To any woman who shudders at the thought of linebacker power suits from the 1980s, brace yourself: Some designers are trying to bring back big shoulders.
Beginning next month, a smattering of strong-shouldered jackets, blouses and dresses for fall will begin arriving in stores. New York designer Cynthia Rowley has stuck half-inch-thick shoulder pads in almost every fitted jacket and dress in her fall collection. Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Lanvin and Marc Jacobs will also be offering some sharp-shouldered looks for fall.
“It’s meant to be a fun, experimental silhouette for going out,” says Rowley, who hopes customers will find her tailored looks refreshing, following several seasons of billowy baby-doll shapes.
This time, as often happens when fashion trends make a comeback, the look has been transformed. The new shoulder lines are less severe and aggressive than in the past, but still add definition. They feature everything, from pert puffy sleeves to pinch pleating and squared-off edges.
It has been a good 20 years since the heyday of the shoulder pad, the often-lampooned foundation of power dressing. The look first appeared in the late 1970s on the runways of French designers such as Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler. Their black leather jackets with oversized curves and exaggerated shoulders “were not for lay people”, says Cameron Silver, owner of Decades, a vintage designer boutique in Los Angeles.
The look had staying power, in part because when it crossed the Atlantic in the mid-1980s, it coincided with the entrance of women en masse into the workforce. The masculine, broad-shouldered suits helped women cut an imposing figure in the workplace, mirroring the red-suspender “Master of the Universe” style then popular with men. Shoulder pads “gave women a sense of authority, a new sense of confidence”, says designer Donna Karan, who rose to prominence in the power-dressing era.
By 1985, the trend was in full swing. It was then that Montana announced at a runway show, “Shoulders forever!”
In movies and TV, the wider the shoulders, the stronger the woman. Sigourney Weaver sported them as a domineering executive in Working Girl, as did Diane Keaton as a high-powered management consultant in Baby Boom.
Costume designer Bob Mackie remembers the comical effect of 1980s working women who appeared to have “no neck at all” due to the stacks of shoulder pads from their jackets and their blouses: “The 1980s got to be very strange.”
Shoulder pads reached their zenith with the over-the-top ensembles worn by the women of Dynasty. Nolan Miller, the couturier who created the outfits for the show, says he made his divas’ shoulders grow each season, until he realized that Linda Evans’ shoulders were broader than her male co-star John Forsythe’s. “When you do something over and over, year after year, you don’t realize it’s turning into a monster,” he says. The last season of Dynasty, in 1989, coincided with the beginning of the end of the shoulder-pad era.
In the 1990s, styles veered towards softer suits, monochromatic palettes and deconstructed looks made famous by Giorgio Armani. Spurred by the dot-com boom, workplaces went casual, with women wearing comfortable khakis, skirts, twinsets and jeans. More recently, designers have pushed a return to formality with tailored jackets and dresses.
Designers and retailers are hoping women will view bold shoulders as a sexy look this time around, not as a power statement. The designs don’t always involve an actual pad, but rather fabric that allows for a less rigid construction. For his fall collection of retro-looking suits and coats, Marc Jacobs used layers of fabric to sharpen the line of the shoulders. Istvan Francer, design director of the sportswear label, Theory, says he’s squaring off the shoulders in some blazers for fall “to emphasize fine tailoring.”
For Anne Nicholas Weiss, shoulder pads bring back memories of seventh grade, when her mother tried to stuff foam pads into her blazers—“perfect for taking a nap while standing up”, says the 27-year-old construction manager in Nashville. Still, “if designers could make it look sleek, it would be an option, I suppose,” says Weiss, who normally wears suits by Theory.
Strong shoulders became associated with powerful women, starting in the early 1900s with the Gibson Girls, illustrations of women whose hourglass figures personified elegance. In her “leg o’mutton” sleeved blouses, the Gibson Girl played tennis and golf, and charmed men at dinner parties, says Caroline Rennolds Milbank, a New York fashion historian—“she had a lot of spunk.”
Thirty years later, Hollywood costume designer Adrian popularized padded shoulders by dressing influential actresses such as Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn in cinched suits with straight skirts.
Today’s bold-shouldered rehash started last year, when the avant garde Belgian designer Martin Margiela put models in flesh-toned bodysuits with padded shoulders, creating a V-shaped torso. One season later, Margiela featured shoulder scaffolding that extended for about five inches beyond the collarbone. A spokeswoman for the design house says the move was “less about power and more about the line of a silhouette”.
At fashion shows in Paris in February, Stella McCartney put wide, pinched shoulders in oversized cardigans. Gucci went for dresses with pouf sleeves, and Balenciaga’s tightly cinched coats were offset by broad shoulders.
Retailers are coming up with creative ways to position the trend and to convince shoppers of its appeal. Ken Downing, women’s fashion director at Neiman Marcus, says that with many designers now emphasizing the waist, shoulders balance out that silhouette. At Bloomingdale’s, women’s fashion director Stephanie Solomon says “this is not the strong shoulder of the 1980s but, instead, a modern shoulder for the future.”
One potential side benefit: The shoulders’ complicated constructions make them harder for fast-fashion chains to copy. For consumers, such design extras can add intrinsic value: “You can justify spending the money if you can see these details,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
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