Sweaters are supposed to be cozy, so why is everyone obsessed with baring their shoulders?

I do not own any “cold shoulder” tops. I know they exist, and unless you haven’t gone shopping, or left your house, or looked at social media in the past two years, you know they are out there too. There is no escaping them.

Cold shoulders tops are so specific, so trendy, so fast fashion, that they seemed destined to crash and burn. Yet even as the weather gets colder, they persist for the second year in a row. The cold shoulder sweater defies logic, similar to the sleeveless turtleneck. Winter styles that expose the skin are ironic, and not in a good way. It’s the triumph of trend over practicality.

Cold shoulder tops are sometimes even incompatible with wearing a jacket, an increasing problem as the weather gets colder. The only real solution is to try on each piece with a jacket to see if it works or gets all caught up a coat’s sleeve. Who’s got the patience for such high-maintenance clothing?

Some women do. Why?

Many of those I talked to for this piece said they find the style flattering but not too revealing. Cold shoulders eschew the body positivity debate by exposing a part of anatomy most women feel fine flaunting, while covering up another many don’t like.

“I love them because they are sexy while hiding most of my arms, which I’m self-conscious about,” says Elizabeth Burke, a lawyer and mom of three.

She says she’d “probably” still wear them when it’s cold out. Another woman I talked to said she purposefully bought one in cold weather sweatshirt material because she’s “obsessed with them.”

(Lily illustration)
(Lily illustration)

Other more discriminating shoppers — or those more affected by cool breezes — felt the opposite. “I love the way they look but it’s freezing in the office where I work,” says Elisabeth Urso, a finance manager who’s skipping the trend. “I tend to get cold easily.” Another told me if it’s chilly enough to wear long sleeves, she wants her shoulders covered.

And then there are those with cold shoulder regret. “I just bought my first cold shoulder shirt the other day, in a sweatshirt material,” says brand manager Kristin Martin. “When it was cool this past week, I went to put it on, but reconsidered. It was too cold to have my shoulders bare. I’m going to return it.”

To be fair, not all cold shoulders are created equal. They range from just a tiny bit of mesh to those that show armpit cleavage (which I can’t stand — how are pits appealing?) to everything in between. Some of the more covered-shoulder shirts even allow room for a regular bra, as the frequent need for a strapless is one complaint about the style.

Of course, this could mean you think the shirt will cover your strap, only to misjudge where it actually sits, which necessitates constantly tugging it up and out of sight all night.

But the reason I haven’t bought any cold shoulder tops is because I prefer to spend my money on classic pieces I think will stand the test of time instead of jumping on trend bandwagons. Although the cold shoulder isn’t new (it makes an appearance every few decades), the way it recently burst on the scene made it feel that way.

“The cold shoulder top was a trend we believed would do well because it’s very accessible to a lot of people,” says Francesca Muston, head of retail and product analysis with fashion trend forecaster WGSN. “Trends which rework a classic or core item tend to do well because they’re not a huge departure from the consumer’s comfort zone.”

The open shoulders make a shirt more feminine and dressy for going out, yet passable for the office, she says. Plus, it appeals to a wide demographic — plenty of kids are wearing the tops, but so are their moms. “It’s democratic,” Muston says.

As the style moves into yet another season, the question remains: Are cold shoulders a flash in the fashion pan or will they become a wardrobe staple?

“I’d say we’ve certainly reached saturation point, and it’s natural that people begin to turn away from any trend which reaches mass saturation,” Muston says. “What we tend to see is further iterations or evolutions of the look as it fades away — in this case one-sleeved ’80s looks for partywear, or volume-sleeved and tied cuff shirts.”

Right now, the debate over whether cold shoulders actually look good — some women told me they’re “adorable” while others deemed them “ridiculous,” “hideous” and full of “superfluous holes” — is becoming more relevant in fall and winter. The age-old tug-of-war between function and fashion has greater significance when you’re shivering.

Every woman will have to ask herself what size cut-outs are worth freezing her shoulders off — although it’s hard to argue that a cold shoulder hoodie, in which your head can be covered but not your shoulders, doesn’t look a bit silly. It’s like you’re a walking contradiction. (Suggestion: Layer a long-sleeved shirt underneath for a fresh — and seasonally appropriate — take.)

But the style may have at least one benefit for the winter. As one woman pointed out, wearing a cold shoulder top does make getting a flu shot easier.

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