By Rena Smith
It is official. They are back, and no other trend is marching back into glory with such swagger. The shoulders have returned in full force. Are they a throwback to the much-referenced 1980s or the dawn of a new era? Either way, it is time to stand up straight and muscle in. And contrary to popular belief, the shoulders are the ultimate girl, multitasking like no other. A good set of shoulders adds definition to the silhouette, drawing the figure up to look longer and leaner, emphasizing the bust and drawing the eye away from hips, a hefty CV for any trend.
When it comes down to it, the shoulder, as a trend, has in fact been creeping up on us for a while. All this talk of structure and tailoring entails an all-round refinement of the frame, and a smarter look. Trenches and safari jackets, with the wee epaulets, add just a smidgen of height to the tops of your arms. The simple tux jacket, a staple on the backs of clothes horses at London Fashion Week this year, is an instant, quick-fix shoulder addition to your look. Whether a shrunken, girl-fit or a loose, borrowed-from-your-boyfriend cut, they make mini-dresses underneath look cute, and, who’d thought it possible, lengthen and refine legs in skinny jeans that one step further in slick, androgynous style.
Recently, tailoring is being taken to astronomical heights, and in all of this, the shoulder reigns supreme. At Calvin Klein and Dior, shoulders and sleeves become sculpted together to create the streamlined, futuristic silhouette, not unlike the flowing lines of the Ralph Lauren safari cape, or indeed the oversized cardigans we have been sporting for months. Be daring and add shoulder pads (that’s right, I said it!) to such a cardi for a real, smooth, vintage, shouldered shape.
Meanwhile, tailored Givenchy shoulders are reinforced with jewel armour, shoulder pads or drawn up to triangular heights, much like the dazzling military jacket at brand-spanking new Parisian label Balmain. The military/nautical look, with references to officer uniforms, is another playing field where the shoulder has been a winning move. The shoulder becomes a superstatement, like the voluminous skirts of an haute couture gown, at these new, geometric heights.
It has been a funny twist of recent times that to get an effect, clothes are made to do the opposite; tulip skirts that add volume to the hips are contradictorily flattering to the waist. Men and boys alike smoulder in all masculine goodness in the most feminine pink shirts, and larger bodies hide well behind huge, extravagant prints. Thus, the shoulder, which one assumes as a masculine costume feature, frames the face and prettifies the figure.
That’s not to say of course that shoulders feminize in the same way that a pink baby doll frock does. Under a good pair, your face and frame become a girl-version of what you wear, a tough look in lipstick and heels.
Is the shoulder, or indeed feminism, just another 80s comeback trend? Or does it have a place in the noughties too? Vintage credentials aside, the shoulder is an undeniable sartorial stake in the girl-power claim, an assertion of a woman’s right to be. If codes of dress are to be read seriously, this new lease of life in the shoulder trend, being breathed with such force and from so many angles, can only signal one thing; that girls are once more taking a step towards standing eye-to-eye with boys.
Indeed, this year sees the release of the film Coco Before Chanel, a biography of Coco Chanel’s life. Not just the first and brightest superstar designer, Chanel really rocked the boat by interpreting women’s fashion through male lines of power. Popularising trousers for women, which allow for freer movement on a practical level, ditching the skirt served as an important step towards equality with men. She also created the iconic Chanel suit, which borrowed the military-type shoulders of the kind of uniforms her lover, the Duke of Westminister wore. A suit is now absolute staple in the western woman’s wardrobe. Perhaps the creation of such suits allowed ladies the ammunition to approach the job market, not an insignificant achievement at all.
Similarly, in music too, we’ve seen a surge of girls borrowing from the boys; two years ago Ciara released Like a Boy, in which she calls for women to re-enact the disinterest and even infidelity in a relationship which are deemed acceptable from men. “Keep a straight face when you tell a lie / Always keep an air-tight alibi / What he don’t know won’t break his heart.” She demands whether the same behaviour would be acceptable from women: “What if I / Had a thing on the side, / Made you cry / Would the rules change up or would they still apply?” Ciara refuses to accept what plenty of others are prepared to, mocking “Why you mad, can’t handle that?” Her attitude is a gunshot call for equality.
Last year, Beyoncé reached number 1 with If I were a Boy, which identically challenges the inequality in relationships by envisaging the girl slipping into the boys shoes; “I’d put myself first / And make the rules as I go / ‘Cause I know that she’d be faithful / Waiting for me to come home.” Although in true Knowles fashion, she asserts female authority in the lines “If you thought that I’d wait for you / You thought wrong”, she still seems to conclude that infidelity is a failure natural and irreconcilable in men; “But you’re just a boy / You don’t understand.” Perhaps such a brazen strike at feminism might have compromised her femininity, or the lines are ironic. In any case, Knowles has asked questions that cannot be unasked.
Both artists chose black and white for their video, as if wanting to strip gender differences down to the bare essentials, and each adopt traditionally “masculine” costumes, Beyoncé in a rather fetching police uniform, and Ciara, first in a suit, then in baggy jeans, a baseball cap and a tank, and not without glistening hair and immaculate nails. In putting on the trousers, both physically and proverbially, highlight prevalent social role differences between the sexes, and make a gesture towards the liberation of the modern woman. Superfluous as fashion seems, sartorial roles embody much of how we read the differences between girls and boys and, to borrow the words of Ciara, clothes are key in learning to “switch up the roles”.