Fashion: The Shoulder Boom | Essay | Chicago Reader

Fashion: The Shoulder Boom 

Every decade or so a different part of the female anatomy swells to astonishing proportions.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Every decade or so a different part of the collective feminine anatomy suddenly swells up to astonishing proportions. In the early 1900s it was the bottom. Before that it was the whole lower body. In the 20s we deflated completely only to have our shoulders blow up in the 40s, and our breasts in the 50s. In the early 60s it was our hair; in the late 60s it was our minds. It took the 70s to recover from that, and now, in the 80s, we're back to the shoulder again, this time with a vengeance.

The unenlightened called this phenomenon "fashion." The truth is that these stylistic bumps constitute a kind of corporal phrenology wherein the meandering path of the human condition registers visually upon the body proper -sort of like ant farms turned inside out.

It was no coincidence that the hoopskirt generation coincided with the droll play of Victorian morals upon our interpersonal relationships. Women were polished and bespangled from the waist up; from the waist down we were fungus -the' mushroom form creating a safe cage-, as it were, for the erotic mouse-that-roars. Even an officer and a gentleman couldn't get near us -- or it -- with a ten-foot pole.

By the 1900s the below-the-belt entrapment had turned a corner -only the bustle was left. This made sense. Women were taking it lying down. We deserved a cushion.

By the 20s we rebelled altogether. We cut our hair, flattened our chests, threw out our corsets, dropped our waists, and got loose, smoking and drinking, dancing and carrying on like vertical beaded peacocks. The idea was freedom, and it showed in our clothes. There were no lumps on us -- anywhere -until the 30s, when natural curves came back and necklines plunged lower than the stock market. Unfortunately, only Harlow and Dietrich could, afford them.

Then the war came on and our men left and we were obliged to build their bombers for them, so for the first time in recent history women wore the pants in the family and, whamo! -we got shoulders to match. Big, square 40s shoulders that made the rest of the physique seem unimportant and convinced us and everyone else that we could carry the load.

And so we did. But when the boys came home full of victory Is bravado, we immediately stripped our shoulders bare, stuffed the pads into our bras "where they belong," and went about the domestic business of 50s bliss. Prosperity was busting out all over and so were our bazooms- -leading the way like little ICBMs.

Ten years later, things started moving up, not out, and our coiffures rose to new heights. Ratted and lacquered, these "beehives" were, in fact, the buzzing vestibules of an impending explosion in human consciousness, the bulge on Mount Saint Helen's before she blew. By '68 our hair was flat again, because the Force was with our minds, which were expanding rapidly in all directions. We spent the 70s crawling around in the dark trying to figure out how to live these new ideas, which is, why nobody remembers what anyone wore.

Now here we are in the almost-late 80s, and women's clothes are as multifaced as our roles -with one glaring common denominator: Shoulder Pads. Miles of them. Out to there and going further. The sweater is long. The shoes are flat. The shoulders are huge. The skirt is short, the heels are high. And the shoulders are huge. Vogue can carp all it wants about shoulder pads being out of style, but Bloomingdale's still sells them by the pint literally, they come in little ice cream cartons. We've been thoroughly Norma Kamalified and we have no intention of being otherwise. The question every man worth his Bears tickets wants to ask is "Why?"

"Because they make everything else look smaller," Lindsay S. said with authority.

"At the same time they dramatize the line from the shoulder to the bust and make it look bigger. They're really very feminine."

Lindsay ought to know. She is the creatress of what is surely the most eclectic and womanly wardrobe I have encountered. Full of antique lace and vintage hats ... and shoulder pads. She wears them with Victorian dresses and western jackets, hand-knit sweaters and, of course, 40s suits. Which brings us to an important historic point: the difference between the shoulder pads of the 40s and those of the 80s is that in the 40s women wore them because they pretty much had to; in the 80s we wear them because we want to.

"And because we like them," Lindsay's pal Lael reiterates, the shoulder seams of her sweatshirt reaching suspiciously sideways. "Except," she adds, "when they fall off."

And this brings us to a second important, and if not historic then surely hysteric, point: shoulder pads are prosthetic devices, and as such must be handled with the same social etiquette as false teeth, peg legs, and the like; it is a new and somewhat risky business.

"I don't know how it happened, but I actually lost a shoulder pad at a restaurant one night," Lindsay confesses. "I had to call them up and talk to our waiter, who was extremely embarrassed about the whole thing. He found it and brought it out to my car, shielding it from the public eye with his hand like it was some sort of obscene intimate object."

Losing a pad is a most unfortunate turn of events for two reasons. First, until the absence is discovered, one can safely assume that one has been trotting about the city looking roughly like Quasimodo in drag. Secondly, a lone lost shoulder pad looks dangerously like a falsie, and some illusions, once broken, are not easily mended.

Happily, it is a rare shoulder pad that actually ups and leaves its hostess unannounced. Generally, they migrate slowly south... like ducks. Unhappily, they usually do this solo and their flight pattern tends toward a forward thrust, leaving one looking not only like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but a threebreasted one at that. Given the situation, this can have far-reaching repercussions.

"I was at a businesswomen's luncheon recently," recalls Robin R., "when a woman stopped the conversation and said: 'I have a very serious social problem; I have a roaming shoulder pad." We were so sympathetic we all considered moving one of our own to match hers."

There are other problems: that sinking feeling you get when a man claps you manfully on your nice big shouldersunfortunately, he gets it too.

"That would never happen on Dallas," instructs filmmaker David M. "They showed Sue Ellen's bare back the other night and she doesn't need shoulder pads. And all this time I thought she wore the biggest ones around. I thought she started it!"

Then there's the mortifying possibility of a Multiple-Pad Pileup. This occurs when your blouse, your jacket, and your coat come with their own built-in shoulder pads, making it very easy to end up looking like Too Tall Jones with his legs sawed off. Pad pileup can be somewhat alleviated by buying garments whose shoulder pads are of the convenient Velcro-attached variety, leaving you to build your ensembles at your own risk. Some women simply maintain control by-removing designer-installed pads and relying on the type that attach to their bra straps. This solution, however, creates chaos when you are undressing in front of someone for the first time: nothing is less romantic than the sight of flesh-colored flaps poised senselessly on either side of your neck. "Let's face it," pronounced one pad patron, who prefers to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. "Strap-flaps look positively thalidomide."

Nonetheless. Women are willing to pay dearly for this delirious devotion to deltoid delusion. The truth is we need them. They are our little friends. It's been a long ten years and we're tired. The term Power Pads was invented by a man. It proves that our idea is working: shoulder pads hold our position in a man's world for us while we curl up in lacy underwear underneath. And relax.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
April 30
Performing Arts
April 10

Popular Stories