'I took up so much room': Zoe Williams' week of wearing shoulder pads

Zoe Williams
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Shoulder pads in the 80s were synonymous with adulthood. That’s how we imagined our selves-of-the-future; standing in a flat with big windows and a martini, maybe with some job (lawyer?), wearing shoulder pads. Oh, and a big telly. The shoulder pad, if you cross-ref it with the rest of the image, was more than womanhood: it was professionalism, modernity, hedonism and power. In their 2020 reboot, some – Balenciaga’s – are more nostalgic than others – Balmain’s. A giant trench in a zingy spring green is pure 1983, whereas a sequinned cloak is a bit more robotic and dystopian. But for anyone of a certain age, they’re what you’d wear if a magic trick made you swap bodies with your mother, à la Freaky Friday, even though your actual mother never wore them because she wasn’t a Sloane, and nor would she have worn giant earrings.

The 80s didn’t own shoulder pads. In the 30s, they existed purely to make your waist look smaller. This, being much less extreme than wearing a corset or removing a rib, was a pretty tame look, which took a surprising turn in the 40s, when the shoulders merged with military chic and everyone’s silhouette became gigantic and a bit scary, in sartorial homage to the tanks everyone was rolling all over each other.

This historical diversion is relevant, by the way, to my week in shoulder pads. In a jacket, a T-shirt, a structured shirt, any which way, the most eye-catching thing about me was how gigantic I was. It’s like beards (note to hipsters, I’m right on this): they were invented for men with weak chins, so when a man with a strong chin grows one, he looks like Desperate Dan. People whose shoulders are already substantial look as if they’re in fancy dress. I split up with someone once because he said I had a powerful back, in one of those annoying relationship moments where the straw that breaks your (powerful) back is a remark that is perfectly fair. One incarnation I tried was a brown vintage Pietro Luna jacket, in which I looked like a henchman. “I like your power blazer,” someone said in the office and, truly, I was power dressing, if by that you mean I could have smuggled an Uzi on to a tube train. And on the subject of public transport: I took up so much room, it looked as if I was trying to keep everyone out of my body buffer zone, in case they had nits. I did not like being this person.

I always looked from 30% to 100% too formal for any given occasion. Monday night, I went to a vegan restaurant with a dozen disappointeds of the left. It is fine to wear shoulder pads and eat vegan food now, of course, because it is fashion, and so is veganism. In the 80s, you would no more have combined the two than you would have driven a 4x4 to a march against nuclear war. And the left didn’t notice, because politics people don’t have a clue. (I was at a Labour party conference once and someone asked me where my dress was from, and I said, “Vionnet.” She gave me a look, an unambiguous how-could-anyone-do-that: “You stole it from the V&A?”) But the rest of the restaurant noticed because of all the normal stuff they couldn’t do, like get past me to go to the toilet.

Zoe Williams wearing shoulder pads in a pub in Kings Cross. T-shirt, £265, by Attico, from brownsfashion.com. Makeup and hair: Alexis Day using Tropic and Evo. Photographer’s assistant: Beth Davies. Styling: Bemi Shaw Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Behind a desk, in a shirt so structured you could have balanced a plate of hot food on each shoulder, I came closer to being appropriately dressed. Perhaps it made me sit up a bit straighter, or perhaps it is just intimidating to be shaped like a box or a computer, rather than like a hill or a pile of washing. Dress for the job you want, they say; but what job would that actually be? One where you made 20 decisions an hour, had a staccato delivery and never went to Pret, because you’re a machine, and machines don’t need crayfish. I’m guessing, here.

Having broad shoulders is, of course, a metaphor for taking responsibility. Can you transmit that trait visually? If so, this is a very easy way to get promoted to a high-pressure job where no one talks to you. No, wait, someone did talk to me. He said I looked like a backing singer in a Talking Heads video. I liked this better than what my Mr said, that I looked like a hot Sue Ellen, and I said, “How can there be a hot Sue Ellen when Sue Ellen was already hot?” and then, after intense questioning, it transpired that he prefixed “hot” to any likeness for fear of my obsessive offence-taking.

Balenciaga’s broad shoulders for SS20.
Photograph: Estrop/Getty Images

The most devastating remark came, predictably and also quite repeatedly, from assorted children, all of them my own. “Why are you wearing that?” And, later, “No, really, why are you wearing that?” And by Friday, “Why are you still wearing that?” It isn’t even a question, really, because it doesn’t wait for or hear the answer, and it conveys so much more – this deep underlying bafflement that a parent would devote so much horsepower and sheer inventiveness to bringing shame upon the family. “Why are you like this?” was the subtext.

The final iteration I tried was a shoulder-padded T-shirt, a garment that unites assertive structure with gleeful unstructure and makes no sense from any angle, especially in the teeth of an athleisure bonanza that won’t die. Am I supposed to look as though I could lounge? Can one lounge, with one’s shoulders sticking out? Yet perhaps because it was built to confuse, this was the thing that the outside world accepted most readily: ah, I see your game, missus. You’re doing this on purpose. You aren’t trying to reprise a lost decade on your own, or shoving your not-so-subtle business strategy down my throat. You’re just a dedicated shoulderer of fashion.