Elegance and Evil Go Hand in Hand

On turtlenecks. 

Christian Allaire is a First Nations writer based in New York City. 

Haley Mlotek is a writer living in New York. 

Gabby Noone is a writer living in New York. She’s been a regular...

Fariha Róisín is a writer living on Earth.

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Haley Mlotek: The first two pop culture moments that come to mind when discussing turtlenecks are both iconic, in their own way: Jane Fonda in Klute, with her tan trench coat and thigh-high boots; and, of course, Diane Keaton pleading with Jack Nicholson to cut off her white turtleneck in Something’s Gotta Give.


Christian Allaire:
Oh my god, I love that scene in Something’s Gotta Give. It’s basically how I feel everytime I’m wearing a turtleneck—“CUT IT OFF.” But also, I love them. There are so many turtleneck moments to choose from. The very first one I thought of was Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She is the only person who can make a turtleneck look downright sexy. It’s not an easy feat.

HM: Christian, I was going to say Basic Instinct and didn’t, because I have to stop relying on Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct as my forever inspiration. But there’s just no one or nothing better.

CA: Literally no one.

HM: I think what Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Jane Fonda in Klute have in common is how clearly they’ve made their turtlenecks into accessories, rather than a component of their outfit. I was thinking about something Gabby said to me once (hello, Gabrielle) when we were fighting about kitten heels. She was like, why would you want to be 1.5 inches off the ground? And on the one hand, yes, you’re so right, they’re absurd, but I do tend to prefer clothing items that offer a really subtle extension of the body: big earrings that compensate for having short hair; pointed toes, to make my legs seem longer; long nails, to make my fingers seem extra elegant; and then turtlenecks, which make the neck seem very long in a regal, upright kind of way. Like it’s faking good posture for you. Both Jane Fonda and Sharon Stone’s characters in their respective films seem like women who really get that power of illusion, and use it to their advantage.

Gabby Noone: I’d like to note I said 1.5 centimeters off the ground when referring to kitten heels.

CA: It does seem like a real power outfit, right? I feel like every James Bond villain wears a turtleneck. Steve Jobs wears a turtleneck. Celine’s Phoebe Philo wears one. These people run the WORLD.

HM: Interesting how quickly “elegant” turns over into “evil” *winky face emojis*

CA: Elegance and evil go hand in hand.

GN: My favorite turtleneck icon is Fran Fine of The Nanny fame, who as you may have noticed is blowing up online recently. I love her knack for wearing a black turtleneck and black tights under mini dresses and skirts. Though, I feel like if you asked her character about why she wears them, she’d say because it’s SLIMMING. Because you know that show loved to make jokes about how Fran was always eating and would never find a man to marry, even though she was so hot!


CA:
The thing about turtlenecks, though, is they aren’t slimming. They make me feel like a hippo. But I also can’t help but feel at my best in them, like I’m a beatnik or an intellectual who still handwrites novellas.

Fariha Róisín: Christian, yes! Phoebe Philo! I also think it’s really interesting how so many of you referenced villains as native turtleneck wearers. I mean, it’s true—I feel like it’s the trope of like some science genius, or ahem Steve Jobs! My favorite pop culture TN moment was probably Diane Keaton in every movie ever, tbh. All of them. She’s flawless. But I also particularly love how shitty the depictions of Steve Jobs are in the biopics about him since he died. Or how it’s become this uniform for caricature.


GN:
Turtlenecks also make me feel like an intellectual who still handwrites novellas. I feel like people trust my opinions more when I am wearing one. I used to not like wearing turtlenecks in high school because I had bad skin and thought they drew attention to my face—they erase your neck and then it’s your head bobbing out. Obviously, I have overcome this.

HM: They are the wire-framed glasses of the torso. Instant IQ boost.

CA: It’s funny because high-fashion designers recognize this and are making all SORTS of turtlenecks to buy. Luxury cashmere turtlenecks with wool sourced from a mystical mountain. Trendy mesh turtlenecks that expose one’s breasts. For god’s sake, even on the red carpet, celebrities are wearing turtleneck dresses.

HM: Let us pay our respects to Sharon Stone’s second-best turtleneck look, her Gap turtleneck at the 1996 Academy Awards.

GN: My feeling is that turtlenecks are always a dependable, cheap way to look pulled together. I don’t think any of my turtlenecks weren’t purchased secondhand or at a fast fashion store. One of life’s constants is that even on a bad day at a thrift store, you can still find a pretty decent turtleneck sweater.

