September 21, 2023
In the kaleidoscope of 1980s fashion, shoulder pads stand out as one of the most iconic trends. This padded phenomenon emerged from the desire to project authority and confidence (notably, at a time when women were entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers), echoing the decade’s “bigger is better” philosophy.

Trendy shoulder pads on 1986’s turtleneck dresses – and yes, that IS supermodel Cindy Crawford on the right!

While padded-out shoulders — especially in business-style dress suits — have a history dating back to the 1930s (hello, Joan Crawford!), the 1980s took it to a whole new level.

From power jackets in the office to casual sweaters at the mall, 80s shoulder pads infiltrated every corner of the fashion world. Whether they were wide and deep or smaller with an edge, these fashion appendages were a fad that made a statement. 

1980s shirts with shoulder pads and elbow-length sleeves (1986)

Extreme 80s shoulder pads were a power play

Football-style shoulder pads were an eye-catching affair. They were both wide and deep, exaggerating the shoulders to a nearly comical degree.

This look — hearkening back to the military-inspired shoulder pads of the early-1940s war years — served as the pinnacle of the “power suit,” often worn by career-driven individuals aiming to make a bold statement in the workplace.

Super-size shoulder pad styles from Southern California (1985)

On the flip side, smaller, more understated shoulder pads featured a pronounced edge that was visible but not overpowering. This subtler style still had enough flair to be taken seriously by coworkers who weren’t big on the trend.

Casual Corner power business suits for women (1984)

80s shoulder pads perks & quirks

Of course, the pads had their quirks. Sometimes they were visible through your clothing (especially when your top or jacket was made of a lightweight fabric), which cheapened the effect.

Another annoyance was if you raised your hands over your head, those meticulously placed shoulder pads would bunch up, creating an awkward silhouette that wasn’t exactly the image of grace and poise. This feature was amusing at best… and downright awkward in formal situations.

Cardigan sweaters with obvious shoulder pads (1986)

That said, these foam or fabric inserts did have some unexpected perks. One unsung benefit was that they made carrying a shoulder purse considerably more comfortable. The pad acted as a sort of cushion, reducing the strain a heavy bag could inflict on the shoulder.

Juniors shirts and jackets with puffy 80s shoulder pads (1985)

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If your existing wardrobe lacked this unique 1980s flair, no worries — shoulder pads could be purchased separately. These standalone pads could be inserted into a variety of garments, making it easy for anyone to hop on the shoulder pad bandwagon without committing to an entirely new outfit.

Pints of Pads clip-on shoulder pads (1987)
Pints of Pads clip-on shoulder pads (1987)

Whether you remember them fondly or cringe at the thought, there’s no denying that 80s shoulder pads were a fashion moment that left a memorable mark on the decade… right up there with leg warmers.

From power jackets to the more demure styles, these iconic pieces were a true embodiment of the era’s larger-than-life ethos. Below we have amassed a collection to jog — or maybe jar! — your memory.