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What are Shoulder Pads?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sometimes garments, especially shirts, sweaters, suits, and dresses, can benefit from some extra shaping. Shoulder pads are often used for this purpose, and are attached to the inside of the garment right at the shoulder. These pads are usually made of foam and covered with fabric that may coordinate with the fabric of the clothing. Pads range in size from small to very large, and the type of pad you use may be dictated by current fashion trends.

In the 20th century, interest in shoulder pads came during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. Men’s suits often feature some padding on the shoulders but it became popular to add this feature to women’s suits and to dresses. The look of the pads altered the female shape slightly. By accentuating the shoulders and giving a boxier look to them, garments then deemphasized things like hip size.

Shoulder pads got larger as the fashions settled in the 1940s, so that size of the shoulders was greatly exaggerated. In the 1950s styles changed. If shoulder pads were used, they were softer and rounded instead of boxy and large and they were primarily employed on garments like sweaters and jackets instead of dresses.

A rebirth of the use of shoulder pads began in the 1970s, but they really saw tremendous upsurge in popularity in the 1980s. Especially suits with oversized pads were popular, and women might even add extra padding by wearing shoulder pads that attached to bra straps. Though these foam wonders were sewn into many items of clothing, yet others could be attached and reattached via Velcro. This way, women could choose the amount of padding they wanted, which was typically a little excessive.

In fact, the way the style grew as the 1980s continued led to some mocking by comedians and others. Comic skits showed women unable to get through doors because of the width of pads. In the 1990s, fashion trends reacted by eliminating most pads from clothing or using very small, light pads that merely added definition but not lift to garments.

You still may find shoulder pads in garments like jackets or sweaters, but they’re usually much more subtle. Some women prefer a little padding, and you can find these pads at fabric and craft stores if you want to add your own. If you have a jacket that’s slightly large in the shoulders or arms, you may be able to compensate for extra size with a bit of padding. It’s also likely that fashion will periodically reintroduce larger shoulder pads. It may be hard to tell if these styles will lean toward the big and boxy power pads of the 1980s, or will simply accentuate the rounded shape of the shoulders.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a HomeQuestionsAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By turquoise — On Jan 10, 2015

I agree that sometimes a little extra padding on the shoulders don't hurt. I don't necessarily have small shoulders but my shoulders droop down. So I can't have a structured look in dress shirts without shoulder pads. The biggest issue for me has been finding one that actually stays in place.

By serenesurface — On Jan 10, 2015

I use shoulder pads. They are attached to my bra strap so I can wear them with any clothing. I realize that shoulder pads are not considered trendy anymore. But some people really need them because of a petite frame or very small and narrow shoulders. I'm one of those people.

And shoulder pads are not large and bulky like they used to be in the 80s. The ones sold now are less thick and rounded out for a very natural look. Since I have very small shoulders, I look good in clothing only with the shoulder pads so I wear them almost all the time.

By discographer — On Jan 09, 2015

I was a child in the 80s and I remember that most of the blouses and dresses my mom had at the time had shoulder pads. In fact, some of my clothing that I wore in the early 90s had them too. But I absolutely hated them and if I bought a shirt with shoulder pads, the first thing I did upon coming home was removing the pads.

Even today, I'm only willing to wear thin shoulder pads in work jackets because they do look better with them. But I find shoulder pads unacceptable in other types of clothing. I have no idea how they were so popular at one point.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a HomeQuestionsAnswered contributor,...
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