The history and psychology of turtlenecks
Whether it was said out loud or not, turtlenecks played a crucial role in history. They went from being practical to a uniform for intellectuals to a riposte to the trends that existed before it.
In 2013 the New York City trend forecasting agency, K-Hole coined the term and fashion Normcore. This group introduced the world to an anti-trend domino effect that fully embraced “sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for ‘difference’ or ‘authenticity.’”
In some ways, Normcore reintroduced pieces from 90s fashion, bringing back turtlenecks as a traditional symbol of status. But long before Normcore existed and even before Gen Zers adopted Acne turtlenecks as their saviors and dressed à la Drake––thank you ‘Hotline Bling’––a fascinating and often forgotten history of turtlenecks exists.
The sweater dates back to the 1800s where maintaining an adequate body temperature surpassed chicness in importance. Turtlenecks were considered utilitarian garments, predominantly worn by men. Whether it was fishermen or polo players, these “polo necks” were sought after by working men and athletes due to their practicality.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century when the “Gibson Girl” look began to linger in women’s fashion that the turtleneck’s reputation shifted.
After drawing up various illustrations of the “Gibson Girl,” artist Charles Dana Gibson deemed and popularized the feminine ideal of that time. The look was a personification that visually associated higher-than-usual necklines in clothing with women who were beautiful, active and culturally adept.
This new type of woman he drew up was graceful and talented, yet adventurous and alluring. She was basically unflawed and looked all the more perfect in turtlenecks. (Gags)
Years passed and the sweater evolved into a seductive staple used to please the male gaze. (Rolls eyes) Hollywood icons, like Jayne Mansfield and Lana Turner, wore them in smaller sizes to emphasize their bust. They helped make the turtleneck sexy.
But, when Audrey Hepburn wore it in her 1957 film ‘Funny Face’, she solidified the connection between the turtleneck and the “radical academics, philosophers, artists and intellectuals” who wore it.
She refreshed the piece and made it timeless.
“Conversations were not loud; the air was serious, books stood between glasses, and the lighting was decidedly dim…Men wore corduroy jackets, turtlenecks, dirty trench coats, their hair a little too long, while women wore no make-up. Nobody was dressed fashionably, but everyone had style,” says journalist Agnès Poirier of a time when French intellectuals frequented Café de Flore on the left bank in Paris.
The “French intellectual” Poirier describes, perfectly embodies the type of folks who flaunt turtlenecks. This idealization of Parisian writers, artists and painters was an essence in itself that so many wanted— and still want–– to forge.
The turtleneck went from being simple and practical to a symbol that subcultures with people of ironic personalities welcomed with open arms. Whether it was praised out loud or not, this getup played a crucial role in the attitudes of these people. Wearing one meant a person had an effortlessly put together vibe about them.
Who better to embody those intrinsic natures than feminists?
In the midst of second-wave feminism, turtlenecks became a ’70s wardrobe must-have. Suddenly, it was another type of uniform that represented power. Female activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem wore them for this reason.
Simultaneously, the Black Panthers influenced the rise of anti-war movements and impacted the arts and culture community. Although it’s possible they only had the singular goal of creating a highly recognizable uniform, their infamous look made a long-lasting impression in all of popular culture.
Their black berets, natural hairstyles and turtlenecks played a major role well beyond the ’70s. This group effortlessly embodied a non-Eurocentric standard of beauty, attitude, and style that was adopted by the fashion, music and art communities.
The Black Panthers not only left a mark on the radical social movements of that time, but they also helped others see beauty and fashion in different lights.
Unknowingly or not, this piece of clothing was far more than just a trend. This feminist or anti-capitalist style further defined the fashion statement behind the garment. When a person wore it, the turtleneck told a silent story of their impressive nature.
It was a statement in itself that transpired through generations, each time slightly different in aesthetics, but still carrying out the same powerful message of the wearer. It carried meaning and spoke for a person before they even opened their mouths.
Whether we think about it or not, the psychological reason to why we wear turtlenecks has permeated through the garment itself to represent those who color outside the lines but also want to be taken seriously. It creates a sense of importance around someone while not being overly serious. It sends this anti-establishment message, while not taking on the role of a try-hard.
Regardless of how powerful the sentiments, the style hit a wall and slowly became “uncool” through the ’80s and ’90s.
So, that brings us to the early 2000s. We all know the aughts were a weird, lawless ball of confusion. During this time, turtlenecks stopped being worn by people with laissez-faire attitudes. For reasons unknown, they somehow morphed into a costume for prudes and the overly modest.
“I can’t get past your damn turtleneck!” Jack Nicolson’s character in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ screamed during a sex scene.
The 2003 film dressed Diane Keaton’s character in turtlenecks to perfectly represent her caged-in sexuality and the perception turtlenecks had taken on. But, thank God that connotation didn’t last long.
Amid the weirdness, Apple mogul Steve Jobs’ signature look was rising in popularity. He was bringing back the turtleneck’s power. For him, wearing a turtleneck was a way of being remembered while remaining uncomplicated and unpretentious.
Jobs’ black turtleneck and jeans combo did not succumb to the pressure of following trends, although it ironically created one at the same time. His style was evidently turned into a major fashion and attitude statement––a normcore muse if you will.
Cue, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.
After Jobs’ iconic look was solidified as one that signified creativity, power, and triumph, Holmes, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur decided to use that to her advantage. She often dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans, like Jobs, only to finagle money from potential investors.
She created a false persona of a trustworthy innovator with a turtleneck that was once worn by those truly worthy. Now, this Jobsian uniform seems like a mere illusion of success.
The psychological reasoning behind the turtleneck’s permanence and those who parade it is that it was continuously donned by those who wished to reject any one set of ideas or values—whether in fashion, society, culture or beyond.
In a sense, it doesn’t really matter if people like Holmes or Diane Keaton’s character create a bad or weird interpretation of the turtleneck. Be it polo players, activists, hip-hop artists or tech moguls, the possibility of seeing turtlenecks reinterpreted in ways that run the gamut of its history remains within reach.
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