CA: Oh my god, I was going to say the same thing. I get all my turtlenecks from thrift stores or consignment stores, because NOBODY wants them! So I always find some serious gold mines. The other weekend I found a vintage Prada turtleneck and I audibly screamed. 

FR: I also really like how they’ve become staples for a brand like Uniqlo, where you can go and get every color and look like a color-block anthem, or a Solange video. There’s something so cool about them.

HM: Yeah, and not to get too Devil Wears Prada about it, but that’s because you’re both right: turtlenecks appear so frequently and with so many variations in high ready-to-wear fashion, which means they are just as frequently made for mass-market brands. There’s a never-ending supply.

GN: What is your favorite turtleneck you own and where did you buy it? Mine is a lavender cotton turtleneck that my mom picked up at Goodwill for me after I sent out word that I was looking for a lavender turtleneck. Since thrifting in New York is really not a thing, sometimes I’ll have her be my woman on the ground in the suburbs to look out for things. It’s made by this brand Valerie Stevens that I think they sell at Sears? I have a nail polish that’s the same color and when I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll coordinate my nails to my turtleneck.

FR: RIP American Apparel but damn they had some good turtlenecks. I just bought a really great gold patterned vintage mockneck from a thrift store and it’s like an Issey Miyake dream. I like buying old Gap turtlenecks with cool stripes, or ribbed eyed ones from Benetton. 


HM:
I just bought a very nice mockneck, which I still think counts, from La Garconne Moderne. It’s got such intensely structured shoulders and perfect bracelet sleeves. I’m wearing it to everything. I want to be buried in it. But while I’m among the living, yeah, Uniqlo has the perfect everyday layering turtleneck.

FR: The Uniqlo turtleneck is everything. They have them in cashmere!!!

CA: Oh no, we might have our first turtleneck battle. I can’t get down with the mockneck!!! Maybe it’s because I’m an extremist. It’s like, do the turtleneck or don’t.

HM: I knew the mockneck was going to be contentious but I cannot hide my truth!!!

GN: I think I’m with you, Christian. I like mockneck tops in the summer when I want a touch of turtleneck, but it’s too hot for the real thing. I see both sides here.

CA: Haha, “a touch of turtleneck.” I think that will be my new saying. “Your outfit is cute, but it could use a touch of turtleneck.”

FR: I mean the mockneck really is the kinder, younger sister of the turtleneck and sometimes you need both.

HM: Thank you for seeing me, Fariha. 

FR: I love you, Haley. I got you girl.

HM: And I you!!!

CA: I hate you both. Just kidding, <3

HM: Get outta here Christian.

CA: In terms of favourite turtlenecks, though, this is a fabulous question. I could ramble for days. Let me think… OH, I KNOW. It’s a very thick wool turtleneck from one of Raf Simons’ last men’s collections for Jil Sander. It’s bright pink—because I’m all about subtlety—but the turtleneck part is bright orange. So not only is it a turtleneck, but it’s a color-blocked turtleneck

Also, this is a side rant, but if I can’t tell my turtleneck horror story here, where can I? I also had a very luxe cashmere turtleneck from Acne Studios once. It was the perfect navy blue. I wore it pretty much four times a week. It was my winter go-to. Then, one holiday season, while I was at my parents’ home in northern Ontario, my mother decided to take it upon herself to do my laundry. (Yes, she still does my laundry.) This was a HAND. WASH. ONLY. situation. But she threw it in the washing machine and tumble-dryed it, like a savage. It shrunk to about an extra-extra small. We’re still not on speaking terms.


HM:
Christian, as you were typing I was like, please don’t say washing machine please don’t say washing machine and then I did my own audible scream when you did. Rest in peace, American Apparel and your precious Acne Studios turtleneck.

CA: Do any of you know how turtlenecks started? I low-key tried to Google it last night but found many conflicting sources. Like, who started wearing them?

FR: I feel like some Scandinavian architect invented them. This is me profiling but that seems totally accurate. Like, did Rem Koolhaas invent them or nah? 

HM: This is a high-quality Google search but I also don’t know. I imagine they’re a modernized version of some kind of historical undergarment? Like maybe they reference a higher collar from ye olden fashion times?

GN: Don’t the British call them POLO NECKS? Maybe if we Google POLO NECKS

FR: So do Australians sometimes! Gross.

CA: I read that it was like, medieval knights that started wearing them. Because their chainmail masks or whatever would rub against their skin, and they needed neck protection. That doesn’t seem right, though. 

