Style: The shoulder pad index

In any era, the bigger the economic burden resting on women’s shoulders, the bigger the shoulders.

I just got back from Europe, and there isn’t a girl in Paris who isn’t wearing shoulder pads,” says Barbara Atkin, the vice-president of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew, in the definitive way of fashion directors everywhere. “If you’re not wearing shoulder pads, you look like you’re from the farm.”

Indeed, powerful shoulders have been asserting themselves on womenswear runways from New York to Milan this season. Recent collections by Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Balmain and Balenciaga all heavily featured shoulder pads — peaked, pointed and jutting out beneath fine fabrics. At Toronto’s LG Fashion Week in mid-October, big shoulders were spotted on Smythe jackets and Jason Meyers dresses. The designers behind Pink Tartan went as far as to poise shoulder pads, epaulet-like, on the outside of the garment itself. “Shoulder pads exude both confidence and strength,” says Kirk Pickersgill, co-designer of the Toronto-based label Greta Constantine, whose pre–Fashion Week show wowed audience members with an array of big-shouldered looks, including on a white gown whose peaks reached skyscraper-high. “Depending on the type of shoulder pads, they can provide a woman with a sense of masculinity, illustrate raw sex appeal or display a hardened edge. They truly are very versatile.”

It’s been more than 20 years since we last saw such an influx of shoulder pads, coinciding with women’s rise into positions of authority in the 1980s workforce. Not just the fashion of the day, these little foam squares were imbued with all sorts of sociological import: viewed as a vital part of an ambitious woman’s dress-for-success uniform in a male-dominated world. “Since women are typically of less imposing build than men, shoulder pads psychologically as well as physically help women seem more imposing in the workplace,” says Nathalie Atkinson, a fashion reporter and editor at the National Post. Not for nothing, she says, was the ’80s linebacker look — mastered by Donna Karan and Bill Blass — called “power dressing.”

In the 1990s, as women grew into their professional roles, earning acceptance and respect — the new pop-feminist thinking was that women’s curves and relatively petite stature need not be symbols of weakness. Women — “different, but equal” — started shedding their clunky armour, opting instead for pared down, close-fitting lines by Calvin Klein and Jil Sander.

“In a sense, 2009’s return of the shoulder pad is just part of the accelerated revivalism that we’ve witnessed in the late 20th and early 21st century. It is simply the ’80s’ turn,” says Alexandra Palmer a fashion historian and the curator of textiles and costume in the department of world cultures at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. And she has a point: also ubiquitous in stores this season are off-the-shoulder tops, batwing blouses, pixie boots and leggings.

But there might be a more subtle force behind the resurrection of big shoulders: it may just be that shoulder pads, not unlike the miniskirt, are an important economic indicator. The so-called Hemline Effect, coined by George Taylor in the 1920s, suggests that in-vogue skirt lengths go up when the economy is booming, and fall when the markets plunge. So far, the Hemline Effect has been surprisingly accurate in reflecting the bust and boom periods of the 20th century (although a causal relationship has yet to be proven). The Big Pad Theory, meanwhile, argues that the bigger the economic burden resting on a women’s shoulders, the bigger the shoulders.

Evidence certainly suggests that women have emerged as a demographic to be reckoned with after this recession. According to Statistics Canada, men have endured 81% of layoffs in the past year, while the number of women employed has actually grown slightly. Women now account for 48% of the total work force — a fact that has led some commentators to dub the recession the “he-cession.”

“The majority of job losses have come from the manufacturing and construction industries, and are jobs that, by nature, tend to be dominated by the male workforce and be more susceptible to economic downturns,” explains Diana Petrala an economist at TD Economics, part of TD Bank Financial Group. “Meanwhile, women tend to take on employment in service industries, such as finance, education, health care and so on, less affected by recessions. This is actually a phenomenon that has occurred in past recessions — women tend to become a greater share of the workforce during economic downturns.”

Charged, in many cases, with being primary breadwinners in an uncertain economy, it’s no wonder women might again feel the need to suit up in a protective outfit in order to face an increasingly high-stakes workday.

The Big Pad Theory is also borne out by history. Prior to the 1980s, the last time shoulder pads were in vogue was during the 1930s and 1940s — think Katharine Hepburn in Holiday — another period of economic turmoil that saw women leaving the domestic sphere to earn money to support their families. In 1946, after the end of the Second World War, women went home in droves. One year later, Christian Dior’s “new look” — a style marked by flowing full skirts and soft, natural shoulders — seized hold.

Regardless of what the resurgence of shoulder pads may signify, the real question is: How long will they stay? At Holt Renfrew, Atkin predicts the pads will hit mass-market lines in the fall of 2010 and likely be around for a decade. “Once you have a change in a silhouette, it’s here for a while,” she says. The shoulder pad is arguably a bad thing for women’s fashion, but it’s a sign of good things for their careers.