Certain fashion designers are talking about a return to "the natural shoulder," but don't bet on it. The shoulder pad -- that flimsy slip of artifice -- turns out to be a virtually indestructible trend in garment construction.

It's something like nuclear energy: Years after its creation, some of us were a little sorry. Life seemed so much simpler before ...

Before shoulder pads deformed into animal shapes in the dryer, or floated like loose slip straps on our shoulders. Before the flying-buttress pads shot up near our ears when straddled by a purse strap. Before we knew the sandpaper sensation of Velcro against skin. Before buildup -- a blouse pad under a sweater pad under a pad in the jacket.

"There is nothing more offensive than shoulder pad buildup," says young New York designer Isaac Mizrahi, whose much-acclaimed fall collection has very few pads. Not even in a coat.

How concerned should we be about buildup? Majestic Shapes, a shoulder pad manufacturing company in the South Bronx, makes 100,000 pairs a day, five days a week, according to its president, Harold Lopato. If a woman were to wear his daily output at once, stacked like hot cakes, her shoulders would be 1 1/2 miles high.

But try discouraging the padophiles, who attribute nearly mystical properties to them. It's claimed they give women a forceful physical presence and a V-shape (once romantically called "the hourglass figure"). They mask bad posture, it's believed, and sloping, inadequate shoulders. And they do something that excites nearly everyone, clothing manufacturers in particular: They make even cheap dresses hang right.

"I don't think we can stick the stake in the heart of the shoulder pad," says designer Norma Kamali, who in the early '80s took shoulders where they'd never gone before -- imagine sweat shirts with sofa cushions in them. "The shoulder pad is a very good example of fashion that has become a part of many women's lives," she says. "It changed the shape of their bodies. It's cheaper than surgery, and easier. There are many women who couldn't think of life without shoulder pads."

No pads. A life without pads. Imagine the leftovers. Perhaps a special waste center could be created, and a new department of the Environmental Protection Agency to handle it. Perhaps the pads could be buried in the desert like canisters of deadly nerve gas, or jettisoned in a pod to outer space -- thousands upon thousands of detachable shoulders orbiting the sun.

"You're doing a story on shoulder pads?" asks Alicia Tenuta, press officer for toxic substances at the EPA. "You can't buy anything now that doesn't have shoulder pads. We've got a drawer of them at home -- we cut them out and stick them in there."

Pauline Trigere, who has been designing on Seventh Avenue since 1942, thinks total pad removal is ridiculous. "It's a necessity for the hanging of the garment," she says. But her discreet pads are perfect. They're soft and hold their shape. She doesn't know from buildup.

"I don't think you should say they are going away," Trigere commands. "But the football players -- that's what I call the big, big shoulders -- that exaggeration will disappear."

Trigere was around for America's first bout with pads, when the men went off to war and women started wearing pants, smoking in public, working in factories and growing their shoulders out. While French designer Elsa Schiaparelli had shown padded shoulders in the '30s, big-shouldered women didn't roam these shores until later -- the fashion lag being greater in those days.

As legend has it, the American designer Adrian first tested pads on Joan Crawford, who had enormous shoulders of her own, so broad they couldn't be concealed. Why not make them even bigger, Adrian figured.

"Joan Crawford popularized the pads for us," remembers Lopato, the largest shoulder pad manufacturer in the ladies' garment industry, who started the business in 1945. "And of course, the Adrian Shoulder."

Nolan Miller, the man responsible for designing the "Dynasty" look, found inspiration in Crawford when he first conjured clothes for Joan Collins in 1981. "The character of Alexis was very much like Joan Crawford," Miller says. "I think I wanted to dress Alexis -- a woman obsessed with power and money -- to be intimidating-looking and very studied."

Now his stars are pad-dependent. They'd never give them up, according to Miller. "A few years ago, the network said no more shoulder pads," he says. "Both Linda and Joan almost mutinied."

