“And here’s to Julia (Dixie Carter), the last of the big-shouldered broads,” says Mary Jo (Annie Potts) in the series premiere of Designing Women. As an ’80s baby, I grew up watching this show along with Murphy Brown and, my absolute favorite, The Golden Girls. I spoke the language of lanais, Nielsen ratings, and Trump-era decadence. These strong female leads shattered glass ceilings and provoked conversations where few would dare to tread. From their nightgowns to their power suits, padded shoulders were never in short supply.
Shoulder pads gave an air of strength and confidence, juxtaposed against sultry tights and calf-accentuating heels. These foam pads, though perhaps antiquated by today’s standards, told us that women could command authority in traditionally male-dominated spaces. Their aesthetic preferences weren’t just a vain attempt to mimic the way men looked. Shoulder pads were about taking up space, ascending to new heights, and demanding equal pay for equal work.
Everyone, I Give You the Shoulder Pad
Modeled after the protective gear worn by football players, shoulder pads made their entry into women’s fashion in the 1930s. French designer Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with surrealist artists, experimenting with form, fabric, and silhouette—including shoulder pads. Her designs reflected the realities of women seeking independence and better career opportunities.
Schiaparelli’s avant-garde creations redefined the feminine silhouette, adding breadth and structure to a woman’s frame and foreshadowing the military-inspired styles that would become popular during World War II. With the introduction of the shoulder pad came the idea that women could improve their lot in life by simply dressing the part.
In 1932, Hollywood embraced exaggerated shoulders in the film Letty Lynton, featuring Joan Crawford in a white gown with oversize, ruffled sleeves. The dress was the brainchild of Hollywood costume designer Adrian Greenberg. Crawford’s voluminous shoulders catapulted the look to the annals of Hollywood fame alongside Judy Garland’s blue-and-white dress in The Wizard of Oz and Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
At the start of World War II in 1939, the shoulder pad came to symbolize fashion’s response to shifting gender roles. As men waged war on the battlefield, women left their Frigidaire confines to work in factories, fly planes, drive trucks, and serve in the armed forces. And just like that, the exaggerated shoulder trend faded into obscurity until its flashy comeback in the 1980s. Shoulder pads ignited the runways of Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani with double-breasted power suits. Armani’s collaboration with Grace Jones led to some of her most iconic looks.
Designers didn’t stop at formal wear. Norma Kamali brought sweatshirts to new heights, paving the way for luxe loungewear. Big-shouldered broads like Julia Sugarbaker and Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) could go head-to-head with any man, making shoulder pads synonymous with strong and powerful women.
Women Shoulder the Economic Burden
During the 2008 recession, women’s employment increased as men lost their jobs in record numbers. Shortly afterward, shoulder pads began appearing in collections by Givenchy, Stella McCartney, and Balmain. This wasn’t purely coincidence, according to what’s known as the Big Pad Theory. “The bigger the economic burden resting on a women’s shoulders, the bigger the shoulders,” writes Rebecca Caldwell. As the economy rebounds, women can once again shed their unforgiving epaulets for more ethereal designs.
Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic and the “shecession,” a term coined by C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, to reflect the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and, particularly, women of color. Female-dominated fields like education and healthcare were most affected, with women accounting for 55 percent of job losses.
In 2021, as we emerged from our sweatshirt-clad cocoons, celebs like Ciara, Hailey Bieber, and Megan Fox were spotted wearing shoulder pads. The exaggerated shoulder trend graced the Spring 2021 runways of Givenchy, Balenciaga, and Isabel Marant. More recently, shoulder pads have evolved into a subtler silhouette. The Regencycore trend, inspired by the Bridgerton series calls for puffy or balloon sleeves and sculpted shoulders, a far cry from Joan Crawford’s iconic dress.
Resisting the Male Gaze
Adding volume to the shoulders isn’t about economics alone. Shoulder pads symbolize female empowerment while also subverting the male gaze. With the rise of #BimboTok, feminist discourse has taken center stage on the popular platform among Gen Z influencers. BimboTok is a TikTok subculture, intent on reclaiming the word “bimbo” and celebrating the power of femininity. Out of the ashes of the #GirlBoss era, women are no longer content to climb the corporate ladder, rejecting the notion of dressing for the male gaze.
Nevertheless, BimboTok’s aspirational messages and hyperfeminine ideals don’t quite deliver on the promise of an inclusive community. Black women are still being hypersexualized and scrutinized for their hairstyles and fashion, and as we saw with ’80s power suits, performing feminism isn’t the same as empowering women. Modern feminism can’t espouse gender equality without embracing all genders, races, abilities, ages, and sizes.
Whether you consider shoulder pads to be more of a faux pas than a fashion staple, their evolution is a barometer to measure social change. In times of political and economic uncertainty, women do what they’ve always done. They break barriers, donning their protective armor to absorb the effects of skyrocketing unemployment and lost wages.
Shoulder pads are about being visible and taking up space. Call them theatrical or over-the-top. Call them needlessly confrontational. Call them a tool of conformity, designed to uphold the patriarchy instead of encouraging women to harness their innate power. Shoulder pads have withstood harsher criticism. Besides, what’s more feminine than disrupting the status quo, untethered from anyone’s opinions? What’s more powerful than awakening the potential in your closet and expressing yourself without fear or apology?