The Padded Shoulders Trend Is the Ultimate Feminist Statement

The padded shoulder—a symbolic motif in fashion that’s closely tied to the history of the women’s movement—has been morphing over the past few seasons. It’s gone from big and square to an ascending conical shape so extreme that it feels like a church bell, thanks to forward-thinking designers like Rick Owens, Demna Gvasalia and Rei Kawakubo. If Viktor & Rolf’s Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren gave the feature its most hyperbolic expression, glamorizing the gothic and making the office suit appear unseemly and monstrous, then Marc Jacobs echoed that design with softer, rounder, out-of-proportion silhouettes in his fall/winter 2022/2023 collection, at the presentation of which Bella Hadid stunned in avatar hair, sky-high platform heels and a shiny black dress with dramatically bulbous shoulders.

The gigantic shoulder was seen in several other collections too: at Giambattista Valli couture, where it was angelic and tailored in tulle and cotton; at Balenciaga couture, where it was bubble-shaped and crafted in latex; and at Gaultier couture by Olivier Rousteing, where it had a gladiator aura. The Moschino couture campaign, shot by Steven Meisel, featured some of the most supreme shoulders ever seen in fashion—they were large and as pointy as pyramids. In a fashion moment that reflects the melancholic feelings of a post pandemic world and the mournful emotions of war, there is also a playfulness to this funny armour—a longing for release from the seriousness and toil of economic, political and actual survival into the gentleness of femininity and its lesser known darker, sensual  side.

Originally invented by a Princeton University student in 1877 for American football players, the shoulder pad first appeared in women’s fashion in the late 1930s. The Second World War was breaking out, women were being sent to work and Elsa Schiaparelli wanted to give volume to that area of a woman’s body in a way that mimicked a man’s broad shoulders; she wanted to help women project power. “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous,” she said, foreshadowing the fact that magnified shoulders would appear at key moments of political and social change for women.

The accentuated shoulder appeared again when the feminist movement took on vigour in the early 1960s, and in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent scandalized the couture world with the Le Smoking. By borrowing and translating the strong-shouldered jacket and pants of a masculine suit—the symbol of male power—and allowing women to wear it, said Saint Laurent, “I conferred the attributes of one gender to another. I always wanted to put myself at the service of women. I wanted to accompany them in the great movement for liberation.” This trend accelerated in the ’80s and was immortalized by Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady herself, as the power-dressing uniform now synonymous with girl-bossing. The Jean Muir skirt-suits with shoulder-padded blazers she favoured helped her visually assimilate with the men she worked alongside and distance her femininity from her public office. “People expect me to dress like an executive, and so that is what I do,” she said.

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