THE ICONS

THE TURTLENECK

Kate Finnigan, Contributing Editor at FT How To Spend It, British Vogue, The Gentlewoman and Observer Magazine tells us all about her once frosty relationship with the winter icon that has since flourished.

Wedding pictures
Blue cashmere sweater

I was born in the 1970s, which might explain my love of turtlenecks, except that I hated them back then. 

In my childhood wardrobe there was the Itchy Knitted One and the Shiny Tight One and I remember the exact suffocating feeling of my mum squeezing the latter over my head like a horrible rubber band, the electric charge of my hair, buzzing with static, afterwards. 

By the time I was a teenager, I had done an about-turn. In the mid-80s there was a 1950s Americana revival — boys with quiffs, moody eyes, chiseled jaws. In my room I hung a black and white poster of James Dean wearing a big chunky fisherman’s jumper of a turtleneck. Black fine-knit turtlenecks with chinos, rolled up ripped jeans and stomping Doc Marten boots became my uniform. 

By the way, being British, I call them polo or roll necks, rather than turtlenecks, which is a word that is descriptive but never sounds that flattering (James Dean certainly didn’t look like a turtle!). Australians, I’ve been told, call it a skivvy, which might be even worse... 

but their tradition goes way back. High-necked garments have been worn for at least five centuries. Knights wore them under chainmail armor — with a very chic sense of layering that wouldn’t look amiss now. In the 19th century, polo players began wearing them, hence their name.

Blue cashmere sweater

In the 20thcentury, the turtleneck was the choice of intellectuals and arty types. Noël Coward wore them in the 1920s and the French philosopher, Michael Foucault, made them his signature in the ‘50s. In 1957’s Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn wore the black polo neck to play the shop assistant and amateur philosopher, Jo Stockton “The pullover with a high collared neck still has a powerful allure that communicates, ’I’m different,’” says Jo — a line which probably secured the status of the polo neck as a classic style item for ever more.

And despite my early aversion, they’ve stayed a staple in my wardrobe. Why? Because for all their brainy, boho associations, they’re also a universal design classic, a style-signifier — easier than a shirt, more pulled-together than a t-shirt, a modern marvel. As a fashion editor, I never went to fashion weeks without a navy-blue cashmere polo neck in my case. 

I always find a slim, fine-knit turtleneck is infinitely useful as a layering tool, under dresses and sweaters, tucked into high-waisted trousers and skirts with knee-high boots. A block-colored fine knit by the likes of Roksanda, worn under slip and pinafore dresses lends a Scandi-cuteness to a look. In early spring this year, I bought an oatmeal knit turtleneck by the Danish designer Mark Tan, with a visible asymmetric seam from neck to sleeve. I wore it to almost every meeting before lockdown with a high-waisted full skirt or Acne chinos and chunky-soled boots. It feels utilitarian and boyish but that design detail gives it flair. Look to Y/Project and Agnona for similarly idiosyncratic extras.

Whether you’re small or big chested, the enveloping snug silhouette of a polo neck makes a statement. And by the way, the idea that you can’t wear a polo neck if you have a bust, is plainly sizeist. Why shouldn’t you enjoy the feeling of being streamlined and secure that a tucked-in turtleneck lends? 

Neither should anyone be denied the ultimate luxury of an oversized knit with a huge neck. 

A Victoria Beckham dark blue with patched sleeves makes me feel like a captain of the high seas. And they’re the perfect framing device for the face, which is why they’re often used in portraits — Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Phoebe Philo have all been memorably photographed in chunky fisherman roll-neck sweaters. Tuck your hair into the neck Philo-style for added nonchalance. 

So many associations, so many ways to communicate ‘I’m different’ — a turtleneck says way more about you and your style than the average jumper.