Fashion Masochist: Linebacker Shoulders

By Rachel Baker | Boston Magazine |

We should have seen it coming; the signs were all there. First it was the return of leggings. Then the big hair. And finally, last spring, the most infamous component of the ’80s silhouette-extreme shoulders à la Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting-began making a comeback, with no sign of shrinking for 2009. Some brands (like Chanel) are going the balloon-shaped route, while others (Balenciaga is one) favor more-angular, superhero-inspired lines. But all the incarnations recall the days when Teddy Ruxpin topped Christmas lists and people were such savages they drank water straight from the tap.

THE EXPERIENCE I begin my shoulder-enhancement stint with a top-heavy vintage dress that has classic rounded pads and dates back a quarter-century or so. The skirt is an awkward calf-length, so-in the spirit of the era-I MacGyver it into a mini before heading to the South End for an afternoon of shopping.

I’m surprised to find that, though I resemble a linebacker, the look is a hit with construction workers on Washington Street. Their commentary is adoring-never crude-and far more effusive than I’d experienced pre-shoulder boost. Could the proportions actually be flattering?

While I’ve heard that, in theory, shoulder pads create the illusion that your waist is smaller, I always assumed that bigger looks bigger, period. But maybe there’s something to it: At high-end boutiques like Looc and Parlor, the superfashionable salesgirls fawn. Love your dress! Who’s the designer? It’s so vintage-y! (My coworkers, however, cannot resist the easy Working Girl cracks.)

When I trade the dress for a flirty black tunic with short, oversized balloon sleeves (and by oversized, I mean about the size of my head) that a friend and I nickname the "Bo Peep," the optical tricks really seem to work. Though someone with a smaller frame might run the risk of looking like a kid playing dress-up, my extra-long limbs appear longer-and thinner-by contrast. And while one colleague a few cubes over suggests I look like a storybook prince, I feel more like a fairy-tale princess.

Finally, I don a powerful, shoulder-padded blazer. On the one hand, I’m channeling a badass Janet Jackson, circa Rhythm Nation. But with the extra volume filling every inch from shoulder to chin, my neck gets lost and the effect borders on Frankensteinian. This version doesn’t make it past my neighborhood coffee shop.

THE VERDICT All power shoulders are not created equal. For my frame, the most aggressive padding pushes too far into the Amazon/linebacker category, yet I can’t integrate the puff sleeves into my wardrobe fast enough. They’re feminine and fresh, and don’t cover up any areas I’d like to flaunt. Bring on the Bo Peep!