Power and Protection: Shoulder Pad Fashions, 1979 – 1989

Exhibit / March 8, 2017

Object Name: Shoulder pads (fashion), 1979-1989
Maker and Year: Various, circa 1979-1989
Object Type: Fashion accessory
Description: (Richard McKenna)

The shoulder pad—whose origins lay in the protective padding used in military uniforms—first became a feature of female fashion in the build-up to and during the Second World War. Perhaps in response to the militarization of society then underway, its expressionist lines were introduced by prominent designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, whose work was heavily influenced by the surrealism of Cocteau and Dalí. The style was then popularized through the work of cinema costumers like Adrian (Adrian Greenberg), who dressed Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. It was during this period that Texas schoolboy Nolan Miller, in his own words, “fell in love with movies and [decided to] design gorgeous costumes for gorgeous stars.” His ambition was realized when he became costume designer for the soap opera Dynasty (1981-1989), where an updated version of the tapering silhouette exerted a powerful influence on the popular aesthetic of the day. At the same time, haute couture fashion designers like Claude Montana and Giorgio Armani also began featuring shoulder pads in their collections.

The 1980s—like the 1930s and ’40s, a period marked by increased militarism—had begun with the election of ex-actor Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. Reagan’s film career had peaked during the wartime period, and he brought his penchant for top-heavy cuts to the White House, finding aesthetic and political support across the Atlantic from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, also famed for her predilection for artificially large shoulders. As a college athlete, Reagan had worn the large shoulder pads of the football player, and the shoulder pads common in ’80s fashion played a similarly intimidatory and protective role, albeit in a psychological manner. John Molloy’s 1975 bestseller Dress for Success popularized the concept of “power dressing” and paved the way for the “power suit”—a large-shouldered business suit that was soon adopted by women attempting to make their way in the white male-dominated corporate world of the day.

Appearing in films as diverse as Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), Baby Boom (1987), Heathers (1988), and Working Girl (1988), perhaps the defining shoulder pads of the ’80s are the chainmail versions worn by Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, ruthless-but-discerning matriarch of Bartertown, in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. At the time, Turner was openly criticized by conservatives for her sexuality, and admired by everyone else for being an “[embodiment of] female strength.”

5 thoughts on “Power and Protection: Shoulder Pad Fashions, 1979 – 1989

    • lol! Funny strip there.

      Totally cool to hear these back stories and origins of fashion trends and/or significance. I would’ve never figured that out on my own. Good heavens, Sean Young was super hot in Blade Runner with those shoulder pads. Won’t ever forget that!

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