All About the Turtleneck, Fashion’s Control Mechanism

Kelsey McKinney Explains the Sweater That Subverts and Protects

  • Text: Kelsey McKinney

A few Novembers ago, a friend gave me a black turtleneck. I moved it—three-quarter sleeve, vintage, from The Gap—through two different apartments without ever putting it on. It gathered dust in a drawer until one cold day when I had somewhere to be and there was no chance of covering up the giant pimple that had grown overnight on the side of my neck. I squeezed my face through the tiny opening, and emerged obsessed.

“Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth,” Nora Ephron writes in the titular essay from her book I Feel Bad About My Neck. “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.” But there are more truths revealed by the neck than age. Anger, laughter, and tension all appear in its tendons. The neck communicates both confidence and fear. By hiding it, one gains an empowering ambiguity. The turtleneck muffles the truths the body volunteers without permission.

Protection has been the turtleneck’s purpose since its invention. Sometimes it functions literally, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes both at once—it all depends on the context in which it’s worn. For centuries, the turtleneck was purely practical. It dates back to medieval Europe, when knights wore it underneath chainmail to prevent neck abrasions. It remained utilitarian throughout the 1800s, meant for factory workers and athletes—roles occupied almost exclusively by men.

As Patricia Campbell Warner writes in her book When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear, the turtleneck began to appear on women around 1900, when “college girls borrowed ideas from their brothers, stealing their turtlenecks.” She wrote that “such sensible clothing was never allowed for public wear by the male establishment.” Photographs of a women’s rowing team at Wellesley in the 1890s show the women in high turtleneck sweaters and, of course, long skirts.

“There has always been a certain air of toughness about the turtleneck when worn by women,” the fashion columnist Mary Marshall wrote in a syndicated column for The Cincinnati Enquirer in the summer of 1925. The implication was that that toughness should be avoided for women. It was too self-sufficient, too manly.
By the mid-1920s, the turtleneck had become popular for its form as well as its function, and this is when it began to take on a personality of its own. As Troy Patterson notes in The New York Times Magazine, London playwright Noël Coward became known for wearing the sweater, and the look was soon copied by other young men hoping to affect an air of rakishness.

Even as the turtleneck became associated with the creative intelligentsia, separated from its utilitarian roots, it remained distinctly, undeniably male. “The sweater was looked upon as the symbol of his virility, and the greater the width of the neck the greater virility he was supposed to possess,” wrote Henry W. Clune, a society columnist at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, in 1932. Clune keyed in on something obvious about the turtleneck: you can’t deny there’s something inherently phallic about a round head emerging from a tight sleeve. So, it’s natural that the sweater became associated with a prototype of modern American masculinity: Clark Gable. The thick-necked silver screen icon hit the peak of his fame in the 1930s, and brought with him a stash of cream colored turtlenecks that framed his perfectly symmetrical face. He was a sex symbol who quite literally dressed the part.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that women began to publicly claim the sweater as their own. In a Life Magazine photoshoot circa 1953, Marilyn Monroe poses in her backyard in a black turtleneck and white capri pants. It is almost the inverse of the most famous photo of Monroe, taken a year later on the set of The Seven Year Itch—that iconic shot of her playfully struggling to keep herself concealed as a gust from a subway vent pushes her dress skyward. In the Life shoot, Monroe is not a passive starlet, but a woman in charge— secure, assured, and defiant in a garment coded so explicitly male.

At the same time, the turtleneck was also developing its reputation as a go-to for the countercultural intellectual. It had become a favorite of everyone from the Beat poets, to Samuel Beckett, to Juliette Gréco—actor, singer, close friend of De Beauvoir and Sartre, sometimes called la muse de l’existentialisme. As noted in George Cotkin’s Existential America, poet and novelist Marge Piercy claimed that she adopted Gréco’s style wholesale: ”black jeans, black turtleneck, my hair down, and a lot of dark red lipstick and eye makeup.” The turtleneck’s Beatnik association became so culturally ingrained that it evolved into a cliché.

In the 60s, as the feminist and civil rights movements stormed towards the center of public life, both literally and figuratively, the turtleneck became a kind of unisex resistance wear. In videos of women protesting for their reproductive rights, you will find the turtleneck. It was worn by black revolutionary women like Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Angela Davis, who paired their sweaters with leather trench coats, berets, and natural afros. Dorothy Pittman-Hughes and Gloria Steinem were photographed wearing cream turtlenecks, their fists raised in support of black power in the 1971 issue of Esquire. The turtleneck connoted a subversive, cerebral sensibility while also offering warmth and protection, its practical and allusive attributes combining to help establish the visual imprint of an era.

“Even to this day, the image of a black turtleneck, a raised fist, and an Afro can inspire controversy,” Marjon Carlos wrote in Vogue in January 2017. “Just look to Beyoncé’s subversive Super Bowl performance […] for proof of the movement’s enduring visual impact.” In that performance, her backups each wore a black, cropped turtleneck and beret. More recently, on the cover of GQ’s December 2017 issue, Colin Kaepernick, named Citizen of the Year for his activism, appears in a black turtleneck under a leather blazer, making the same connection.

Though the turtleneck still carries its 20th century symbolic freight, it is evolving into a uniform for personal resistance and quiet confidence. It is a cloaking device. In a short film about the turtleneck produced for the MoMA by designer Hana Tajima, it is noted that the turtleneck has the capacity to “undefine” the body, to render its wearer somehow removed. Its aficionados appreciate “the value of the void, where a focus away from the body becomes a focus towards the mind.”

In Phoebe Philo’s official Céline press photo, she is wearing a plush, wool turtleneck pulled up over her mouth, hair still tucked within the opening, cocooning her face in a sort of DIY hoodie. Since joining Céline in late 2008, Philo has been outspoken about her desire to modernize the idea of glamour and offer clothing that speaks to women’s interior lives as much as it highlights their exterior forms. “I do think there are too many images of women that are sexualized and too many examples of women dressing for other people and disempowering themselves in the process,” she told Alexandra Shulman in 2014. The turtleneck, whether a form-fitting sheath or an oversized roll neck, has been a consistent part of Philo’s arsenal of empowerment.

The turtleneck has also found a place in Rick Owens’ standard ensemble. As he recently told Vestoj: "I don’t really have anything I want to say every day with my clothes so they’ve become a sort of uniform. I have twenty copies of the same outfit. I wear sneakers of my own design. [...] I also wear a silk jersey tank top and a black cashmere turtleneck.” In Owens’ mind, the turtleneck is “architectural, formal, severe.” It can make a body into a fortress.

Each time I pull my turtleneck’s tight tube of fabric over my head, I’m reminded of its essential appeal: its ability to protect, both metaphorically and materially. It isn’t that the turtleneck makes me look cool or is particularly flattering. It isn’t that I feel bohemian, or radical, or subversive in it. The turtleneck doesn’t make me feel pretty. It makes me feel secure, untouchable in a way nothing else I own does, as if that one barrier of fabric keeps me whole and separate from everyone else. And in that security, I feel able to point myself toward the future, confident and poised.

Kelsey McKinney is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, GQ, The Village Voice, and The Ringer, among others.

  • Text: Kelsey McKinney