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How The Turtleneck Jumper became fashionable

By Guest Writer - Charlie Foley

A person has a natural affinity for the season of their birth. For autumn babies, this means memories of piles of copper coloured leaves, hot chocolates with marshmallows and knocking on neighbours doors to top up your bucket of sweets at Halloween. There is also a familiar joy in turning your wardrobe over, relegating shorts, sandals and sunglasses to the back and diving into the season of the flannel and fur with cosy abandon.

Thick coats, wide legged trousers and chunky cardigans may be statement pieces for the Fall but old reliable clothing is needed and nothing is more dependable than the turtleneck.

Turtleneck sweaters are often also called a 'polo neck' or a 'rollneck'. The latter term is an unfortunate sobriquet as the cardinal rule when wearing turtlenecks is that the wearer has to be in good shape. They are not a chunky sweater and tend to be figure hugging, which highlights paunches and jawlines. Turtlenecks are an item of clothing which have a chequered history, tied to British class.

Originally designed as an undergarment for Knights, to protect against chain mail, the high neck line was then adopted by the aristocracy as clothing to frame the face.

They fell out of favour in the 18th century and by the 19th century they were worn by fishermen, miners, sailors and working men, to keep their necks warm as they laboured.

It was Noel Coward in the 1920’s who adopted the turtleneck and propelled them into the middle and upper class wardrobes of the 20th century. They gradually began to symbolise intellectual fashion. Evelyn Waugh noted the preponderance of turtlenecked students at Oxford and opinioned that “they are most convenient for lechery, because they dispense with all unromantic gadgets like studs and ties”.

Juliette Gréco, the face of fashionable post-war Paris, wore black turtleneck sweaters beneath her oval face and heavily kohl rimmed eyes. The Left Bank intellectuals of the 1950’s embraced the turtleneck, with Gréco as their muse.

Audrey Hepburn and other Hollywood starlets of the 1960’s began wearing black and white turtlenecks to channel the rakishness of Coward and the cerebral, independent woman air of Gréco.

The figure hugging nature of the sweater accentuates the silhouette of the wearer, as epitomised by Steve McQueen in Bullitt, which was useful for image conscious Hollywood actors. However, for much of the 20th century, the turtleneck was regarded as daywear and could not be used as a substitute for shirts and ties for men and dresses for women in evening wear. To this end, at the tail end of the 20th century, the turtleneck came to symbolise techno-corporate uniform, especially after Steve Jobs adopted the sweater as a convenient uniform.

The turtleneck has, however, experienced a revival in the 21st century, as evening wear. Worn underneath a velvet or tuxedo jacket the turtleneck dispenses with the need for ties, studs and cummerbunds and still has a smart, tailored look. They have a rare ability to dress down a jacket, but also to dress up jeans. Chunky knit styles are statement items in of themselves, not for layering, and give Nora Ephron buying pumpkins in Central Park in the Fall vibes. They are ideal with jeans, corduroys and boots for autumn and winter walks.

Fitted turtlenecks are ideal for any occasion in the colder months and are perhaps the most versatile item in your wardrobe. As the designer Halston said “They make life so easy: you can wear a turtleneck to work and then afterwards throw on a jacket, and it becomes very dressy”.

Autumn is upon us, in all its russet, bronzed glory. Summer holidays are a hazy memory, days labouring in offices, dinners with heady red wines, walks in parks, weekends in museums and the anticipation of the burnished glow of Yuletide to come. There is no better piece of clothing to accompany this joyous season than the turtleneck. Replete with its aristocratic, fisherman, intellectual, Hollywood history, it can be donned for each and every occasion in this cosy, calming time of year.  

Visit The Knitwear Collection for the Biggs Range of 'Rollnecks'

About the Author:

Charlie Foley is an auctioneer for Christie's. He takes auctions across the world and also on Channel 4's The Greatest Auction. He has sold a bottle of whisky for £1 million, a collection of celebrity hair and more holidays to the Maldives than he could ever dream of. He loves men's fashion and makes a point of never wearing the same outfit twice when on the rostrum. He studied Classics at University and can be found on a beach in Whitby or in the wine bars of Soho.

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