No one rocked a shoulder pad like Thierry Mugler. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the iconic designer, who died this weekend at the age of 73, gave us working women in the 1980s as much of a boost as the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts of the previous decade.
Best known today for his Angel fragrance, one of the all-time blockbuster scents, and as the man who dressed Kim Kardashian in her reveal-almost-all wet-look, latex-corseted dress for the Met Gala in 2019, you probably have to be a woman of a certain age to appreciate just how much he influenced our lives.
But by putting power dressing on the map and thereby paving the way for reinventing how ambitious women dressed for work, it was a muted version of Mugler’s spectacularly sharp and glamorous silhouette that defined the era.
Of course, Mugler’s catwalk staging of power dressing, with his penchant for PVC and futuristic fantasy, was never going to pop up in the office. But his avant-garde ideas, a million miles from the hippy fashions of the day, filtered through into designs that sent the 1980s office into orbit.
Iconic designer Thierry Mugler gave working women in the 1980s as real boost
Dress for success: Marie Helvin in an early Mugler design in Paris 1978
Cutting edge: Linda Evangelista and Helena Christiansen on the catwalk in 1990
His catwalk archetype of an Amazonian, commanding and in command, provided inspiration for a generation who wanted to be in the driving seat of life, rather than merely passengers. Mugler was the man who let women mean business.
A pioneer of the theatrical fashion show, that propelled the likes of Cindy Crawford and Jerry Hall to international fame, he also helped usher in the era of the liberated supermodel who refused even to wake up for less than $10,000 a day.
If, in the 1970s, a good feminist might have favoured psychedelic kaftans and peasant blouses with bell bottoms, or Greenham Common grunge in the form of dungarees, this was hardly a look that would go down well in the boardroom.
Thierry Mugler’s idea of the powerful woman was the opposite of folklore fashion that harked back to the past. He predicted the future, one in which women were both sexy and in control.
Believe me, how women were going to dress for success was no frivolous matter. At a time when young women were starting to think of having a career, rather than a job to see them through to marriage and babies, the barriers to achieving their goals were still being manned — by men. What we wore was a key weapon in our armoury to storm those barricades.
Claudia Schiffer in a low-cut design in 1995 and Kate Moss at 1995 Paris Fashion Week
Today, we might scoff at the idea that shoulder pads could get you places a nice little frock might not but, in those days, we were deadly serious about this particular brand of dressing for success.
As editor of Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1980s, my uniform was either a shoulder-padded blazer, preferably red, with nipped-in waist and a just-above-the-knee black skirt, or a sharp-shouldered trouser suit. I owe that armour to Mugler, the man who not only defined 1980s fashion but bequeathed women a new state of mind.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to mirror our new visions of ourselves. If you cast your mind back to the days of Dynasty, and that fabulously ferocious battle of the shoulder pads between Linda Evans’s Krystle and Joan Collins’s evil Alexis, it was costume designer Nolan Miller’s creations that paid pure homage to Thierry Mugler.
Black magic: Actresses Daisy Ridley (left in 2017) and Naomi Watts (in 2009) attend film premiere in sharp Mugler tuxedo
And in movies, such as Working Girl with Melanie Griffith, her transformation from secretary to boss, was charted in clothes that went from downmarket mall to Mugler-inspired authority.
Here was a new way to dress that left us free to get on with the job, a uniform that indicated we had style and substance. This was never about emulating men, or trying to de-sex ourselves, it was about gaining a sense of power and control.
By refusing to dress in a frothy and traditionally feminine way, a way men were used to and which encouraged the kind of sexist banter we wanted to avoid, we hoped to divert their gaze from 9 to 5.
Hard shoulder: Melanie Griffith in 1988’s Working Girl
Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, 1987, and Joan Collins in Dynasty, 1981
Sometimes it worked, sometimes not, but it helped countless women look and feel bolder. And ironically helped us gain a sexiness based on strength rather than submission.
As we emerge from Covid and head back to the office, desperate to ditch our work-from-home tracky bottoms for something glamorous, Mugler’s designs are looking once more both wearable and desirable.
Big-shouldered blazers have been storming out of the shops in the sales, from designer through to the High Street, and now you can find hundreds of vintage Mugler jackets for sale on the internet as well as fresh interpretations from the likes of Jigsaw, LK Bennett and Zara.
The King of the power suit is dead. His power suit lives on.