For the millions now working from home, waist-up dressing has become the solution to meetings moving from face-to-face to video platforms like Zoom. Its latest iteration? A return of the power shoulder.
A detail more usually associated with power-dressing in the 1980s, or the wardrobe of Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington, it has been adopted by women in the public eye as a way to make an impact virtually. The Duchess of Cambridge wore a sharp-shouldered Alexander McQueen jacket in October for a video announcing the ceremony for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Earlier this month, the actor Priyanka Chopra spoke at the virtual British Fashion Awards wearing a jacket with serious shoulders custom-made by the designer Kaushik Velendra, and Michelle Pfeiffer wore strong shoulders by Celine on Instagram.
And, long after Margaret Thatcher wore them in the 80s, they are back in politics. Anneliese Dodds has worn a red jacket with shoulder pads to make a statement in the House of Commons. And for an appearance at a rally in Georgia, Melania Trump was all sharp edges in a red leather coat.
With XXL shoulders recently on the catwalk in shows by brands including Balmain, Balenciaga and Rick Owens, fashion insiders have taken to the trend. Vogue suggested “tailoring you can trust” as one of five ways to update working wardrobes in 2021 and Net-a-Porter report a rise in knits and T-shirts with strong shoulders. Jane Shepherdson, the chair of My Wardrobe HQ, uses a strong jacket on Zoom “if I need a sense of authority. I feel like I have no authority in a jumper.” She thinks that the rise of structured shoulders shows a shift in working-from-home wardrobes. “You need something to pull you out of the rather sloppy mood you were in earlier,” she says. “You need something to pull you together a bit.”
The strong shoulder is most associated with the 80s, but it first had a heyday in the 30s and 40s, with the rise of cafe society meaning a waist-up approach to dressing made sense. The designer Elsa Schiaparelli was a pioneer, with her statement shoulders inspired by the gear worn by American football players .
In the 80s, the shoulder pad went to work, as exemplified in 1988’s Working Girl. The fashion historian Tony Glenville says they provided impact whether for women newly coming into the workforce, or those power-dressing. Now, he says, is no different: “We’re done relaxed, we’ve done at home, we’ve done track pants, we’ve done elasticated waists. If we’re going to look forward boldly maybe we need a sharper attitude towards dressing.”
Away from fashion leaders, the strong shoulder in 2020 is dialled down somewhat. Lizzie Edwards, style consultant and author of Look Like the Leader You Are, says her clients – typically professional women in their 40s – feel “overdressed” on Zoom wearing a jacket they would wear for the office. A softer, collarless shape is a compromise. “In the 80s with powersuiting it was about women showing up a bit masculine,” she says. “I don’t think it is that now.”
Libby Page, a senior market editor at Net-a-Porter, says strong shoulders on casual shapes is a compromise that customers are buying now: “We have seen a surge in cotton, jersey and knit shoulder pads – providing the perfect mix of a statement with comfort.”