Shoulder Pads

Jennifer Mower


DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA317


The 1940s and 1980s were two style periods where traditional gender roles were challenged as women entered or returned to the workforce in greater numbers than in the preceding years. In both periods, shoulder pads served as a visual representation of the changes to Euro-American society and culture. In the 1980s the padded look was seen on the runway in collections by postmodern designers like Thierry Mugler, Yves Saint Laurent, Claude Montana, and Giorgio Armani, who appeared to sometimes look to the past for design inspiration. The shoulder pad is the obvious similarity between the two decades, but other similarities between the two periods are simplicity of cut, versatility, and practicality of design. Designers like Claire McCardell, in the 1940s, and Donna Karan, in the 1980s, helped to make these characteristics popular among consumers. The shoulder pad is the yang to the feminine yin of line, draping, pleating, and other design details used to soften tailored, masculine silhouettes.

Thierry Mugler, spring/summer 1986. Niall McInerney, Photographer © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

History and Significance of Shoulder Pads

Even before the US entered the Second World War in December 1941, dress for working women stressed serviceability and comfort. On 24 June 1941, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), in “Costume Suggested for Women Working in Industrial Plants or on Farms,” suggested that “a culotte-type one-piece dress [can be worn] for women who want the convenience of trousers with the appearance of a skirt.” Other garments discussed were a “wet weather suit of shower-proof cotton, with a cover-all apron skirt and matching leggings to protect the stockings” and for work around the home, “a type of garment considered especially adequate” was “a wraparound cotton housedress with wing sleeves.” Whether you worked in a factory or on the farm, one was still expected to dress like a lady!

On 1 September 1943 Vogue published “Why Aren’t You Working?,” in which readers were asked to consider wartime employment, explaining that by 1944, over 17 million civilian women (approximately one-third of American women) would need to be working to keep the home front operating. The author clarified that “any real job [not just in the defense industry] … will help the war effort.” British labor historians Heather Joshi, Richard Layard, and Susan Owen explain that “War work led many women (especially in their twenties) to acquire skills they would not otherwise have acquired.” Though many women entered the workforce because of the war, many, according to historian Claudia Goldin, “left at its conclusion.” While women worked in decades both before and after the war, it appears that society as a whole expected many of them to return to more traditional occupations after the war was won—after all, what had all this fighting been for?

Wartime historian Penny Summerfield explains that the “wartime mobilization of women … [resulted in the temporary] blurring of the visual boundary between masculinity and femininity,” as some women donned pants instead of dresses. Not all women wore pants in the 1940s; non-bifurcated styles took on more masculine design characteristics, including broad padded shoulders, tailoring, and dark-colored worsted fabrics. Vogue featured the shoulder area on 1 May 1944, with sketches of designer gowns with enhanced shoulders using shirring, pleats, or “steep banks of feathers … with a flange of lace.”

For a study on wartime dress, Jennifer Mower analyzed a caramel-colored suit designed by Louise Barnes Gallagher, a designer known to use the broad-shouldered silhouette in the 1940s. Fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank explains that Gallagher softened the masculine look with “fitted bodices, narrow waists, and skirts arranged with some movement to the drapery.” The skirted suit, originally sold at a Portland, Oregon boutique, had a “Jen-ette made in California” manufacturer’s label on each shoulder pad. The branding of these trademarked shoulder pads reflects the importance of these enhancements to the overall look. Shoulder pads were not new—they were used in 1930s silhouettes—but were carried over to the 1940s as the look of women’s clothing became more masculine in cut and visibly narrowed with federal materials regulations. Fashion historian Claudia Brush Kidwell explains that this look started to soften in the early 1940s, but the “war prevented the broad shoulders in America from going out of fashion as soon as they normally would have.” Movie stars like Joan Crawford and Lauren Bacall made this look famous on the 1940s Hollywood movie screen. An analysis of 1940s garments generally reveals a slim silhouette influenced in some way by federal restrictions on dress; a deeper analysis reveals some range in the impact of this influence.

