How Wide Can You Go?

Here is a fun game to play: Say the words “shoulder pads” and ask people what springs to mind. Bad 1980s fashions? Margaret Thatcher? Joan Crawford? David Byrne in “Stop Making Sense”?

Soon the answer may be: 2023.

According to data from Tagwalk, the fashion search engine, there was an almost 50 percent increase in bold shoulders during the recent fall ready-to-wear shows over last year. There were big shoulders at big brands and outsider indie brands alike. In New York, at Proenza Schouler, Laquan Smith and Luar (among others); in Milan, at Alberta Ferretti, Ferragamo and Max Mara; and in Paris, at Balenciaga, Rick Owens and Stella McCartney. Thom Browne’s shoulders grew by 20 percent for both men and women. None, though, were quite so broad as those at Saint Laurent.

There, Anthony Vaccarello offered jacket shoulders made for an Incredible Hulkette, “pushed to an extreme that I never did before,” he said. Specifically, they were 52 centimeters, or 10 centimeters wider than usual. (Width is measured from one shoulder seam to the other.) They were so expansive, it was hard to see around them to the other side of the catwalk.

While the bold shoulder has made periodic resurgences since the turn of the millennium, it hasn’t been this big and this broad and this ubiquitous since the Iron Lady buddied up with Ronald Reagan, and Joan Collins went lamé shoulder-to-shoulder with Linda Evans on the set of “Dynasty,” the nighttime soap of excess and infighting among the oil barons that was appointment television from 1981 to ’89.

Not that the great shoulder resurgence is just another campy turn of the fashion wheel dipping ironically into well-worn ’80s clichés of female power and in-your-face achievement, the giant shoulders representing the way women literally had to shove their way into the boardroom by outmanning the men.

Today’s big shoulders are not, in fact, your mother’s big shoulders. (Been there, worn that, saved it for the costume party.) They are not about breaking the glass ceiling. Nor are they a reaction, as it may seem, to the recent trend of naked dressing that has dominated both the streets and the red carpet. You know, what goes up must come down; what is uncovered must get covered.

Just the opposite, in fact: They are an extension of the desire to place the body front and center, a way to use the shoulder to force a reckoning with what is underneath.

They are a way of “being feminist and feminine at the same time,” said Richard Thompson Ford, the author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History” and a professor at Stanford Law School.

At a time when women’s physical autonomy is under threat, when women’s bodies are political footballs, giving them a linebacker line doesn’t just gird them for battle, it makes the battle impossible to ignore.

Introducing Shoulder Pads: The Next Generation. They’re still fashionable fighting gear, but it’s a fight of a different kind.

There are few body parts quite as freighted with symbolism as the shoulder. Squared, they take on responsibility and life’s burdens. Bowed, they indicate humility, pain, fear, reverence. Shrugged, they signal indifference. Built up, superheroes, super villains and the superglam. They are a resting place for angels and the weight of the world.

They are, said Sonnet Stanfill, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “the part of the body most connected to a visual sense of strength and power.”

This has made them such a wardrobe staple that the Pitt Rivers Museum, the anthropology and archaeology museum of Oxford University, has an entire collection dedicated to body arts, including the shoulder pad in all its iterations.

Though exaggerated shoulders can be traced all the way back to the 15th and 16th centuries, to Henry VIII and the projection of what Ms. Stanfill called “hyper-masculinity through bulk,” they really took off in the form we know now during what the psychoanalyst John Flügel called “the Great Male Renunciation” of the late 18th century. This period saw the end of highly decorative masculine dress and the ascension of the suit, which mimicked the classical ideal of the male form by sketching out, in cloth form, a broad, muscled torso over slim legs, the better to reflect enlightenment values.

While the invention of the shoulder pad itself is generally attributed to a Princeton University student, L.P. Smock, who designed the interior accessory in 1877 as part of a football uniform, its first big women’s fashion moment came courtesy of Elsa Schiaparelli, who introduced the shoulder pad in her 1931 collection, the better to whittle the waist through a trick of perspective rather than through pain of corsetry.

The next year, Joan Crawford wore shoulder pads in her film “Letty Lynton,” a look that made such an impact that Macy’s was rumored to have sold 500,000 copies of the frock after the movie’s release and shoulder pads became synonymous with both Ms. Crawford and the representation of strong women onscreen, culminating in the dresses Adrian designed for the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce.”

By that stage, they had also become a uniform of sorts for women entering the work force during World War II. They were “a way of asserting a certain kind of authority and power that had traditionally been associated with masculine tailoring,” Mr. Ford said. They were, Ms. Stanfill added, a means of taking up space at a time when women had been marginalized.

These proved to be the antecedents of the shoulder pads of the 1980s, when the battlefield moved to the corporate sphere as women rose through the professional ranks, epitomized by the 1988 film “Working Girl.” Also, the work of Thierry Mugler, who died in early 2022 but whose work is enjoying something of a renaissance in the wake of a traveling retrospective that originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2019, and Claude Montana, whose extreme shoulders were meant to convey body as well as a kind of armor.

That has been the stereotype in what Ms. Stanfill called our “mental encyclopedia” ever since. Until now.

“A strong shoulder is always relevant when it is needed most,” said Laquan Smith, who set his broad shoulders against body-baring gowns. So why now?

There could be any number of reasons (take your pick): the precarious nature of the geopolitical situation; war in Ukraine; economic uncertainty — but the centering of the body is, Ms. Stanfill said, key. It’s what differentiates this era of shoulder pads from the last. It situates the big shoulder in the current context of threats around the world to assert control over women’s physical selves, be it the fall of Roe v. Wade in the United States or the protests around head coverings in Iran.

Indeed, said Alberta Ferretti, whose shoulders expanded to about 48 centimeters (18.9 inches) from an average of 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) a year ago, the idea was to use the shoulder to make “the body the protagonist.”

And not necessarily in a subtle way. “I definitely wanted a bigger shoulder this season,” Stella McCartney said in something of an understatement, given that the shoulders of her coats and jackets grew to, at the broadest, 56 centimeters (22 inches) wide from an average of 42 centimeters (16.5 inches). Rather than swamp the body, however, they set the tone for a silhouette that also focused on the waist and hips. The point being, Ms. McCartney said, to draw attention to the body.

“I wanted to take ownership of it,” Ms. McCartney said, “and be powerful in my choices, to bring back ownership of our voice.”

Or remind anyone looking who exactly owns the body they are looking at, said Raul Lopez of Luar. “It’s a way of taking back all the negative and making it positive and bringing it into the light,” Mr. Lopez added, admitting that he piled shoulder pads up about 10 inches in some looks, the better to announce one’s presence in a room. Or shoulder your way in, perhaps.

There were a variety of looks with big shoulders in the Luar collection, including a tech jacket and wool coat, but it was, Mr. Lopez said, “the floor-length gowns with the shoulders that were super-sexy that was the first thing buyers were grabbing when they came in for sales.”

As for Mr. Vaccarello of Saint Laurent, he was quick to point out that for him, the shoulders were not merely a runway statement. The jackets will be offered in store at the same width as they appeared in his show. (The same will be true at Thom Browne.)

“Even if they are extreme, it’s important for me to have them as they are,” Mr. Vaccarello said. “Otherwise I would have the feeling to do clothes for theater.”

Most designers see the great shoulder resurgence not as a flash in the pan, but rather the start of a shift in our eye — the kind that means that even if these shoulders look startling today, they may seem a necessary part of every wardrobe tomorrow.

“I didn’t intentionally do it because I thought it was going to be a trend,” Mr. Lopez said. “But now my DMs and my emails are all about them. Everyone wants the shoulders.”

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