At some point in the 1980s, a mandate was handed down from CBS network executives concerned about the excesses of the costume designers on their hit primetime soap Dynasty. Specifically, they wanted stars Linda Evans and Joan Collins to stop wearing shoulder pads, the rigid foam accessory that gave their profiles a distinctive V-shaped appearance.
Word quickly came back to CBS: Defiantly, Evans and Collins would not be shedding their pads. According to Nolan Miller, the show’s costume designer, the stars “almost mutinied.” Their exaggerated shoulders were there to stay.
For most of that decade, shoulder pads were as ubiquitous a fashion statement as neon colors and Ray-Bans. Though American women might not have gone for as severe and steep a postural precipice as the Dynasty stars, the pads were nonetheless emblematic of the era. Pitted against chauvinistic attitudes about women in the workplace, feminine style took on a physically assertive stature. But that idea didn’t originate with television stars. It was rooted in a response to the domestic work crisis during World War II.
From protective gear to feminist wear
Before the war, shoulder pads were perceived as a glamorous but impractical clothing flourish or as part of protective football gear. In 1931, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli showcased high fashion styles with the look, the purported result of being influenced by surrealist artwork. So did fellow designer Marcel Rochas. But international evolution was slow to make it to the States.
It wasn’t until costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenburg dressed actress Joan Crawford in a stylish padded look for films like 1932’s Letty Lynton all the way through 1945’s Mildred Pierce that the wide-profile approach drew national attention. (It’s believed that Greenburg was struck with inspiration at the sight of Crawford’s large shoulders, and opted to accentuate rather than try to hide them.)
That admiration gave way to purpose when women began taking on new roles in the domestic labor scene. With men fighting overseas, women took to the pads as a way to better assimilate into a physical world. Their silhouettes became more angular, more defined, and broader—a subversive announcement that their role was professional and equitable. With shoulders raised to meet those in a padded men’s suit, the pads worked to establish conformity in the workplace.
With resources during wartime scarce, these pads were often made of wool, cotton, or even sawdust. But as the war wound down and men began returning to their old work roles, the pads lost much of their utilitarian purpose. Shoulders began to slope once more.
Shoulder heights rise again in the '80s
Because fashion is often cyclical, it wouldn’t take another global conflict for shoulder pads to rise again. Designer Norma Kamali was reported to have reintroduced them into casual daywear in 1980. Coupled with the decade’s newfound edicts of material wealth and gender equality, the pads surged in popularity. Women’s attire was once again squared off. This time, it wasn’t just about office appearance. Designers saw potential in the ability of the pads to reform the female body, making the waist appear smaller and even helping to make up for bad posture. Some were even customizable. On Dynasty, Linda Evans and Joan Collins each had unique pads. Evans preferred a thicker foam, while Collins hated them touching her neck.
The pads were not without controversy. Some blouses were designed for pads and sold without them, necessitating an additional purchase in order to prevent the clothing from sagging. Unless they were sewn in, the pads could easily become dislodged, creating peculiar anomalies as they slid down the arms or torso. Purse straps could shift their position. And if a person wasn’t careful, they ran the risk of doubling or tripling up on the pads, with a layer each in a blouse, sweater, and jacket. The resulting puff threatened to brush their earlobes.
Thanks in part to the influence of celebrities and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who favored the look, the power pad trend endured for most of the ‘80s but disappeared along with much of that decade’s ostentatiousness by the 1990s. While they still make periodic comebacks on fashion runaways, foam shoulder enhancement is now considered poor form.