Once-prominent shoulder pads crumple as simple cardigans, jackets take over


November 08, 1990|By Leigh Brown | Leigh Brown,Cox News Service

PALM BEACH, FLA. — Palm Beach, Fla.

Yesterday, shoulder pads were as vital to dressing as zippers or hems. Today they are almost anathema to chic.

No trend-setting designer showed a single linebacker look this year, foreshadowing a complete shoulder turnaround: from thick spare, square to round, augmented to natural. Its demise may indicate more about American psyches than about fashion.

The introduction of shoulder pads revolutionized dressing twice. The first time found Johnny marching off to war and Judy traipsing to work in missile factories. It was the 1940s; women found themselves alone -- the men had hit World War II battle fronts -- and their new roles as Rosie the Riveters demanded sturdier, more relaxed, more (let's just say it) workingman-like clothes. They went from gardening and changing diapers to building airplanes and tanks. Their clothes had to keep pace.

They discovered that the wide-leg sailor pants their heroes donned for swabbing the decks translated remarkably well to a woman's physique. Shirts -- plain old men's-style, button-up shirts -- were less constricting than women's tops, allowing freer movement on the job.

Then dresses began to feature striking shoulder pads. They were even bigger than the ones men sported in their suits, formidable prostheses that had less to do with fashion or ease of movement than with the new dynamics of American society.

Women in the '40s were in a territory never before explored. The war thrust them into positions of authority and responsibility that previously had been assumed only by men. They found out they could handle the job just fine.

Some fashion scholars have theorized those imposing, Joan Crawford-esque shoulder pads allowed newly empowered women to appear more like the men with whom they were competing on the job front after the war.

Some have said mimicking the dress and mannerisms of male executives seemed the only way to earn their respect. Big pads gave them a shoulder up on impressing their seriousness on male-dominated American business.

Sound familiar, go-go '80s women? Those same fashion-trend watchers have said the shoulder-pad cycle came full circle when women -- rarely found in the career world in the happy-go-lucky '50s, unsure of their direction in the '60s, determined but not yet on the fast track in the '70s -- decided the time had come to prove themselves in the job market again during the '80s. The shoulder pad returned with a vengeance.

It was no-holds-barred in those early '80s days. Women pulled out their MBAs, slipped into gray flannel suits with plenty of shoulder and demanded equal treatment, just as they had in the '40s. Soon, not a dress, blouse or jacket could be found without a piece of thick foam at the shoulder. It was the '80s answer to the '50s falsie.

One look today at Giorgio Armani's unconstructed, padless jackets or Calvin Klein's spare cardigan shapes -- sans mounds of foam next to the neckline -- tells of the shoulder pad's doomsday in the '90s.

What does the abandonment of one of fashion's favorite magic tricks say about the state of men-women work relationships? It means women have arrived, some say. They need no longer rely on a male-friendly style of dressing to prove themselves equal. They just are.

A recent newspaper article told of a woman sculptor who had been asking other women to donate their shoulder pads to her latest work, a monumental piece composed not of bronze or marble, but of discarded foam inserts ripped out of outdated power suits. The sculpture, when completed, promises to be a tribute to the trials of post-ERA women who had to walk it like they talked it, so to speak -- a memorial to their struggle up the corporate ladder of the '80s, a pad-collage record of the way we were.

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