Tuesday, October 7, 2014

To Pad or Not to Pad, an Exposé on Shoulders

Style - Shoulder Pads Part I 

By Karen Van Velzer (Oma) 

Vogue 8817

  Shoulder pads have come in and out of fashion for women more times than most of us realize.  This, the first installment, takes a look at this new style sensation as it emerged in Europe during the 1930's resulting in a new era for fashion. This excitement served to lift women from their previous years of desperation caused by the economic woes of the Great Depression. Immediate success also attached to the fashion designer,  who promoted the use of this new fashion accessory. The impact in Hollywood was equally profound, as the shoulder pad came to define the on-screen presence of one actress in particular, while catapulting the career of her costume designer. None of this was lost on the fashion industry as a whole of course, as the acceptance of this new fad served to “pad” (pun intended) the bottom line of virtually all apparel manufacturers.

The fashions of the 1920's was unlike any other era in modern history. It focused on the young 
and was particularly influenced by the “flapper.” Young women freed themselves from the 
previously restricting codes of dress and moral conduct that forbade them to drink, smoke, and 
freely fraternize with young men. Shorter skirts revealed woman’s legs for the first time in the 
history of dress. Women sported short hair for the first time in history, save the brief period 
following the French Revolution. Women wore trousers as an outer garment, and nice girls wore 
makeup. Undergarments generally suppressed the curves of women who did not naturally have a 
fashionably flat figure. Clothing was decidedly masculine; frocks were straight with no bosom, 
waist or hips, and belts were worn on the hips.


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Styles of the 1920’s reflect the introduction of a new silhouette: narrow with a dropped waistline.

Nineteen thirties fashion returned to a noticeably feminine look following the economic
collapse of the Great Depression. The silhouette of the 1930’s emphasized the natural form of
the woman’s body. Bosom, waistline, and hips were clearly defined by the shape of clothing.
Undergarments emphasized women’s curves.


Dress styles of the 1930’s show the fitted line, bias cut, and interesting sleeve variations.

French couture maintained its exalted position as the leading authority on style in women’s
clothing until Nazi Germany cut Paris off from the rest of the fashion world during WWII.
History generally credits Italian-born French Couturier Elsa Schiaparelli with introducing
shoulder pads to the fashion world in the early 1930s. Schiaparelli wrote in her autobiography
that she started them “to give women a waist.” She first showed them in August, 1931. American buyers went nuts with an excitement. British Vogue editors exclaimed that the “wooden soldier silhouette transforms you completely – wide, padded epaulette shoulders, high double-breasted closing, and very chesty chest, lines carved sharply under the arms to the waist, and a straight column from there down.”

Elsa Shiaparelli

        Schiaparelli’s overnight sensation captured the attention of actress, Joan Crawford. By this time it had become common practice for actresses to approach studio heads in order to have a say in 
their costumes. The following year Crawford appeared in the film, “Letty Lynton” where she 
donned the pads for the first time. Schiaparelli later remarked that Joan Crawford “adopted [the 
pads] and molded her silhouette on them for years to come”. She also conveyed to readers that 
“the pads became emphasized and monstrous”. She apparently expressed this sentiment to Joan 
Crawford years later, when she told her, “To cut them down, and stop wearing sequins”. Ouch!  Still, shoulder pads defined 1940’s fashion.

Letty Lynton

Joan Crawford


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 Dress styles of the 1940’s emphasized shoulder pads.

Adrian, chief costume designer for MGM, is credited with designing costumes for over 250 films. His responsibilities included dressing many of the most iconic female film stars of the day. He designed costumes for 28 of Joan Crawford’s films, developing her signature outfits with large shoulder pads that quickly started a popular fashion trend. The movement incorporated his designs into American ready-to-wear outfits, and they were seen everywhere. The era of the pads eventually came to a close. At war’s end, French couture regained its
position as leader of the fashion world. In the spring of 1947 Christian Dior introduced his new line that became known as the New Look. His line introduced rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and voluminous skirts. A new outlook on women’s fashion was born.

The next installment of this expose on shoulder pads will be coming soon! 


Schiaparelli, Elsa, Shocking Life, V&A Publications, London 2007

Tortora, Phyllis; Eubank, Keith, Survey of Historical Costume, third edition, Fairchild, NY 2004

Tomerlin, Sarah, American Fashion, the Life and lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell,

Norell, Trigére, Quadrangle, NY 1975

Vogue Magazine, November 1, 1931.


  1. Great post! It always amazes me how fashion changes from decade to decade. It's fun to know the background behind the changes.

    1. It changes but rotates back around! If something goes out of style, wait 20 years, it'll come back!

  2. Excellent blog post!! Remember the 80s... the bigger the shoulders the smaller the butt!

  3. Wonderful information in the blog. I love the information about each decade that is included.

  4. Great article, I've ran across many made from the 1900's to 1930's and the shapes and additional locations used in garments to pump up or enhance areas were fascinating.

  5. Karen has part 2 in the works! Stay tuned for the rest of the history and a tutorial too!

  6. Great history, Karen! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to part two.

  7. So interesting! As always, fashion seems to be a series of actions/reactions, doesn't it? I do love me some Miss Joan Crawford...went on a Joan movie binge the other day and was fascinated by her evolution from the 1930s to the mid-1940s. Thanks for the informative post!

  8. Great post, Karen. I love reading the history behind fashions. Thanks for the information.

  9. Really great fashion history! Enjoyed it!!

  10. I can definitely live without the shoulder pad phase coming around again.