After the war, many women returned to the home. Dior’s New Look reflected the softer, more maternal expectations of women in the late 1940s. In 1947, the look featured a gentler rounded shoulder. On 18 March 1947, WWD ran an article about a new technology in shoulder pads: shoulder pads made of washable “formed rubber.” This new shoulder shape symbolized postwar roles and expectations for women and demonstrated the transition toward a civilian-minded economy.

Shoulder Pads on the Catwalk

In the 1980s, there was a surge in women working. In 1986, author George Guilder wrote that “37 percent of all women between the ages of twenty and sixty-four and 41 percent of all women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four held full-time year-round jobs” in 1984, and, like the 1940s, the media echoed general social concern about how this impacted on society and culture. Women’s Wear Daily editor Samuel Feinberg wrote a regular column titled “From Where I Sit,” which offered his perspective on topics relevant to the industry, including working women. On 10 May 1985, Feinberg reviewed the book titled The Working Woman Book: Or How to Be Everything to Everyone (1985), “a tongue-in-cheek look at the working woman” by Jim and Barbara Dale.

The topic of women working was so significant that the cable network Lifetime ran a telecast titled “The Working Woman’s Survival Hour,” which featured famous working women, including fashion designer Donna Karan, feminist Gloria Steinem, politician Geraldine Ferraro, and model-actress Cheryl Teigs. Opinions about women working were clearly being formed, though in the 1980s women’s presence in the workplace was not a short-term social change, compared to the temporal, social, and cultural expectations of women working in the 1940s.

Power suits, a style of the 1980s worn by female executives, were “a phenomenon of the period” driven by women’s roles in the public sphere according to fashion historian Elizabeth Ewing. Power suits were not the only apparel style to feature a padded shoulder—daytime and evening wear also featured the enhanced shoulder. The look could be seen on the runway, in mass retailers, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on the streets. On 24 February 1986, WWD included an advertisement for New York Pret, a manufacturer of stick-on shoulder pads. On 15 May 1986, WWD ’s Joyce Wilson interviewed designers and executives about the top looks, which were focused on “value” and “femininity.” Innerwear designer Gale Epstein stated that “Shoulder pads continue to book strongly for her company [Hanky Panky].” In March 1987, Vogue ran an advertisement for Pints of Pads, the original clip-on shoulder pad, which sold at Bloomingdale’s department stores.

While the shoulder pad is reflective of the sociocultural changes surrounding the changing roles and expectations for women during the 1940s and 1980s, there are other apparel design similarities—including simplicity of cut, versatility, and practicality of design—that occurred in both decades. A designer known for modern, practical design during the 1940s was Claire McCardell. According to fashion historians Jane Farrell-Beck and Jean Parsons, McCardell “focused on play clothes and dresses rather than on the more masculine suits of the period.” These garments were made in easy-care fabrics like cotton. On 1 March 1981, Vogue highlighted the timeless nature of McCardell’s designs in an article focused on the revival of the designer’s 1940s looks for the Lord & Taylor department store; the author credits McCardell with starting “the casual American look” during a period of “padded shoulders, padded bras, and needlepoint high heels. McCardell dressed women in casual styles like the wrap-style “Popover” dress with deep pockets, one style being updated for the 1980s consumer.

Similar “flexible” and “practical” 1940s apparel style characteristics can be found in American designer Donna Karan’s 1980s collections. Donna Karan, inspired by a man’s wardrobe, created clothing for the modern, professional woman who, according to Jane Farrell-Beck and Jean Parsons, “was tired of the overly masculine or homogenous look of business suits.” Karan used fine materials, in neutral colors like black, to give “women the greatest possible freedom to select accessories.” Karan’s clothes were flexible in that they could be worn at home, or to casual occasions, or be dressed up. Vogue Pattern Magazine featured the designer in the fall 1987 issue. In the article, Karan discusses her “four-pattern-package wardrobe” that included a “1. Basic top that emphasizes the waist (beige jersey wrap top); 2. Slim skirt cut on the bias; 3. Double-breasted jacket; 4. Short dress with matching coat.” A variety of looks could be achieved with these garments and a few wardrobe basics the consumer already likely owned.

