Joan Collins in Dynasty, 1984
Mention power shoulders and the words “Working Girl” typically trip off the tongue. The reference, you guessed it, is to the 1989 hit movie starring Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, a New York secretary tackling sexual politics in a cut throat office environment. Griffith’s hardworking on-screen wardrobe typified the decade’s toughened female silhouette. If, like Tess McGill, you wanted to get ahead as a woman in business in the 1980s, you dressed up in boxy tailoring.
In reality, however, bold shoulders denoted female political daring long before their mainstream affiliation with the likes of Griffith, a young Hillary Clinton, Joan Collins (as Alexis Colby in TV series Dynasty) and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Rewind to the first half of the 20th century and you’ll discover women in the public eye who challenged the demure image expected of them, with sized-up shoulders.
Elsa Schiapareelli wearing Magenta
Society fundamentally changed in the wake of the First World War; the Roaring Twenties ushered in a mood of abandon and hemlines shrunk. The longline romance of fashion in the 1910s was eradicated by the early 1930s, when British shipping heiress, civil rights activist and poet, Nancy Cunard, arrived on the scene. At the height of her career, Cunard stood out amongst a coterie of bohemian counterparts thanks to the square-shouldered men’s blazer and motorcycle jacket she wore, along with armfuls of heavy bangles. Her signature style eschewed the idea of muliebrity, as did her heavy drinking, sexual liberalism and outspoken stance on racism. She was a provocateur of her time: “Never in her life, I believe, was she frightened of anything,” observed her contemporary, literary critic Raymond Mortimer.
Surrealist fashion designer and rival to Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli had a similarly fearless demeanour, power shoulders included. Schiaparelli moved to Paris as a single mother in 1922 with the aim of starting a business and counted Dalí, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn as friends and supporters. In fashion history books, she’s the innovative rebel who unleashed shocking pink, zips and the jumpsuit on women’s wardrobes. She sported power shoulders during the 1930s (pictured here in 1937); decades ahead of women worldwide, who would look to former Céline designer, Phoebe Philo, for the same silhouette. (Note also the absence of cleavage.)
Joan Crawford and Ann Blythe in Mildred Pierce, 1945
By the 1940s, scaled-up shoulders went mainstream, in part thanks to American actresses Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth, who debuted matching tailoring on the set of Mildred Pierce in 1945. The American footballer-style cut was equal parts hulky and elegant, suggesting a newly empowered stance for Hollywood’s leading women.
As the hourglass waist inched out the power shoulder in the 1950s, hardline tailoring went on hiatus until the 1980s, when business-minded confidence found a home on the catwalk at Armani and Thierry Mugler. The look caught on big time, peaking between 1984 and 1989, when Oprah, Princess Diana and Michael Jackson made accented shoulders a pop culture phenomenon.
Lady Gaga wearing Marc Jacobs, 2018
There are continuing parallels with then and now – both in style and challenging the status quo. When Lady Gaga stepped out in a voluminous Marc Jacobs suit in October 2018, it was impossible not to draw comparison with the costume Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne wore for his thought-provoking Stop Making Sense concert in 1984, a satirical nod to yuppie culture. Gaga’s message was unequivocal: “I wanted to take the power back,” she said during her Women In Hollywood acceptance speech. Shoulders, sexuality, politics and all.
Diana wearing Escada, 1989
Défilé Thierry Mugler haute couture autumn/winter ’84/’85
Michael Jackson at the 26th annual Grammy awards, 1984
Hillary Rodham Clinton at primary campaign rally for her husband, 1992
Joan Collins at the Young Musicians Annual Celebrity Mother Daughter Fashion Show Luncheon, 1983
Meryl Streep at LAX, 1986
Oprah Winfrey at the 14th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, 1987
Alexander Wang ready-to-wear spring/summer 2019
Balenciaga ready-to-wear spring/summer 2019
Celine ready-to-wear spring/summer 2017
Comme Des Garcons ready-to-wear spring/summer 2017
Saint Laurent ready-to-wear autumn/winter ’16/’17
Balmain ready-to-wear autumn/winter ’09/’10
Rihanna at the Met Gala, 2014