15 October 2022

The 1980s and Shoulder Pads

My, what big shoulders you have, Mr Robinson. Sorry, I mean Donovan. 

Shoulder pads were part of the "Power Dressing" image. The phrase was first recorded in 1980, according to the Twentieth Century Book of Words by John Ayto (Oxford, 1999). Back then, it meant a smart, efficient look for executive women. 

What brought about the 1980s shoulder pad fixation? Well, it all began with a 1940s revival towards the end of the 1970s. The current Wikipedia article on shoulder pads and the 1980s reads like a page of a very poor amateur essay - the pads fashion revered of the power dressing crowd was not 70s/80s - it was '80s - and was inspired by a number of things. 

The first was the 1970s love of retro. Very few fashions are original. If you read this, you will perhaps be surprised to learn that huge flared trousers and huge platform shoes were not original fashions of the 60s/70s.

Ah... galumphing around in huge flared trousers is so... 1930s!

In the 1970s, we had had the continuation of big trousers from the 1960s (not original - do check out some 1930s/mail order catalogues for some absolutely flared whoppers), the platform shoe revival (30s/40s again), the down to the feet, puffed sleeve Jane Austin style dress revival, the country chic smock top revival, the 1950s Teddy Boy revival (which began in the '50s with a revival of Edwardian style suits!), the 1960s mods and rockers and Ska revival, then fashion designers at the end of the decade began to play with shoulder pads again. They'd already been back in fashion once earlier in the decade, but not big ones.

A tailored look had already returned, but in 1979 at least one British women's magazine was trumpeting the return of the 1940s.

Some catwalk fashion designers favoured huge pads - or other structures to give big shoulders, others little ones, but not many out in the real world were in any sort of mood for them. We were in a deep recession, and so watching early 1980s television is a disappointment for pad searchers.

The events of the 1980s propelled the pads beyond a 1940s retro fixation. Dynasty happened, and the Reagan yuppie thing happened and spread beyond America, and then shoulder pads flew. There were big, very big, very, very  big and absolutely jumbo colossal. In 1985/86 they were at screaming point. Shoulder pads were even appearing in T-shirts! When they began to pall, there was the strange 'drop off' shoulder pad, at the end of the shoulder, sagging down.

Some link the shoulder pad/power dressing thing of the 1980s to Feminism. At the time, it just seemed like a fashion pantomime. We wanted to get dressed up to the nines, and we had poor taste. 

Some men (like me) got in on the act. The pads had to be large. We wanted BIG, BIG shoulders. Many of us guys had them already, of course, because the majority of heavy, dangerous 'glass cellar jobs' were being done by men. As they are today.

But us slouchy, weakling men who got the padded look thought we looked great - and our gigantic shoulders made our beer bellies (not that Jason Donovan had one!) look much smaller.

Bliss. OTT power dressing was a fashion trend prompted by the excesses of the decade. It was a fashion that, like so many other eras, sometimes has a false importance attached to it and historians who are keen on the 1970s try to backdate it (the internet '70s years are the blackhole of eras, sucking in trends from the 1960s and 1980s). 

Simply looking at the media of the early 1980s reveals what was in fashion. In 1980, the mainstream fashions were rather boring, even in Dallas. By 1985, the massive shoulders were in, power shoulders, and the media of the time reflects that. Just look.

Ugly, but very much part of the mid-decade polarised society, and very much part of the time, which included the moussed and gel-propelled hair fashions.

Mind you, I loved those wicked pads at the time - especially in a neon pink or blue jacket, with the sleeves pushed up, and with gel or mousse and blond highlights in my hair, and a cerise mesh vest, and a pair of docksiders with no socks and...

Men's fashion as featured in a 1987 advertisement... I loved it all... why are you laughing?!
- More absolutely gorgeous 1987 clobber - and unpadded. For a change.

And as we leave the subject of shoulder pads for a while, Phil writes to say:

I've been reading on line that Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister from May 1979 to November 1990, influenced the trend for huge shoulder pads. Did she? Was she the original power dresser?

No, Phil. Piffle and bunk on-line we're afraid.

Power dressing was a trend Margaret Thatcher followed in the 1980s, but did not help to create. The jacket she wore after her first general election win in May 1979 illustrates this. It is simply a neatly tailored blue jacket, with totally non-excessive shoulders. It was a boring garment in 1979 - and would even have been boring in 1969. As the 1980s wore on, Thatcher simply adopted the fashion of that time. Compare her neatly tailored and somewhat timeless look of 1979 (top) and her whopper shoulders of 1987 (bottom) for details.

Cynthia Crawford, Thatcher's personal assistant who was responsible for seeing she was smartly dressed and groomed, stated in 2013:

'In 1987 she was going to Russia for the first time and I had seen a wonderful coat in Aquascutum's window and I went to get it. A lot of her clothes up until that time had been homemade by a lady. She made all those dresses and blouses with bows and things. Mrs Thatcher went to Russia and she looked absolutely fabulous. I said to her: "If you are going to fight an election in June, why don't we ask Aquascutum to make you up some working suits." She agreed, so we ordered these suits. It was when the power shoulders were in and it just revolutionised her. She looked fantastic. She enjoyed all the new outfits and got away from the dresses. She never wears trousers, not even today. She always likes formal clothes, even at home. She hasn't got a lot of casual clothes.'

Thatcher was a follower, not an innovator, as far as fashion was concerned. I don't recall anybody wanting to look like her. The handbag, for a start, was so naff!

Some Feminists say Thatcher was an inspiration in the fashion line for 'oppressed woman out to break the glass ceiling'. But Thatcher didn't even like Feminism.

To quote her: 'The Feminists hate me, don't they? And I don't blame them. For I hate Feminism. It is poison.'

Mind you, Mags could be a bit of a female chauvinist. She also once said: 'In politics, if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.'

And in the glass cellar jobs, where the men don't need shoulder pads? Where are all the modern Maggies smashing through that supposed barrier?