By Lucia Tonelli
When Tom Ford’s Spring 2018 collection made its debut at New York Fashion Week this month, attendees were sent into a spiral of nostalgia as models emerged on stage rocking the iconic bold shoulder. Model Binx Walton opened the show, strutting down the runway in a dusty pink blazer, complete with the 90º, ultra padded shoulder that has managed to make yet another comeback today.
Flash forward to this week in Paris, when Glenn Martens of Y/Project styled models in oversized men’s blazers on top of brightly colored button ups, uniting femininity and masculinity in a way that reminds us of how both are fusing, and distinction is becoming superfluous. Hoping to escape from the banality of making only “pretty” garments, Martens proved once again that armorial androgyny is dominating the runway this season.
The adoption of shoulder pads into the female wardrobe has been a longstanding practice, one with feminist fervor, for almost a century.
Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli was the first to consciously subvert the female form, introducing the padded shoulder into her 1930s collection. Harnessing the potential for masculine structure in womenswear, she demonstrated her elegant yet nonconformist eye for design. The look immediately gained traction, with British Vogue describing it as a “wooden soldier silhouette.”
Only a year later, costume designer Gilbert Adrian dressed Joan Crawford in a shoulder-centric dress for her role in the film Letty Lynton, a decision made to embrace her broad shoulders as opposed to disguising them. The shoulder was now glamorous, powerful and most importantly, mainstream.
Still, it wasn’t until World War II that shoulder pads became more than just a fashion statement; as men left home to fight, gender roles transformed. Parallels were drawn between military uniforms and female attire, and suddenly the working woman aesthetic became a way to signify our new dominance in the workforce.
Following the war, shoulder pads were pushed into the depths of women’s closets, as many tried to abandon the relic of wartime chic. They didn’t come back until the 80s, when the “power suit” emerged. The padded shoulder now meant so much more than a wardrobe shift, it represented one of the most pervasive accounts of female defiance, boldness and capability. Women were finally proving that they could keep up with the men. Sexiness was replaced with a seriousness that women were beginning to demand in their personal lives. Suddenly, ideals of femininity in relation to a woman’s figure were minimized, gender roles metamorphosed and power shifted.
Still, the long-term appropriation of men’s clothing by women spoke to female necessity to mimic men in order to demand authority. Now, an important shift is changing this. Women are not only working traditionally masculine cuts; men are taking from the women’s wardrobe as well. Skimpy mesh tops, tight velour pants, short shorts, skirts and dresses were just a few of the designs we saw men slaying on the catwalk.
The rise of fluidity in gender and sexuality takes the padded shoulder’s historical transcendence to another line-blurring dimension. When Alessandro Michele of Gucci decided to show men’s and womenswear on the same runway, he expressed his vision through the scope of how he “see[s] the world today.” When Raf Simons of Calvin Klein had men and women walk in nearly identical outfits this season, he embodied the dynamism of our time. As makeup artist Wendy Rowe describes the casting for Burberry this season, there were many “handsome girls and beautiful boys.” Binaries are becoming less relevant as we normalize the idea that we don’t need them. The crossover we are witnessing today is part of the bigger dialogue of how clothing defines the ways we see gender, or more importantly, how we don’t. So strap on your boldest shoulders, they may very well be the padding we need to break through the glass ceiling that lingers so closely above us.
Gucci, vogue.com; Calvin Klein, vogue.com