Maybe I first saw it on an influencer, perfectly tucked into her billowy trousers while she turned her face towards the sun. Or, it was a targeted Instagram ad, or maybe a banner ad, or a newsletter, or any of the algorithmically determined images that flood my feeds day in and day out. It was likely all of them. It used to be nowhere, and now it’s everywhere — at least, on my iPhone screen. I have yet to see it in real life. It’s a style that seems so unlikely and unlikeable but also, somehow, so desirable that I keep hearing about how it’s selling out again and again and again.
It’s a muscle tee with shoulder pads, and it’s haunting me.
I must be of the demographic that is buying this oddly appealing shirt en masse (female, 30, coastal). Or else it’s the data set I’ve accidentally created with my other recent purchases (knee-high boots, a thick belt, eco-friendly laundry detergent). Am I fated to one day wake up and decide that I need this product, too?
The roots of the style are murky. Dries Van Noten made one for spring 2019, which was then replicated by Frankie Shop and copied all over the place. R13 has one that has since sold out, too. It’s rampant on the kind of absurdly cheap overseas knock-off sites that interrupt my Instagram stories with ads. But the tank top with shoulder pads look was also around in the unfortunate ‘80s revival of the late aughts, during which Refinery29’s own Connie Wang remembers in 2008 that she used to roll the cuffs of vintage tees under instead of over, safety pinning the rolls at her armpit so that it would create the appearance of shoulder pads.
The ghost of this look has evidently returned to torment us, and honestly, there is no logical reason for it to be as compelling as it is. It is a combination of things that don’t generally inspire yearning: an oversized sleeveless cotton tee? Really? In this economy? And shoulder pads, while definitely very cool, have been back in style for like, five minutes — certainly not long enough to qualify as something everyone wants. I was still ripping them out of vintage dresses a month ago (and yes, I regret it).
I’ve tried to research what has already been written about this ridiculously popular item to figure out what I’m missing, but even stories that address its desirability don’t really explain the why. “It just brings a little something extra to the table,” Popsugar reports vaguely. “Fashion girls are obsessed,” proclaimed another outlet, at once enthusiastic and unhelpful.
Perhaps the appeal for some is that it makes your shoulders appear broader and your arms look smaller by contrast, like a cartoon of a human woman form. If we’re to take the Frankie Shop styling literally, and wear the shirt tucked into a voluminous pair of pants, cinched tight with a belt, this shirt is excellent in reimagining your figure as a perfectly symmetrical infinity symbol. In truth, all of the women I’ve seen it on are already quite slim, and the exaggerated proportions of the muscle tee call attention to said slimness. I haven’t seen it modeled on plus-sized women, and the Frankie Shop’s largest size is only six inches wider than its smallest, so I don’t think that this is a style made with actual curves in mind — instead, it fakes or emphasizes them, with the shoulder pads acting as a wink. They’re obvious: It doesn’t actually make it look like you have broad shoulders.
The Frankie Shop didn’t respond to my request for comment about this wildly popular item and so I am left to wonder on my own about its hold over shoppers. But maybe there’s also something powerful about a muscle tee trending for women right now — especially if we can reference the Michelle Obama-era of tanks and sleeveless tops. I’m all for flaunting arm muscles — or arms of any kind, for that matter. And with that, I’ve accidentally convinced myself to want it. Oops.