The year I turned 13, my grandma gave me a black cashmere turtleneck under the pretense that it was timeless — something I’d wear for the rest of my life. I wasn’t so sure: As a teenager in Southern California, I found it unbearably warm — and more than a little frumpy. The sweater lived untouched, nestled in a dark drawer until I dug it out nearly a decade later for a trip to Paris. The forecast was cold; the turtleneck was warm — it was that simple. But when I glanced at my reflection in a shop window, I saw the light — not only was I cozy, but I looked so...cool. Sure, it might have been the Parisian light, and sure, it might have been the fact that I was well-rested on vacation, but it had me thinking: Are turtlenecks in style in 2018? Despite my initial misgivings, it turns out that the classic turtleneck was never really out. A brief look into this wardrobe staple's history proves just that.
Recent pop-culture incarnations haven't always been inspiring — think: Drake’s shapeless grey knit in “Hotling Bling;” its frustrating use to signify Diane Keaton’s sexual repression in Something’s Gotta Give — but the turtleneck has been knitwear’s boldest power player since the word “sweater” was coined in 1882. You can trace the modern day turtleneck's predecessors all the way from Medieval chainmail to the Elizabethan ruff and the high-necked Gibson Girl shirtwaists — though none of these items bear the modern day turtleneck’s trademark versatility.
What started as a pre-Raphaelite way to highlight the neck, according to The Anatomy of Fashion author Colin McDowell, has slowly evolved into a key piece for layering (both with jewelry and other tops) and keeping you warm come cold weather.
Sportswear emerged as a new fashion frontier at the turn of the century, and though originally aimed at men, turtlenecks — then called roll necks — became best-sellers after Sears began offering a simple women's iteration in 1905, priced at just 85 cents. The turtleneck slowly emerged outside the realm of sports in 1924 after British playwright Noël Coward styled one with a blazer during a performance of The Vortex. Since borrowing from the boys was already de rigueur in the 1920s, with young women embracing androgynous silhouettes as the height of sophistication, and the turtleneck became a unisex hit.
Still, the turtleneck really came of age in the second half of the century. The 1950s and '60s cemented its status as the epitome of laidback, rebellious cool. French chanteuse Juliette Gréco’s preference for black turtlenecks and bold, cat-eye eyeliner became as notable as her relationship with jazz musician Miles Davis and friendship with existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau. As the sartorial symbol of the Left Bank existentialists, Gréco and her turtleneck represented a chic alternative to bourgeois culture: a fashion antihero. Simple, accessible, and unisex, the turtleneck put the emphasis on thought over frippery. Widely linked to the intellectual elite (and its wannabes), the garment became the de facto uniform for the Beats, activists, nonconformists, and stylish women alike.