The undeniably cool and surprisingly feminist history of the turtleneck

The undeniably cool and surprisingly feminist history of the turtleneck
The turtleneck through the years Getty Images/Wikimedia
The turtleneck through the years Getty Images/Wikimedia

With its simple design that snuggles your neck and frames your face, and its incredible ability to make anyone look effortlessly chic, there is assurance and comfort in the turtleneck.

If you’re having a blue day, and the world feels dark, you can slip into a black one and then — bam! — you’re Ann-Margaret or Eartha Kitt, a sultry minx with impeccable taste. As if it’s made of magic, the turtleneck never disappoints or loses its luster. Even if one were to stretch out a bit, that only adds a laid back allure.

You make the turtleneck. The turtleneck never makes you.

But where did this magical garment come from and how has it managed to stay relevant all these years? Well, looking back, the turtleneck has got one hell of a story, evolving from a utilitarian garment to one beloved by bombshells and revolutionaries.

The 1800s: Utilitarian clothing, first and foremost

Winston Churchill playing polo in a high-neck shirt in the late 1800s
Winston Churchill playing polo in a high-neck shirt in the late 1800s Getty Images

Before the turtleneck was an announcement of chicness, it was all about simply being a warm, sensible garment for athletes, with English polo players in the mid-1800s wearing sweaters that extended up to their necks. Though those kinds of sweaters are known now as turtlenecks, during that time they were known as “polo neck” sweaters, which is a term still used in fashion today.

From the start, they were seen as utilitarian garments, worn by (mostly) men, all they way up to their chins. That’s what made them such a fine fit for the military, as the New York Times noted, which incorporated them into uniforms in the 1800s and early 1900s. Navies and fisherman alike across the world came to favor wool turtlenecks, because of the warmth they could provide.

The early 1900s: Gibson Girls co-opt the turtleneck

An illustration of a Gibson Girl in a high-neck dress
An illustration of a Gibson Girl in a high-neck dress Wikimedia

The turtleneck went from utilitarian fashion to a full-blown trend in the early 1900s, when dresses and blouses with a high neck suddenly became fashionable. On women known as “Gibson Girls,” which were really illustrations of what was the personification of the feminine ideal, high, frilly necklines were all the rage.

Though the 1920s and 1930s would bring about less modest fashion, with rising skirts and all that jazz, the turtleneck remained popular thanks to the English writer and playwright Noël Coward, who wore brightly colored turtlenecks as a replacement to the shirt and tie. In his own memoir, Present Indicative, as noted by the New York Times, Coward wrote that he wore them “more for comfort than effect,” and in the months after he was routinely seen and photographed wearing them, he saw “more and more of our seedier West End chorus boys” wearing them as well, which he loved.

The 1950s: Beatniks and bombshells take a shine to the turtleneck

Juliette Gréco in 1961
Juliette Gréco in 1961 Wikimedia

While the turtleneck enjoyed success in the military during World War II, the 1950s brought the turtleneck into mainstream popularity again, this time on a very different group of people: beatniks and bombshells.

How exactly bohemia came to latch onto the turtleneck isn’t so easy to track, but the Times insists that it may have stemmed from one woman — the singer Juliette Gréco — getting photographed in one while looking very chic. In the 1950s, Greco was like an it girl and a mascot to the Left Bank existentialists in Paris at the time. So when she was repeatedly photographed in a black turtleneck, the image stuck.

“When the face of this existentialist it girl, eyes contoured in kohl, was photographed popping from a black turtleneck sweater, she supplied the enduring template for Bohemian black,” the Times wrote.

Audrey Hepburn in ‘Funny Face’
Audrey Hepburn in ‘Funny Face’ Giphy

It became a marker for a certain kind of cool, edgy artist, which was further cemented in people’s minds when Audrey Hepburn starred in the film Funny Face in 1957, dancing in a most modern way in a tight black turtleneck.

Other fans of the black turtleneck in the ’50s and ’60s were people like Audrey Hepburn (in real life), Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Eartha Kitt and Jayne Mansfield, who utilized the turtleneck’s tightness to show off her assets.

1970s: The turtleneck as a feminist statement

A woman at a pro-Black Panther rally in 1970
A woman at a pro-Black Panther rally in 1970 Ken Regan/Getty Images

Now with the turtleneck’s innate ability to make all of its wearers look both dramatic and striking, it naturally got adopted by people in the rising political movements in the late ’60s and ’70s. Supporters of the Black Panthers often wore black turtlenecks, as did members of the feminist movement, like Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem, who wore a turtleneck in a TV interview with David Frost.

Gloria Steinem speaking in 1972
Gloria Steinem speaking in 1972 Getty Images

The 1980s to the 2000s: The turtleneck is uncool

A turtleneck on Seinfeld’
A turtleneck on Seinfeld’ Giphy

After the turtleneck had its heyday on revolutionaries and innovative artists, it went into a bit of a hiding. In the 1980s, the turtleneck didn’t really fit in with glitz and shoulder pads, but it did show up time to time on sitcoms like Saved By the Bell. In the ’90s, turtlenecks were more often seen as obvious basics — they didn’t symbolize anything more than T-shirts would, with men like Steve Jobs wearing them every day as a uniform.

Then in the 2000s, the turtleneck had a rather unflattering cameo in the 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give, with the movie’s lead, Diane Keaton, favoring a pristine white turtleneck, which was used as a metaphor of sorts for her caged-in sexuality.

Jack Nicholson in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’
Jack Nicholson in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ Giphy

When Jack Nicolson finally seduces Keaton, he has to physically cut off the turtleneck. “I can’t get past your damn turtleneck!” he screams, to which Keaton’s character says, breathlessly: “Cut it off.”

Diane Keaton in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’
Diane Keaton in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ Giphy

Clearly the days of the turtleneck as a sexy garment were over.

The 2010s: The turtleneckaissance

Victoria Beckham in a turtleneck in 2017
Victoria Beckham in a turtleneck in 2017 KGC-146/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

But obviously now, a decade later, this weird association between turtlenecks and prudishness has vanished. Turtlenecks are on runways, on red carpets, on men and women, and maybe on you right now, given that it’s November.

Why? Well, you can blame the trend cycle. If a garment of clothing isn’t trendy one decade, it’s great the next. And we are in a time when ’70s-inspired clothing is incredibly trendy, which has led quite nicely to the turtleneck’s comeback.

Gigi Hadid in a turtleneck at a fashion show in 2017
Gigi Hadid in a turtleneck at a fashion show in 2017 Ian Gavan/Getty Images

It was just 2015 when the Times asked the question: “Can the turtleneck ever be cool again?” It seems we have an answer.

With its incredible ability to make any wearer look sophisticated, chic and ready for whatever hellish cold may surround them, we’re always here for the turtleneck.