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Surprising answer to: Why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s?

October 3, 2018

So, why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s? The answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as you might expect it to be, and it may even surprise you!


We all know that 80s fashion was an era of extravagance and excess. Huge hairdos…and broad shoulders – was the norm. But while the wide shouldered-look was understandable in men’s clothes, why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s?

1985 fashion

1985 fashion.
By Jeanne Boleyn (talk).Jeanne boleyn at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Changes to Cultural Norms

During the 40s and 50s, especially in the post-war period, women had already been trickling into the workforce. However, this was largely in factory and farm jobs. The cultural thing for women to do back then was to support the war effort – and a lot of them volunteered to work in arms factories and farms.


But in the 60s and 70s, there was a cultural shift taking place, that could provide us a clue as to why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s! That trend (of women wearing shoulder pads), started more than 15 to 20 years prior.


Two decades prior, women started entering the workforce – initially in back-office jobs like secretaries and telephone operators. But gradually, as the years rolled on, women were seen everywhere – as Sales Reps, behind counters, in bakeries and even as clothes models and seamstresses. Fast forward several decades later, and we get an idea as to why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s?


By then, men had already started wearing coats and jackets that made them look “big and beefy!”. Men’s fashion made good use of the humble shoulder pad, by strategically placing it in the insides of coats and jackets. The idea was to transform an “ordinary shoulder” into something powerful-looking – like an athlete or a sportsman!


So, in answer to the question why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s? – the cultural response is: So they could blend into that brave, bold “man’s world!”. As more and more women started working shoulder-to-shoulder (pardon the pun!) with men – in offices and businesses – they needed to fit in. And women’s fashion started making a bold statement by adding shoulder pads to dresses, jackets and coats.

Elly Jackson

Elly Jackson of La Roux performing on 11 September 2010. Phil King, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s – The Hollywood Effect

But there is yet another answer to the question: why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s? This one doesn’t have to do with women seeking “equality” with their male counterparts. In fact, this next answer had everything to do with women identifying with other “powerful” women!


During the 80s, TV soap operas, like Dynasty and Dallas, were at the height of their fame. Women watched these series by the millions, and greatly identified with the strong characters played by stars like Linda Evans and Joan Collins.


So, why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s? Well, as the stars of Dallas and Dynasty became famous – so too did their wardrobes. And one of the hallmarks of those powerful on-screen woman personas was the beefy shouldered look. To make the characters stand out in a largely male-dominated set, fashion consultants recommended that their characters “power dress”. And that’s how women began wearing them again in the 1980s too!

Sir Charles Stewart,1814,

Sir Charles Stewart.
Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Politics of Shoulder Pads

Yet another explanation as to why did women wear shoulder pads in the 1980s?, lies in the political climate of that era. Powerful women, like Nancy Regan, and Britain’s very own Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, burst onto the world’s stage wearing signature coats and dresses that supported shoulder pads.


It wasn’t long then, that those shoulder pads found their way into the wardrobes of every-day 80s women’s fashion!