FR: Oh, that also makes sense from all the medieval genre lit I read as a kid. This is sadly true, I was obsessed with King Arthur…

HM: Wikipedia has some theories. Where did we land on Wikipedia? Are they trustworthy or what.

GN: My favorite snippets from the Wikipedia page for turtlenecks:

  1. Vladimir Putin of Russia and Andreas Papandreou of Greece are two examples of European statesmen fond of wearing polo necks.
  2. Over time it became a fad among teenage girls, especially in a lightweight form that emphasised their figures. It was not long before Hollywood was also exploiting this image as part of the sweater girl look.

HM: Lol at “sweater girl.” Mine is “Polo neck-like garments have been worn for hundreds of years, dating at least to the 15th century.[citation needed]” That “citation needed” really says it all.

CA: Listen, I’m not happy Vladimir Putin is a turtleneck enthusiast too—but it’s better than him being shirtless, on a horse.

HM: Another great, if contentious, turtleneck-in-pop-culture moment: when Bill and Sam and Neil are going to a “makeout party” on Freaks and Geeks, and Neil and Bill get into a fight about who can wear a turtleneck because they both can’t walk in wearing the same thing, and Neil loses because his is a DICKEY and so he can just pull it off. Please reserve your judgements on mocknecks for where they really belong, which is on dickeys, the freeloader accessory. Either wear the turtleneck or wear a crewneck—pick a side, coward.

GN: I LOVE THAT EPISODE. But why are people always hating on dickeys? They are a hilarious garment. Sometimes you just don’t need the bulk of two shirts.

HM: Incorrect, Gabby. If anything is the kitten heel of sweaters it is the dickey. Totally superfluous!!!

GN: Anyway, I personally miss when Limited Too built in the bra for me and life was less dramatic so consider that in my analysis of dickeys.

HM: A built-in bra is extremely different than a … how am I going to phrase this? A rogue neck, disembodied from its intended torso.

GN: This is so rude. But I get what you mean. Okay, I have a question for the group regarding turtlenecks and SENSUALITY. Or, is this more of a comment than a question? We’ll see. But as stated in the Wikipedia entry above, turtlenecks were key in the “sweater girl” look. I think this is one of the many great qualities about them: you’re at once completely covered, but you’re also outlining your body. It is a subtle sensuality, if you will.

HM: This is a very telling comment on your part, Gabby. But yeah, it’s true, they’re sexy as hell. Like when Beyoncé is referencing Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, in the “Countdown” video, I think of that as one of her sexiest looks. You’re right that it’s because you’re so covered. It’s the reverse psychology of fashion: having more to take off is what makes you want it.


FR:
BEYONCÉ in that look tho! Personally I really love them in the mod era—I feel like Anna Karina wearing these mocknecks are some of the most sexiest moments in film for me. Godard had a good eye for style, fashion and aesthetic in his films. Also, they’re so quintessentially sexy yet chic when worn in that era. It was all about framing the body tastefully.

GN: Yes that was when Beyoncé invented the turtleneck bodysuit.

CA: A great moment in pop culture. “All my single ladies!”—a.k.a we are all single because we are wearing turtlenecks.

Running off of that, I will deliberately wear a turtleneck out on a Friday night. I DARE someone to hit on me. Because if they see something they like in me wearing a body veil, than they are worth keeping around. I’m like Eva Mendez in Hitch when she’s wearing glasses and reading at a cocktail bar. I’m just as gorgeous as she is, too.

HM: But there’s also that Hitchcock blonde in a turtleneck look, or the Jackie Kennedy turtleneck, or the Audrey Hepburn, which to me also signifies a kind of sexual undercurrent, even in its primness or properness; like, everything’s covered, but I can still sense the shape underneath. 

FR: Agreed, there’s also something oddly regal about it, which I think is appealing. I don’t know why, and let’s not unpack this … but, I think it also frames the neck in a really delicate way.

CA: Do we think this works for men? I’m asking for a friend (me).

HM: Literal lol. Yeah, I do think the same principle applies for men, just not in the same way. We’ve of course talked about Steve Jobs, who made the turtleneck into a symbol of power in his own way, but like—okay, I’m about to say something really crass, so I apologize in advance, but during Dunkirk, which should win an Oscar for Best Use Of A Rollneck Knit Turtleneck In A Christopher Nolan movie, ALL I could think about was how hot all the men looked in their military-issued turtlenecks. And the horrors of war, also.

GN: I always think about that picture of The Rock in a turtleneck and fanny pack when I think “turtlenecks for men.” But I honestly thought he looked good…


FR:
That Rock faux “American Apparel” turtleneck … I think dudes, when done well, really know how to wear a turtleneck. My partner’s father once wore a turtleneck (I’m a creep) and he looked hella fine, so there’s that.

CA: HAHA, creep-ooooo. It’s very Steve McQueen, though, when an older man wears one. A+.

FR: Are we talking filmmaker Steve, Christian? 

HM: Lol Fariha I was just going to ask too. Film nerds keeping everyone honest in this thread.

FR: TRUTH!

GN: I always just think of the character from Pixar’s CARS, Lightning Mcqueen. Unfortunately, you are speaking to a dumb baby.

FR: Gabby, LOL. Well also the dude in Despicable Me wears a turtleneck so maybe animation is trying to say something.

CA: Wait, is there another Steve McQueen? I’m about to look real stupid. 

HM: You mean the hot actor, I think? And then there’s the director/artist who made Hunger and Twelve Years A Slave.

CA: I think I meant the actor. But now I’m all confused. I’m just going to crawl in the hole I just dug for myself.

FR: Is he black or white, Christian???

CA: White!

FR: You’re talking about the actor then. And there we have it folks!

HM: Either would definitely look great in a turtleneck. It just has a different context. Steve McQueen, the actor, has that 1950s golden boy rebel thing.

FR: It’s funny because Steve McQueen the director definitely looks good in a turtleneck too, so there’s that.

Okay, I wanted to ask—why do y’all choose turtlenecks? I’m really interested in why and how we choose what we wear. Is there a day that you’re like, “My neck looks ugly?” or, “Wow, I have a lot of hickeys?” or, “I just want to look elegant!”

CA: I think for me, the turtleneck is treated as a uniform. It’s practical (keeps me warm), simple, and universally pretty chic (and if you don’t think it is I don’t really trust your fashion sense, sorry). It’s just so easy. I think fashion these days is all about embracing the wearable and the comfortable (even if that means a $3,000 coat). Nobody wants to wear something that isn’t comfy anymore. Fashion-slave days are over. And you can’t deny the comfort of a cozy turtleneck. Ya just can’t. My biggest style inspirations are people who wear the same bloody thing every day. Joan Didion and her big sunglasses. James Dean and his jeans. Steve Jobs and his dad shoes (and turtlenecks!). That’s true chic-ness.

HM: I guess this is the part to cite Nora Ephron and the whole “I feel bad about my neck” thing, which I think I once read is something Diane Keaton has mentioned too, as a reason for her turtlenecks? But for me, I think I choose it when I do want some emphasis on my face, and to feel like I have a bit more control in the situation. I know I’m going to wear that mockneck to a job interview in the hopes that it conveys that I am smart and serious. I also wore a turtleneck to a fancy party once, a cocktail thing at someone’s house, and I know that was in the hopes of impressing the fancy people there (it did not, but that’s fine). This summer I burned my neck with my curling iron and don’t own any sleeveless turtlenecks, so I just had to endure people thinking it was a hickey. Lesson learned.

GN: Yes, definitely the hickeys thing. Mostly I just like how they are an easy way to look put together. I like to look elegant and smart even when I’m not particularly feeling that way on the inside, which is half of the time. Plus, I like being cozy, but I don’t like wearing clothes that are too heavy or bulky. So I feel like a turtleneck is a good compromise because you can just tuck your chin under your turtleneck if you’re feeling cold or just don’t want anyone to talk to you. And there is just something so appealing, I think, about a turtleneck peeking up out of your coat or wearing them under dresses that might be too light for the weather otherwise. I call this the “small child forced to wear a turtleneck under their Halloween costume because it’s a cold one out there” look. I just feel like turtlenecks make me extend my wardrobe through the seasons! They’re very practical.

FR: I feel like I contend with my body a lot, and I always find that the turtleneck is such an easy go-to piece of clothing. It almost masks me or neutralizes my body for me. Whenever I feel icky or uncomfortable in myself, I know putting on a (black) turtleneck is an easy option. I like what you said about it being a good choice for a job interview, Haley. I think the turtleneck is so versatile in a way—it’s like the one-size-fits-all magic-coat. There are so many ways to accessorize it, and weirdly it always makes you stand out, fashion-wise. Like, I saw Solange at Afropunk this year and the whole band was wearing mockneck-type red tops and I couldn’t get over how perfect everyone looked. It was a moment.

GN: Solange is definitely another important turtleneck icon. Wow, the Knowles sisters invented turtlenecks. Thank you Ms. Tina for yet another gift.

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