So some of you know that I’m writing for a trendy New York glossy these days (well, if it were more popular, it would be “trendy;” at this stage it’s merely aspiring to trendiness). They have commissioned several articles from me (well, if I were getting paid it would be “commission;” at this stage it’s merely orders I obey), one of which was this one I’ve posted. My managing editor asked me to write a treatise on the ugliness and outdatedness of shoulder pads for the March issue (yes, it’s a political science review). So I did, and for reasons not revealed to me, my article did not make the cut. This didn’t hurt my feelings too badly, as so far I’ve been rejected thrice by the New Yorker and roundly ignored by the Times, and with such giants on my resume of failure I’ve come to excuse the rejections of humbler enterprises as “slavery to fashion.” But you can read it for free. Bon Appetit!
Once in a while when I was in college my friend Araminta and I needed to assuage our blues with a trip off-campus. Rarely did this involve much planning ahead or even a token glance in the mirror before we got into her long-suffering Volvo and drove to Denny’s. In fact, we usually just set out in whatever sorry rags we had been studying in; sometimes sweats, sometimes PJ’s, sometimes whatever faded t-shirt and long john’s we had worn to class every day that week. While neither of us was a vision of glamour on these occasions, I noticed that she had a distinct advantage which saved her from utter frumpiness. For a moment I considered that it might be the two cup sizes she had on me, but then it occurred to me that the world is over-run with giant-busted women, and very few of them have that “je ne sais quoi” elegance that Araminta had in her bedraggled paisley jammies. What was it?
I realized then that it was her mannishly square shoulders which made even her most casual and untailored garments seem chic and complete. Such shoulders, in their broadness, accentuated the smallness of the waist, provided a frame for the bust, and minimized the width of the hips (a woman built like this rarely has to worry whether her “butt looks big”—what could possibly look big next to those shoulders?). Surprisingly, this broadness across the back that I described as “mannish” emphasized the femininity of her figure, and she didn’t have to do any “dressing up” to look, well, dressed up.
This realization made me wonder why I seem to be the only woman who mourns the loss of the shoulder pad in womens’ fashion today. Why would women have ever given up something so flattering and, forgive what I’m about to say, aesthetically empowering?
I should explain. The shoulder pad entered womens’ fashion in the 1940’s as a variation on the soldier’s uniform. The country was largely supportive of the war effort and naturally, fashion reflected this. It also helped that Adrian dressed his muse, the popular film star Joan Crawford, in suits with padded shoulders, and also that rations on various fabrics restricted designers from indulging in the usual flourishes to add excitement to their designs: full skirts, puffy sleeves, etc. They suddenly had to be very economical in their creations, and the sleek, sparse suit padded and squared off at the shoulders proved an appropriate, and elegant, solution. Women’s social role shifted as well; she entered the workplace, taking over many of the jobs usually occupied by men who were now abroad, and the authoritative look afforded her by this simple adjustment to the cut of her clothes fit her new image perfectly. She didn’t look like a man, but she did look powerful, in a way only men had previously been able to appear.
Then the war ended, and with it not only the rations on fabric, but the need for women in the workforce; in fact, a massive campaign was launched to drag women back into the home to free up those jobs for the returning G.I.’s. After enjoying a taste of a fairly independent life outside the home, women were now maneuvered back into their formerly sequestered lives (a problematic trend astutely, famously, documented by Betty Freidan in The Feminine Mystique). Not surprisingly, fashion took full advantage of the lift on rations and came out with skirts embellished with extra yards of fabric. Fashion also relaxed its wartime strategy of militarizing the female image. The ‘soldier’ look was yesterday and the new look was far softer and less structured, except in the infamously pointed brassieres popular in the fifties. This look was somehow, in the never-humble opinion of this amateur social scientist,…so obedient. Poodle skirts, skinny-heeled slingbacks, and good girl peter pan collars: the only body parts to enjoy special emphasis were the good ol’ mammaries (just in time for the baby boom! Co-inky-dink?). The shoulders, which in the forties had been enhanced to the effect of suggesting strength, professionalism, and an authority at least superficially on par with that of the male, were now allowed their natural weak slope, their former emphasis now dropped several inches south.
