouse I was wearing, and I developed what can only be described as a third breast.
Were the sniggers I heard from my audience the result of my dazzling wit, or a reaction to my suddenly lopsided look? I never did find out.
So why are shoulder pads back with a vengeance now? All fashion trends are usually a sign of the times. In the 1930s, following female suffrage, women felt empowered to embrace styles of dressing that would previously have been regarded as an offence to their sex.
one of the first designers to incorporate the look into collections was the ever-inventive elsa Schiaparelli, who teamed it with a wide lapel for her 1931 collection.
By the 1940s the trend was
two-fold, embracing both Hollywood evening glamour, favoured by the likes of Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, alongside more serviceable but still stylish suiting for the increasing numbers of women going to work in offices as secretaries and PAs.
As the 1950s approached, women slunk back into frilly- aproned domesticity, and it wasn’t until the 1980s economic boom that career women like me recognised power dressing as a way to get ahead.
Today’s shoulder pads are, I believe, a reminder to the world that women’s equality — in the West at least — is now a given rather than a right to be fought for, a celebration of having a seat at the table rather than a tentative power grab. Perhaps it is also a reaction against the hyper- sexualisation of women in some quarters of the internet, or a nod to the androgyny that many chic young women now embrace. At Balenciaga, the female form was positively swamped in pinstripe.
Of course, it says much about the mood of the fashion moment as well.
Feminine, midi-length florals teamed with trainers may be comfortable and easy to wear when working from home, not to mention super-friendly to lumps and bumps, but now most of us are back in the office and there’s a more sombre financial backdrop, it’s time for a more serious approach. And I for one am grateful.
This spring, for the first time in years, I can’t wait to go shopping. At least for a somewhat toned-down, High- Street version of those giant shoulders.
Sometimes we find a look that’s our personal best and we hang on to it for dear life until we start to look like dinosaurs. Style-wise, the 1980s was my decade. And now, at last, I can stride out in a square-shouldered suit without feeling square, a relic from a bygone age. I’m newly empowered and raring to go.