According to appearance and behavioral theorists Cynthia Jasper and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, “Dress, along with a number of other outwardly observable behaviors … is part of a set of expectations for behavior that define a person’s role within the social structure.” During the 1940s and 1980s, publications focused on the balance women were expected to maintain at home and in the workplace. The workplace gains made by women during the 1940s may have had a less lasting effect on social and cultural change than is sometimes realized; however, by the 1980s more women wore working than ever before. In September 1986, George Guilder reports that the 1985 “census had classified more than half of … young mothers as participants in the work force.” Clearly, women working in the 1980s had a deeper and more lasting influence on society compared to the 1940s. In the 1980s, a growing number of women put off indefinitely more traditional pursuits like marriage and starting a family.

Because women served a variety of roles, both public and private, clothing emphasized flexibility, versatility, and practicality in design in the 1940s and 1980s. Wartime dress often had to serve many purposes and/or be worn to a variety of occasions. For example, on the 15 November 1942, Vogue advertised garments in which all garments featured the broad-shouldered silhouette, and were “made for each other … COLORelated—so that they mix and match congenially.” Women’s wartime clothing, including lingerie, was regulated under federal dress restrictions. On 1 February 1943, Vogue describes “Law-Abiding Lingerie” as “pretty and practical.” During the 1980s, similar sentiments regarding practicality were sometimes seen; in October 1985, in Vogue’s “Last Word,” the fashion editor explains that: “A jacket from the sports department can be made to work for any casual occasion, worn with a pair of trousers, lean pants or leggings.” In an editorial of 1 April 1985 on Saint Laurent, a Vogue fashion editor writes: “An ideal balance between the beguiling and the practical … and a remarkable level of suit dressing that sets new standards, answers more needs, day and night.”

During the 1940s and 1980s women’s apparel was more masculine in design than other twentieth-century style periods, but these details were often balanced with feminine style and construction details, reflecting sociocultural attitudes toward changing gender roles. The gains made by women during the Second World War may have been short-lived compared to the 1980s, but visual and material culture produced during these two eras reveals two themes: on the one hand, women acquired skills, and became independent and more confident collectively as they made strides outside the domestic sphere of influence. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that society and culture were not always positive about this change, and many longed for a return the past. By the end of the 1980s, women’s position in the workplace, specifically in managerial positions, was well established, and many of these women donned the power suit enhanced with shoulder pads to convey, consciously or subconsciously, their power and presence in the workplace. But, like the 1940s, the hard edges created by the shoulder pad were often tempered with feminine accessories or design elements like draping. Magazines, however, contain articles reminding women of the importance of femininity regardless of their occupation; these conflicting messages contribute to the balance of the masculine silhouette with feminine design details.

It is not the case that women only worked during the 1940s and 1980s: women held jobs outside the home before and after both periods. However, it is the public interest in, and often concern about, these issues that makes these decades worth studying. This focus, communicated in the media and reflected in appearance and dress, raises questions about what the ideal working women “looked like.” Women’s dress became more tailored; jackets, for example, became feminized versions of a man’s jacket, emphasized by the broad shoulder. This classic look visually identifies both periods and symbolizes women working outside the home.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Barmash Isadore, et al. Fashion, Retailing and a Bygone Era: Inside Women’s Wear Daily—A Look Back by Seven Former Editors. Washington, DC : Beard Books, 2005.

Find in Library O’Hara Callan Georgina. The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers. London : Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Donna Karan.” Vogue Pattern Magazine (fall 1987): 62.

Find in Library Emery Spanabel. A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution. New York : Bloomsbury, 2014.

Find in Library Ewing Elizabeth. History of 20th Century Fashion. Los Angeles : Quite Specific Media Group, 2002.

