Turtlenecks Through The Years, A history Of Rebellion And Style

Written by Jason Disley
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Turtlenecks have been a staple item of western wardrobes for many a year now.

While they seem to be predominantly worn by women, everyone gets in on the turtleneck game once winter comes around.

It can be said that Turtlenecks have been symbols of strength, rebellion, style, and modesty throughout history. I often jump at any chance I can get to wear one. Why? You may ask – Well, wearing a turtleneck makes me feel stylish and – (ahem) cool. The garment feels at once both understated, yet stylish. Many style icons, from pop stars, to film stars, and society’s rebels have worn them. These associations make so much sense once put into context with this popular item’s history.

The turtleneck is said to have originated among the fisherman of the Aran Islands, a collection of rocky islands located just off of the western coast of Ireland. The position of the Aran islands in the North Atlantic Ocean made seafaring a decidedly frigid affair, but those courageous, and dedicated Aran fishermen weren't going to allow a little cold to keep them from sailing. Instead, they bundled up and created a number of styles we still know today.

Turtlenecks Through The Years A history Of Rebellion And Style 2

The most successful of these creations was undoubtedly the turtleneck. Those first turtlenecks worn by the Aran fisherman were designed for purely utilitarian purposes, and as such were woven from heavy, dense cloth that could keep a fisherman warm amid a sea squall. But the most important—and identifiable—feature was the signature rolled neck, which is also what gave it the term "roll neck sweater," when the style carried over to Britain.

It was also in Britain—and soon, the United States as well—that the turtleneck cast off its exclusive associations with sailing and was adopted for a wide variety of outdoor activities and sports. In an age before performance fabrics, the coverage that was provided by a turtleneck sweater made it an invaluable article of clothing for newly popular activities like cycling, hiking and of course - polo.

But just as the turtleneck had found new wearers beyond its original cast of Irish fishermen, the turtleneck craze soon spread to those who weren't doing any physical activity at all. Thanks to the example of dashing 1930's Hollywood movie stars like Errol Flynn, turtlenecks began to be worn with suits and men's sport coats. These turtlenecks had little in common with what those Aran fishermen originally wore: in order to slip under a jacket, these turtlenecks were woven from lighter, finer fabrics such as merino wool or cotton. This was the moment in the history of the turtleneck when the garment first began to resemble to version most commonly seen today.

But the turtleneck wasn't done with the sea yet. During WWII, German U-boats posed a great danger to Allied shipping. To combat this threat and keep the vital supply line between the United States and Great Britain open, the Allies waged what became known as The Battle of the North Atlantic. Thousands of American merchant marines were deployed to the same waters trawled by the Aran fisherman a century before, and relied on hearty, military-issue turtlenecks to keep warm as they guarded convoys and swept for mines.

When the war ended, ex-servicemen attending college on the GI Bill continued to wear some of the same clothing they'd been issued in the war on college campuses, including chinos, peacoats, and turtlenecks. Before too long, turtlenecks became a common sight amid college quads, and were adopted by yet another group—the beatniks.

This loose collection of artists, jazz musicians and writers like Jack Kerouac made the turtleneck part of their daily uniform, often pairing it with chinos, desert boots, and the occasional beret. Before long, the turtleneck had become downright counter-cultural.

But once again, Hollywood came knocking. The turtleneck saw a resurgence on-screen and off in the 1960s, as it was worn by Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen and other luminaries of the silver screen.

What's most striking about the history of the turtleneck is the different types of people and places where it has been worn. From salty Irish fisherman to movie stars, from the naval battles of WWII to Greenwich Village jazz clubs, the turtleneck has never found a time or place where it couldn't warm a few necks and look good doing it.

Its connection to rebellious, and less conservative style only grew during the 70s. Feminist activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem, as well as groups such as The Black Panthers, donned these distinctive tops. Turtlenecks provided a style that was both uniform and unique at the same time. Their subversive nature had become the equivalent of say the rebellious nature of a black leather jacket, which had become synonymous with rebellious youths in the 1950s.

After an eventful decade as a staple of the resistance, the turtleneck in the US had a bit of a resting period in the 1980s. This decade saw the garment become “uncool” and swiftly moved into the background as just another basic. This lasted into the 90s, when it began to make a resurgence. In the UK however, perhaps because of the nations climate. Turtle necks were still seen regularly. Especially among those who were into certain subcultures, styles of music, and were part of popular club wear.

In the workplace there was the beginning of a more relaxed and informal look beginning to appear in offices. Especially in firms associated with modern computerised technology.

These individuals meant business but didn’t actually want to be in business—and the turtleneck created a costume that was both anti-establishment, yet not distracting from the work that they were doing.

For example, the turtleneck’s reputations of anti-establishment, and being a bit nerdy, married in the form of Steve Jobs’s daily outfit. Although it wasn’t a ‘deliberate choice’ on Jobs’s part to wear an item of clothing that holds a contentious, rebellious history, it does definitely fit into the narrative that turtlenecks are worn and represent those who do not conform to the strict traditions and like to colour outside the lines. It could be said that Jobs was actually drawn to the article of clothing for the same reasons activists were during the 70s. These individuals meant business but didn’t actually want to be in business—and the turtleneck created a costume that was both anti-establishment, yet not distracting from the work that they were doing.

Maybe that’s why I can pull on a turtle neck or a roll neck and still feel smart and ready for action. Just like style icon Steve McQueen in his famous blue Rollneck and his brown herringbone jacket in Bullitt. Or the quintessential secret agent that has become associated with the 60s during the Cold War, as popularised in The Man From U. N. C. L. E. By David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. Or, at least not forgetting the iconic look of John, Paul, George and Ringo – who as The Beatles – popularised the longevity of the style of a simple black turtleneck and made the beatnik style a fully acceptable.

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Read 542 times Last modified on Tuesday, 06 October 2020 19:11
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Jason Disley

Jason Disley

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