Jump ahead to the 1980’s: women once again storm the workforce, not due to any national crisis, but simply because it is the next step in the progression towards equality with men, initiated by the women’s lib movement. As newcomers to the corporate world, women do what they can to fit in, the pervasive mentality being that women have to prove they belong in this traditionally masculine domain. Women’s office clothes now mimic the man’s suit: though the bottom half is a skirt with pumps (because we couldn’t go so far as to let women actually be comfortable in slacks and flat shoes and even, god forbid, unshaved legs) the top half is a smart blazer with, again, shoulder pads. These shoulder pads, however, are an exaggerated version of those of WWII. The new shoulder pad doesn’t merely level and extend the shoulder a centimeter or two; it often takes the shape of a curve, which creates small humps at either shoulder, achieving that “linebacker” look bemoaned by reactionaries to the trend,–or it extends so far out that the wearer has to turn sideways to enter doorways. Perhaps this is a manifestation of “80’s excess,” or perhaps designers just don’t want to be caught repeating a trend that had been made popular by someone else four decades previous, so they revamp it in this mutant state. In any case, the look lasts for about as long as it seems necessary for women to masculinize their image, which is not much longer than the first decade of their corporate life.
Since then, women have felt more at home in the business world and thus entitled to dress as women rather than as masculinized females. The shoulder pad has been shrugged off. Will it come back? Most likely if it does, it will be for purely aesthetic reasons, as there are so many fewer arenas left in which appearing manlier could benefit a woman; she has her own identity now, and that identity has been, at least in theory, validated by her society. The author, if you haven’t guessed already, mourns the shoulder pad’s absence in popular fashion, also for purely aesthetic reasons, but does not foresee its return any time soon. Why? There are two reasons for her pessimism. One of them is that fashion has basically fallen off the deep end in its escalating pursuit of skankiness. The questions now seem to be, “how much of my pubic hair do I need to wax off in order to wear these extra-low-rider jeans?” and, “does the bra strap peeking out of my tank top match the thong peeking out of my pants?” In other words, the whole ideology behind today’s fashion appears to be “how to be sexy (in that “Sexiness for Boneheads” way taught by MTV)” rather than “how to look good.” Coco Chanel once said that the proper goal for a woman when she dresses herself should not be to look rich, but to look elegant. There is a sorry lack of such subtlety in today’s trends. Sexiness is defined by what seems like a checklist of the obvious. Tits showing? Check. Ass showing? Check. Gams showing? Double check. Midriff exposed? Check. The sexiness of a woman in a tailored and, yes, padded, dress or blazer (think Lauren Bacall in To Have and To Have Not, think Kate Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, think Evita) is too complicated to make the cut in today’s world where Paris Hilton is an style icon and rap-video hootchies herald the newest accessories your fourteen-year old will be begging you to buy her. A padded garment emphasizes a body part that is not distinctly sexual, and thus has very little hope of gaining popularity until a massive shift takes place in the collective psychology of our society.
The other reason I don’t think the shoulder pad will come back any time soon is because women simply don’t know what looks good on them. So many of us don’t realize that it is preferable to look like a linebacker than like an overgrown cheerleader. If women knew what looked good on them, these fashions would have died far sooner:
1) Jeans with large areas, usually thighs and/or buttocks, bleached out (“Do these make my ass look fat?” You bet.).
2) Shoes designed to suggest the head of a duck-billed platypus: the turned-up toe and the heel extended behind the ankle make one’s foot look two sizes larger. No good!
3) Baby-T’s: even if you do have washboard abs, is it really appropriate to have your stomache showing oustide of the gym or a beach on St. Bart’s? And for the rest of us, why abuse your pooch by making it bulge over the top of your jeans? Not attractive!
4) Pink eyeshadow: Why buy over-priced eye cream if you’re then going to wear makeup that makes you look like you’ve been crying and that’s why your eyes are puffy (and yes, pink eyeshadow makes your eyes look puffy!).
5) The Jennifer Aniston ‘do: Sorry ladies, those two years back in the ‘90’s when you all were whipping your stylists into a frenzy over that ill-begotten coiffure? Bad idea! It made your head look big, it hid your face, and it emphasized the lines on your neck (and you who had such lines were too old to be imitating 20-something sitcom stars. For shame!).
6) The ruffled mini: and sorry, Paris, the only woman with the legs for this skirt is my three-year-old niece. Give it back!
7) I already mentioned this but it bears reinforcement: Consider this, ladies, would Jackie Kennedy have worn an exposed thong?
These are just a few of the objectionable trends of recent years. Perhaps I should start a “Top 100” list.
Everyone says that women went into the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s because “they wanted equality.”You could better argue that women went into the workforce because the post-Vietnam War inflation drove down real wages, thus meaning middle-class families could only keep up if they had two incomes.Once in the workplace, middle-class women (poor women had always worked) discovered by, by golly, there were inequalities and that those angry feminists might have a good point or two.What I remember about the early 1980s, though, more than shoulder pads is what I call the “school girl of 1910” look: jacket and little black ribbon tie. For a couple of years, it was the de facto female management-trainee look; then it seemed to go away.