Miller makes custom shoulders for each star. Linda Evans gets a mega-pad, thick, plush, square. She's got the proportions to carry it off, says Miller, and she rarely looks broader than John Forsythe.

Collins must fear the no-neck look. "Joan does not like anything in a pad near her neck or on the top of her shoulder," says Miller. "But when it gets out to the edge of the shoulder it gets extended and goes way out."

While Miller believes in the survival of the shoulder pad, he also believes in control. "You have to be careful that a trend or fad doesn't become so exaggerated that it becomes grotesque, like the powdered wigs that got bigger and bigger -- so large that women couldn't walk," he says.

No pads -- think of it. Most likely they'll be thrown out, or become litter. It could be reckless environmentally. Pads washing up on beaches around the world. A Bonfire of the Pads, a raging mountain of melting polyurethane foam and fill, a baked Alaska spewing clouds of toxic smoke into the heavens.

Several research centers have run tests on polyurethane foam by burning it under close scrutiny and observing whether the smoke harms laboratory animals, according to James Hoebel, manager of the Fire Hazard Program at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "The tests show it's not really more toxic than wood smoke, it just burns more rapidly," he reassures.

Consider the fuel possibilities: shoulder-pad-driven locomotives, pad-burning stoves, moody hearth fires.

Hoebel says no. "You have to be very careful what you burn in the fireplace. I don't recommend it. No, not at all. Fast-burning materials can create a creosote chimney fire."

Lopato remains convinced that pads are indispensable. "We hold up a garment that wasn't hand-stitched. Fabrics are less expensive fabrics now, so they need more support. And we keep a hanger from stretching out a garment in the store," he says. "From the retailer's point of view, we make the garment look better ... We make it look better, they got a sale."

Therapists might find a few more patients on the couch after a shoulder-pad fallout. There are emotional ramifications to shoulder pads, according to psychologist Rita Freedman, author of "Bodylove," to be published next year by Harper & Row. There is a balance to broad shoulders, she says. By imitating a man's shoulders they give women more physical authority, while making their waists look smaller in comparison.

"She has to look strong, confident and big, which the shoulder pads do," says Freedman, "and they signal her femininity, her compliance and petiteness, which the waist does."

Taking them away could cause anxiety. "When a fad changes, a woman has to constantly reassess herself in comparison to the ideal. It creates a new sense of self-consciousness," says Freedman. "Men's clothes change less quickly. They can be comfortable in their wardrobe for many seasons. It gives them a stability in their self-image, and makes them more comfortable with their bodies."

And how about them, the men?

Psychologist Al Baraff, director of the MenCenter in Georgetown, hasn't treated any cases of Shoulder Envy, but he does believe women with big shoulders can be threatening. "Today the men are more confused by the women's role. They don't know how to respond to women," he says. "This shoulder is a very firm, strong look. I do believe it would take a very strong man to follow through, to interact with a woman in them."

And the size of women's shoulders may signal their discontent with the kinds of guys around. "When women had big shoulders before in fashion, during World War II, the good men were all overseas, or in the service," says Baraff. "It's like that song Bette Davis sang in 'Thank Your Lucky Stars': 'They are either too young or too old. They are either too gray or too grassy green. The pickings are poor and the crop is lean. What's good is in the Army. What's left will never harm me.' "

Not just men, Norma Kamali believes, but the social and political climate may have to change before women accept their own shoulders again. "We are in a very conservative time, which might extend the life of the shoulder pad," she says. "When it gets light and easy again, which could be a couple of years from now, then we might see no pads."

Modern living without pads -- imagine that.

"A woman who wouldn't want them is very secure and fashion-forward," says Perry Ellis designer Patricia Pastor, who hasn't used "those big honker pads," she says, in at least a year.

Pad man Lopato doesn't seem to believe the natural shoulder is possible, and he doesn't much care about the billions and billions of pads and where they wind up.

"What can I say? Once they leave here," he says of Majestic Shapes, "we never see them again."