Find in Library Farrell-Beck Jane, and Parsons Jean. 20th-Century Dress in the United States. New York : Fairchild, 2007.

Find in Library Golbin Pamela. Fashion Designers. New York : Watson-Guptill, 2001.

Find in Library Goldin Claudia D. ““The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment.”” The American Economic Review (September 1991): 741–756 .

Guilder George. “Women in the Workforce.” The Atlantic, September 1986. (accessed October 2016).

Find in Library Jasper Cynthia R., and Roach-Higgins Mary Ellen. “Role Conflict and Conformity in Dress.” In Dress and Identity, edited by Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, Joanne B. Eicher, and Kim K. P. Johnson, pp.139–155. New York : Fairchild Publications, 1995.

Find in Library Joshi Heather E., Layard Richard Owen J. Susan. ““Why Are More Women Working in Britain?”” Journal of Labor Economics 3 (January 1985): S147–S176 .

Find in Library Kidwell Brush. “Gender Symbols or Fashionable Details?” In Men and Women: Dressing the Part, edited by Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele, pp.124–143. Washington DC : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Mower Jennifer Pedersen Elaine . “United States World War II Clothing Restrictions.” In the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 1, The United States and Canada, online exclusives. Berg Fashion Library, 2014. DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch3811.

Find in Library Caroline Milbank Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Find in Library Summerfield Penny. ““Gender and War in the Twentieth Century.”” In The American Experience in World War II, vol. 10 “The American People at War: Minorities and Women in the Second World War, edited by Walter L. Hixon, pp.1–15. New York : Routledge, 2003.

Find in Library ““Three on a Match.”” Vogue (US), 15 November 1942: 80 .

Find in Library ““Law-Abiding Lingerie.”” Vogue (US), 1 February 1943: 96 .

Find in Library ““People and Ideas: Why Aren’t You Working?”” Vogue (US), 1 September 1943: 96–97; 126 .

Find in Library ““The Lifted Shoulder.”” Vogue (US), 1 May 1944: 100–101 .

Find in Library ““Vogue’s View: All-Time Favorites/A Woman’s Design Concept.”” Vogue (US), 1 March 1981: 260 .

Find in Library ““Paris … At Its Most Alluring.”” Vogue (US), 1 April 1985: 309 .

Find in Library ““Last Word on Fashions in this Issue.”” Vogue (US), October 1985: 552 .

Pints of Pads” (advertisement). Vogue (US), March 1987: 357.

Find in Library ““Natural, Rounded Contour in Shoulder Pads for Fall: Shoulder Silhouette Looks Softer for Fall in New Pads Developed at Shoulder Pad Houses—Stress Shapes that Hug the Shoulder—Snap-In Pads Get Good Response—Formed Rubber Used for Washable Pad.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 18 March 1947: 30 .

Find in Library ““Costume Suggested for Women Working in Industrial Plants or on Farms.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 24 June 1941: 3 .

Find in Library ““From Where I Sit: Seminar Targets Women in the World of Business and How They Deal With the Stress of Competition.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 9 April 1980: 32–33 .

Find in Library ““From Where I Sit: Building Bridges for Men, Women Who Work Together.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 19 September 1980: 9 .

Find in Library ““From Where I Sit: A Tongue-in-Cheek Look at the Working Woman.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 10 May 1985: 17 .

Find in Library ““The Fresh Shapes”” (New York Pret advertisement). Women’s Wear Daily , 24 February 1986: 30 .

Find in Library ““From Where I Sit: Mothers Who Work Can’t Do Everything.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 9 May 1986: 6 .

Find in Library ““Innerwear Bestsellers: Value, Femininity Are Aligned with Top Looks.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 15 May 1986: 14 .

Find in Library ““From Where I Sit: Wanted: More Good Child Care at Fair Rates.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 17 February 1987: 9 .

Find in Library ““From Where I Sit: How Working Women Survive.”” Women’s Wear Daily , 4 November 1987: 25 .