When we think of epaulets in 2019, our brains often skip over exaggerated performance clothing and silly images of ’80s friends or relatives. However, they are much more than just an ostentatious costume or an outdated ball gown. . Shoulder pads are an emblem of women who assimilate to men, not only in terms of pay or respect, but also in terms of stature.
Since the 1940s, as women have moved into arenas previously dominated by men, fashion has mirrored this trend by adopting an exaggerated off-the-shoulder silhouette. The change is actually quite logical, as women generally take up less physical space than men. In order to bridge this gap, the designers implemented a sartorial solution to expand a woman’s frame. The way the shoulder pad is presented has evolved with each resurgence, resulting in more modern, non-sexist clothing that showcases and celebrates this empowering moment for women.
Ironically, shoulder pads actually originated from men, not women, when they were invented in 1877 as a piece of football padding. So what is now considered an aesthetic addition has roots in the practicality. In the thirties, the shoulder pad began to spread in women’s fashion. Elsa Schiaparelli was the first to integrate them into women’s ready-to-wear with her fall / winter 1931 collection. Shortly after, Marcel Rochas also incorporated the new silhouette into his line. The look burst into mainstream Hollywood when Joan Crawford wore them over a formal gown with oversized ruffle shoulders in her role in Letty Lynton. However, padded shoulders didn’t make a full foray into workwear until the next decade.
In the early 1940s, America was ruled primarily by war. World War II took men out of homes and put them on the front lines, leaving many vacancies in the workplace. As a result, gender roles began to change as women stepped up to fill the places left by men in various industries. For the first time, nearly one in four married women worked outside the home.
As women’s daily activities shifted from housework to driving trucks and using heavy machinery, their clothes similarly fitted. Practicality took precedence over the earlier desire for glamor and sophistication. To facilitate their entry into this foreign territory, women’s clothing takes on a more masculine look, with jackets, coats and dresses borrowing aspects of male military uniforms. The epaulettes used in evening wear over the previous decade were added to this new militaristic daywear to create a puffy effect on a woman’s narrower figure. They were sewn between the outer layer and the lining of a garment and were usually made of wool, cotton, or even sawdust, as the materials were scarce in wartime.
After the end of World War II and the return of men to the United States, women were driven from their wartime jobs, forcing many to relapse into their roles as homemakers and primary caregivers. But a few decades later, the next wave of women returned to the workplace, and this time, they were here to stay. According to 1990 census data, the number of working women increased by 27 percent throughout the 1980s. The phrase “breaking the glass ceiling”, which emerged in 1986, embodied feminist goals of era, namely to achieve a status equal to that of their male counterparts. Margaret Thatcher, an icon of both the women’s movement and the epaulette trend, had just taken office as the UK’s first female Prime Minister.
Women have started to embrace the idea of dressing for the job you want by literally dressing more like their male colleagues. Designers like Anne Klein, Georgio Armani and Ralph Lauren were the first to show off power suits on the runways, easily recognizable by their exaggerated shoulder silhouette. This power-dressing look usually consisted of heavily padded shoulders over a double-breasted jacket, pants or skirt, a reasonable pair of heels, and often very, very big hair. These oversized silhouettes served as a shield to hide the actual shape of the body and further combat the ubiquitous male gaze. Mel Griffith’s iconic look in A hard worker brought the silhouette into the mainstream in 1988. Adapted from 1940s construction, the shoulder pads were foam and wrapped in Velcro so the wearer could insert multiple sets if desired.
In 2017, women used social media as a platform to tackle gender discrimination and sexual abuse in a very public way. The MeToo movement gained traction as more women called out prominent Hollywood men for sexual abuse and harassment. Then, 2018 saw the largest percentage of women ever elected to Congress. While we still have a long way to go to achieve full gender equality (not to mention race and sexual orientation), we are seeing less discrimination based on gender, especially in the workplace. Hillary Clinton has become the first elected candidate in a major political party, and the highest glass ceiling is probably only a few years away from finally shattering.
Women have once again adopted a broader shoulder as the women’s movement enters the mainstream; However, there is no longer a unique way to dress for the office. 21st century fashion in general is losing its gender restrictions. Instead of women’s clothing looking more like men’s clothing to achieve equality, the two are now borrowing from each other. Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga showed off shoulder pads for men and women in her recent fall / winter ’19 collection. Designers like Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Anthony Vaccaerello at Saint Laurent use an epaulet to channel ’80s glam, while others like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Martin Margiela of Maison Margiela use add-ons in ways that aren’t. gendered to better illustrate how clothing accentuates the body. Designers today are using shoulder pads in a much less narrow sense to convey the full spectrum of masculinity, femininity, and everything in between.
Shop a few of our favorite modern off-the-shoulder looks below: