Turtleneck Styling for Men
You may know the turtleneck by many names – whether as polo neck, roll-neck, or skivvy, this high-necked garment has become a staple in the fashion world. It is largely associated with artists and outside-the-box thinkers given its more recent history, but it retains an equal sense of elegance and versatility as a reminder of its origins.
What is a turtleneck?
Put simply, a turtleneck is a shirt with a long, snug-fitting collar that covers the neck. There are variations of course, with a shorter collar being called a mock neck. The collar of the turtleneck traditionally folds in on itself, which gives the fabric a bit of volume and helps retain its structure. Traditionally, the turtleneck is a long-sleeved shirt, which can help make it an essential part of your fall or winter wardrobe. I am a huge fan of the turtleneck and use it often. As a base layer, to add texture, to stay warm, or to feel fancy, the turtleneck is a key piece that belongs in every man’s closet.
History of the turtleneck
Origins with Knights
An article by Startup Fashion lists the most accepted origin of the garment to the medieval period. Instead of high collars being worn by royalty or artists (as we’ll see momentarily), the turtleneck was created to protect the necks of knights from their chainmail. It’s important to know that the average weight of a chainmail suit was at least 50 pounds; this is 50 pounds of bare, unpolished metal on all parts of your body, restricting your movement, scratching your body up, and hindering your mobility. Furthermore, bending your joints could result in the metal chain links pinching your skin, which meant there was a need for a lot of padding and fabric underneath their armor.
Chafed necks were a common problem for knights of the medieval period as the rough metal would rub against the more-delicate skin of the neck and cut it up, making it harder to turn around and fight when needed. Medieval armor was bulky, heavy, and moved inorganically – knights and armor designers had to look for ways to minimize these negatives as much as possible while they waged war with neighboring kingdoms. The turtleneck was one of those methods and it remained a staple item for knights of the period.
The Royal Treatment
Later, Startup Fashion shows that the mid-sixteenth century was a period of change for the turtleneck: high society saw the high neckline of the turtleneck and modified it, creating elaborate ruffled designs and using them as a method of asserting socioeconomic status. The last of the Tudor monarchs Elizabeth I is famously depicted in the Darnley Portrait and other official portraits with high ruffled necklines, especially in the late 16th century. Check out the Ermine Portrait and Gower’s Sieve Portrait to see the many styles (and the evolution) of the English high-society neckline on Henry VIII’s daughter. It is obvious that the ostentatious design of these early turtlenecks was meant to reflect the opulence of the crown. However, its meaning among the people would change over the next centuries.
Nearly 200 years later, the turtleneck had left the royal courts and become much more commonplace among the people. Its style would become more minimal and find roots among the working-class boys of Western Europe and North America. Its warmth and functionality would make it a popular choice for men with semi-aquatic professions: fishermen, sailors, naval officers (it became a part of the English navy’s uniform) and more would all come to be known in conjunction with the turtleneck. The turtleneck would find its place among all strata of society and would also become a staple component of the uniform in the high-society world of polo, granting it its English name of “polo neck”.
Emergence in the mainstream and continued association with masculinity
The turtleneck as we know it would begin to enter mainstream fashion as early as the 1900s. In America and anglophone Europe, the resurgence of ruffled turtlenecks among high-society women following the Gibson Girl fashion trends would mirror its high-society origins, emphasizing modesty, elegance, and status. It was a bit subversive, however, given its known role among working class men and thus found a foothold among the fashion of young women hoping to assert themselves in a changing world. The ‘manliness’ associated with the garment became a subversive element of its use among women, who would popularize it and allow it to re-enter the mainstream as a fashionable piece of clothing rather than just a utilitarian one, able to be worn by both men and women. Working class men would continue to wear it as a practical component of their work-wear, but it would not enter the mainstream as a fashionable male piece until later (early-1900s English playwright and style icon Noel Coward famously loved turtlenecks, however).
Kelsey McKinney, author of “All About the Turtleneck, Fashion’s Control Mechanism”, stresses the innate masculinity of the garment, even mentioning the inherence of a phallic shape to the silhouette and its association with virility. Popular individuals like Clark Gable were iconic in the way they wore this shirt and how it began to be attached to their figure and personality. The turtleneck began to attach itself to the artist, the intellectual, and the new-era man. A cosmopolitan sensibility would emerge around the garment and this, in turn, would open up the turtleneck to many important identities and social influences.
Uniform of intellectuals, artists, and activists
Despite its seemingly gendered evolution around utilitarian workwear and manliness, men would begin to adopt the turtleneck in fashion by the time the mid 1950s came around. Noel Coward’s influence positioned the turtleneck as a chic and fashionable article of clothing, copied by other young men who admired Coward’s work and look. Furthermore, at this time the turtleneck was beginning to coincide with a countercultural intellectual movement characterized by Beat artists like Samuel Beckett or philosophers like Michel Foucault. The Beat movement is extremely closely associated with the turtleneck, with any stereotyped depictions of its members and acolytes often shown wearing a beret, smoking a cigarette, and wearing a black turtleneck. It was an interesting way to protest the traditional masculine culture of the era, which mandated suits and ties. The turtleneck was able to subvert the importance of the tie and could still be worn under a blazer, retaining a formal and structured look that would remain. Some fashion historians view the turtleneck as an ‘anti-fashion’ garment as it detracted from the outfit as a whole – a theoretical shift of focus is implied by the turtleneck: “don’t look at my clothes, listen to what I have to say”. This is very important to recognize.
In its most iconic sense, civil rights revolutionaries – both men and women – began to reclaim the turtleneck as an unofficial element of their uniform. Writers like Angela Davis as well as members of the Black Panthers incorporated the turtleneck into their public image. The symbolism of the raised fist, the leather trench, and the turtleneck still carries significant weight in American culture today, echoing the struggle that has continued for black people in America as well as the figures that have been central to American civil rights. The turtleneck is a core piece of this image and thus carries significant historical weight.
The history of the turtleneck is vast; it has travelled across many worlds and been a part of many groups. From knights and nobles to playwrights and revolutionaries, the turtleneck today is a garment with significant symbolism. The elegant (and slimming) silhouette of the turtleneck aside, it is important to remember its attachment to artists, free-thinkers, and activists. This garment is equally formal and structured as it is subversive and artistic. It is a garment that inspires confidence, detracts from maximalist fashion, and carries an understated severity. Knowing how to style it is critical and once you have an idea of how it would work for you, it will likely become a staple of your uniform.
Styling your turtleneck examples
This is an excellent way to style your turtleneck in a semi-casual setting. This model is wearing some trendy NewBalances and fitted blue jeans, which give this a very casual/sporty look. The turtleneck is worn untucked and sits underneath a light coat. The mixture of texture and layering here is what’s key – if you want to wear the turtleneck casually it has to be a complement to the look, not the central feature. In this case, it serves as a layer and color base for the outfit, which allows the other features to shine and combine better.
This is one of my favorite ways to wear a turtleneck. For one, this model is wearing a fisherman’s knit-style turtleneck. The pattern of the knit gives the turtleneck and outfit lots of depth and texture despite being minimal in layers. Because there are less layers, the turtleneck becomes the guiding star of the outfit. Dark jeans with a dark-colored overcoat complement the brightly colored white turtleneck and the look takes on a semi-formal feeling. While you wouldn’t wear this to a board meeting or fancy gala, this outfit is right at home at a nice restaurant, a Christmas party, or on date night.
I love tucking my shirts. I do it with everything, even t-shirts. I like the way it can serve to structure your look and pull everything in a very uniform manner. Nothing feels out of place, it has an old-school quality to it, and if the shirt fits right, it can make you look kinda buff. This turtleneck outfit is an excellent example of how a tucked top can make all the difference in a casual/semi-formal outfit. What I especially like here is that the model is wearing a pair of pinstripe trousers as opposed to jeans – this adds a layer of formality to the look and makes it seem a little more classic. Clark Gable would likely wear this outfit.
Many assume that the turtleneck must always remain in the semi-formal and severe look it has been known in for many years. This is not true, and is simply a matter of how to properly fit the garment. As opposed to the models we’ve seen earlier who have snug-fitting turtlenecks, this model has a bit of a baggier fit that is untucked from his jeans. Furthermore, he’s rolled up his sleeves. This entire outfit feels like a casual Fall-time outfit: perfect for a trip to the pumpkin patch on a sunny October day.
The mockneck is an interesting middle-ground for the turtle. On this model he’s wearing a white untucked mockneck and dark indigo-wash jeans. It is a very monochromatic-seeming look, and the mockneck stands out heavily. It is a bit of a bold choice but it still works really well. It feels a little more casual than the full-sized turtleneck and has a more relaxed fit. I personally own a few mocknecks but I like them in dark colors – I bet I’d prefer a black mockneck on this outfit.
I love a chunky knit. While extremely warm, this choice is also a versatile and comfortable piece to own. This feels more like a winter outfit, right at home at the apres-ski or at the skating rink. The bulkiness of the knit gives the outfit some body and can be a bit forgiving for those of us who have gained a little weight over quarantine. Huge fan.
The turtleneck is not solely reserved to on-the-street fashion: the cut of the turtleneck and its coverage makes it a viable cut for many different athletic products as it provides widespread protection and wicking ability. It reflects the ability of the turtleneck to be a great base layer for both athletic and fashionable fits.
The fitted turtleneck echoes the benefits of its athletic counterpart as a base layer. I think it’s important to have at least one relatively snug turtleneck in your closet as a base that can be layered under sweaters, collared shirts, or sport coats. It acts in a similar way to the fitted dress shirt and offers structure to your outfits. One of my go-to looks in the falltime is a snug fitted black turtleneck and my favorite leather biker jacket – perfect for a bar night. Alternatively, the same turtleneck under a grey collared long-sleeve gives lots of texture to my outfits and gives me the opportunity to regulate my temperature better.
Business casual turtleneck
Pairing a turtleneck with some slacks and a nice leather belt can do wonders to your business casual looks. A good, polished pair of dress shoes and a nice watch tie this outfit together completely. As we can see with the photo at the top of the article, taking this outfit (maybe not a blue color) and pairing it with a blazer can instantly elevate the formality of this look, putting it at home in the office, on a date, and even at a semi-formal event.
This is a bit of a bolder look, but it has lots of value if you want to demonstrate the turtleneck as the core of your outfit. This model has a turtleneck with geometric lines and multi-colored sections of muted greens and beiges. While he’s technically wearing a mock neck, this outfit really demonstrates the ways the turtleneck has an innate versatility to it. Many of the ones we’ve looked at today are solid colors and can be best-used as the base of an outfit upon which more can be built. This outfit shows the turtleneck off, adding color, pattern, and depth to your look with one garment. I really like the minimal design of this patterned turtleneck.
While our visit may have been brief, I hope this article gave you a little insight to the varied history and the many applications of a garment we often take for granted: the turtleneck.
This is Graham – currently wearing a turtleneck – signing off!
- Startup Fashion Article ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- “All About the Turtleneck […]” https://www.ssense.com/en-ca/editorial/fashion/all-about-the-turtleneck-fashions-control-mechanism ↑
- Ibid. ↑