Updated: Mar 21
The turtleneck is widely viewed as a classy and conscientious alternative to the shirt and tie in all but the most formal of occasions.
When you think of a turtleneck, there’s no doubt that one of the first people that pops into your head is Steve Jobs, wearing his patented black turtleneck in his triumphant iPhone unveiling. You may have also spotted Tiger Woods sporting a mock turtleneck sweater when he played in inclement weather in his mid 2000s run of dominance of the golf world. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to rock a turtleneck. And in this post, we’ll help you understand the ins and outs of wearing them in style.
Getting to Know the Turtleneck
According to Mr Porter Robert Johnston, the turtleneck, or rollneck, is a sweater that has a high, close-fitting neck that is worn folded over – a high neck that doesn’t fold is called a turtleneck – and dates back to the Middle Ages. Traditionally it has been worn casually, though the likes of Sir Noël Coward started the trend of wearing them as a more formal piece in the 1930s."
We initially considered the style as an act of defiance against traditional dress codes – and caused maître d’s in top restaurants around the world to have heart attacks (or to keep shirts and ties in their cloakrooms).
The US Esquire columnist and author Mr John Berendt described it “as the boldest of all the affronts to the status quo”, even claiming it was reminiscent of U-boat commanders.
Turtlenecks are acceptable when worn with suits or as a twist on the traditional black tie. A great advantage of the turtleneck is that it is both comfortable and flattering, elongating the face and helping to hide double chins. But a secondary benefit is that there are a myriad of ways you can wear it.
A Brief History Of The Turtleneck
Whatever your preferred moniker, the consensus is that the turtleneck came into being during the 15th century, meaning this piece of knitwear has been around in one form or another for at least 500 years.
Like much of menswear’s clothing canon, the turtleneck was born out of utility, initially worn by menial workers, sailors and naval officers before being adopted by everyone from poets and professors to playboys and prepsters.
Despite the wide-ranging appeal of the northward-creeping neckline, it only earned its place as a bona fide wardrobe staple as recently as 50 years ago. It was 1968, a time when the turtleneck had all the sartorial star power of a pair of Crocs. Enter Steve McQueen as a straight-talking police detective in Bullitt and, suddenly, every man was clamouring to add one to their collection. Since then, high-necked tops have been sported by the likes of Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, The Beatles, and many others.
Key Considerations for Selecting Your Turtleneck
For a classic garment that has stood the test of time, there are a few core styles that can be chosen and that you should know as you build your versatile capsule wardrobe. Alongside classic styles, it’s quite common to see a turtleneck that, well, doesn’t ‘roll’ at all, or iterations that are barely more than crew neck sweatshirt.
Classic - this type of turtleneck has found favour with generations of stylish men, and is, aptly, the most classic. Featuring an extended neckline that folds back on itself, the result is often the most formal, lending itself well to being worn with tailoring or under a winter coat.
Funnel Neck - the funnel neck is a simpler variant of the classic turtleneck, with a slightly shorter extended neckline, removing the need to fold back on itself. To give structure, most funnel neck designs are ribbed, but they can also borrow from athletic apparel by incorporating a zip.
Mock Neck - the mock neck is a hybrid of the funnel neck and crew neck sweatshirt, offering advantages in locking in warmth with a slightly extended neckline. The mock neck is best worn casually in a mid-weight, it’s the perfect way to add extra insulation to a winter look.
The Ultimate Style Guide for Wearing Turtlenecks
The moral of the story above is that some items will always be essential; turtlenecks and roll necks - mocks - fall into that category. Mocks and turtlenecks are great because we can wear them underneath bomber jackets, leather jackets, as well as suits and blazers. In the winter months, they can be used as an alternative to other dress shirts.
Turtlenecks and mocks have a unique ability to make a casual outfit look much more polished and strong.
They can turn down the temperature, or the formality, of a suit and tie look considerably, without compromising the sharpness of the suit.
Mocks and turtlenecks are extremely comfortable (especially cashmere materials sourced from Inner Mongolia), providing for a full range of motion. They are more forgiving with weight fluctuations than dress shirts.
They can be worn as a crossover streetwear piece, depending on the neck piece and denim/corduroy pants we pair them with.
Mocks and turtlenecks look authoritative on their own, with no additional layering pieces; especially with dress slacks (remember the Tiger Woods appeal).
Wearing solid cashmere, wool, or cotton/silk mix colored knits is always a sound move. And for men who have a slim or athletic build, trim fit is the proper way to go. On the other hand, if you choose to wear a cable knit or heavily textured material, make sure you wear the sweater a bit more loosely.
As far as colors are concerned, there are several reinvented shades that are making an impact this season: off-white, brick red, jade green, gold, and Airforce blue. Colors such as camel, navy, black, grey and brown will always be staple pieces.
Why Fabric Selection is Essential for Turtlenecks
As is the case with any garment in your wardrobe, it is paramount to invest into high-quality pieces made from fine materials and fabrics in order to maximize longevity and your own experience. Every micro-detail about your experience should be perfect - nothing left to be desired. When it comes to the type of fabric and the quality of the garment, there are various avenues a man can consider when choosing a turtleneck.
Lightweight & Fine - Lightweight and form-fitting, a fine cotton and silk mix turtleneck is the ideal piece to slip beneath a wardrobe’s worth of cold-weather staples. Smart enough to substitute for a formal shirt, particularly in temperature-regulating and breathable merino wool, it also looks just as good worn under a leather jacket for a faultless combo. The not so wonderful news is that there’s nothing like second-skin fabric for highlighting a gym-dodger, so it’s wise to bulk up your fabric if you’re carrying a few extra pounds.
Mid-Weight - A far friendlier option for the exercise-intolerant, a mid-weight turtleneck can add inches of warmth while disguising a more portly physique. Look for cashmere or 12 gauge merino wool fibers to provide soft feel and durability, as well as reasonable warmth. Versatile enough to work with both smart and casual looks (and, smart-casual ones, too) the added heft not only dials up the thermostat but also gives some gravitas to lighter colours such as cream.
Heavy - Once a staple prized by men’s men like Ernest Shackleton and Hemingway, today a husky fisherman-style roll neck keeps its appeal for keeping its wearer toasty in the worst possible weather. The undisputed king of insulation, a thick wool knit in a waffle or cable knit design is perfect for a frigid commute or when pounding the parks and pavements at the weekend, especially when slipped under an overcoat.
The Bottom Line
Turtlenecks can be a magnificent piece to add to your capsule wardrobe. And if you’re looking to get one, start with sweaters that you know will coordinate well with existing pieces in your wardrobe, and go from there. If you’re interested in learning even more about turtlenecks, make sure to check out this post.