The Turtleneck’s Evolving Identity

The modern turtleneck is a common item in wardrobes today. It offers a timeless look that has been adopted by diverse groups of people. Is there any garment that has undergone as many identity changes as the turtleneck sweater?

A Working-Class Hero

The turtleneck became a wardrobe staple for male laborers in the 1800s. A heavy, knitted sweater topped with a high collar made for an appealingly warm garment. The sweater provided protection from the wind, rain, and snow. A favorite among fishermen and other seafarers, the wool turtleneck eventually became an official part of the U.S. Navy uniform during WWII.

It didn’t take long for this specialized sweater to become more than a working-class uniform. The turtleneck functioned as equestrian sports wear when polo players adopted the garment in the 1880s. In fact, it’s still sometimes referred to as a “polo neck” by European wearers today.

Introduction to Women’s Fashion

The turtleneck made its entrance into women’s fashion in the 1890s when the Gibson Girl was created as an ideal of the active, independent woman. The garment’s high neckline and squeaky-clean reputation fit perfectly with the Gibson Girl lifestyle. Although the turtleneck was becoming more widely worn, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the high-necked pullover gained popularity among the middle class.

Bombshells, Beatniks, and Black Panthers

The turtleneck got its sultry reputation when Hollywood bombshells such as Jayne Mansfield began sporting it in the ’40s and ’50s. Radical, free-thinking beatniks also adopted the stark black turtleneck as a uniform staple. Meanwhile, actress Audrey Hepburn wore it in the 1957 film Funny Face.

Finally, the turtleneck paired well with the Black Panthers’ leather jackets in the ’60s and ’70s. It was also favored by feminist activists such as Gloria Steinem. All in all, the turtlenecks of the mid-nineteenth century was all about being bold and original.

Fall from Favor

Despite the powerful statements the turtleneck made in previous decades, the ’80s and ’90s saw a sea change in the garment’s reputation. The awkward fashion styles of those decades turned the turtleneck into a punchline. Simply review old episodes of Saved by the Bell and Friends to experience the cringe-worthy styling choices of the period.

During the 1990s, Steve Jobs built his Apple empire while wearing a black turtleneck. This clothing choice may have classed Jobs as a nerdy figure, but it helped make the turtleneck a symbol of white-collar daring and ingenuity. The garment eventually gained prominence in boardrooms across America.

Return of the Turtleneck

Recent years have seen a revival of 1990s fashion trends and the advent of normcore. This new style allows adherents to express their individuality by wearing unassuming, everyday clothing. Both of these movements have effectively fostered the return of the turtleneck.

Today’s turtleneck offers wearers a timeless look that’s sleek, sophisticated, and even a little bit sexy when paired with the right wardrobe essentials.