Turtlenecks Then and Now

Technically, we have one month left of winter in the D.C. metro area. But we all know it doesn’t start to truly warm up until April. So, in the spirit of staying cozy for at least a couple more months, I want to pay homage to…drum roll please…The Turtleneck.

Although you could argue the turtleneck is a classic that has never really been in or out of style, it does have a fascinating history of highs and lows. It has gone from a purely functional garment to a sexy one to a political statement to something only the tragically uncool would wear. So, where did it all start and where are we now with The Turtleneck?


Turtlenecks Then and Now

Turtlenecks started off in the 19th century as utilitarian clothing worn for practicality. The Navy, fishermen, and other laborers wore turtlenecks for warmth and protection. Fast forward to early 20th century, and the garment began its rise to become a statement of identity for women. The rise of the “Gibson Girl,” a fictional character who “was associated with a beautiful, active, and independent woman” reframed the neckline as a statement of female strength.

The turtleneck really came into its own in the 1950s and ‘60s. It became associated with bombshell sexiness (hello Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe), and then adopted by Left Bank existentialists as a chic symbol of the intellectual elite. It was simple, unisex, and emphasized thought over fussiness.

The ideals behind this iteration of the garment soon made its way to the states as part of American Beat culture, activist movements like the Black Panthers, nonconformists, and more. So iconic was the turtleneck during this time period that more than three decades later as a young college English major, I clearly remember wanting to be Joan Didion in her black turtleneck!

By the 1950s, the turtleneck had become so ubiquitous in bohemian circles that it was time for Hollywood to poke fun at it. Enter Audrey Hepburn, donning her black turtleneck and slim black cigarette pants in her iconic Funny Face dance number.

After a period of being a symbol of resistance, the turtleneck took a downward turn in the 1980s and 1990s only to be worn by the tragically unhip (oh man, Zack in Saved by the Bell did nothing for the turtleneck) or utilized as a basic, functional layering piece. During this time, the turtleneck was something I put in the same category as long underwear that I only wore when I went skiing.

A bit later, we also saw the garment take on a feeling of girl-next-door, bookish charm with Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail.

Today, the turtleneck has already gone through a few revivals in the early to mid-aughts. It has come to represent unfussy, genius-level intellect a la Steve Jobs. It became cool and chic again with the rise of normcore. And now, with the revisiting of ‘90s style in full swing, retail floors can’t get enough of that high-neck!



How to Wear Turtlenecks this Season

There are so many ways to style different kinds of turtlenecks, which is part of the fun of having them as a chic option. You can go preppy or cool minimal, depending on your personal style. Here are some of my favorite styles with tips on how to incorporate them into a purposeful, modern look.

One and Done


Who doesn’t love a sweater that keeps your neck cozy? The sweater with a contrasting turtleneck is perfect paired with dark straight-leg jeans and taupe ankle boots, winter white wide-leg pants and snakeskin heeled booties, black cigarette pants and white booties. No need to try to layer this thicker knit. It is meant to stand on its own.

Sweater available at TSALT and also love the below option from The Hive.



The “Blouse” Turtleneck


I love a thinner sweater turtleneck under a blazer for added warmth during those cold months. This lightweight, stripe cashmere sweater is perfect as that base layer. I can see this simple and classic under a black blazer, but also with a black/white tweed jacket for some fun pattern mixing.

Sweater available at TSALT.

I also love a mock neck sleeveless or cap sleeve blouse under a blazer for when the weather warms!



The Base Layer Turtleneck


The turtleneck as a bodysuit is that base layer under ponchos, dresses with boots, jackets, pullover sweaters, and more. It’s not meant to be worn on its own but is the go-with-everything piece. Not only does it provide warmth but can transition some of your warm-weather pieces to cooler temperatures. I use this L’Agence  turtleneck under this spring chiffon dress and pair with tall black boots to bring it into fall/winter.

Bodysuit available at The Hive.


The Going Out Turtleneck


Turtlenecks can be sexy and sassy! I don’t even feel like I can call this a blouse it’s so much more! I have purchased this for a client for dressy occasions and we paired with winter white wide-leg trousers, heels, and clutch for cocktail events.


  • The latest from Rosana
Founder, Chief Stylist | DC Style Factory
Rosana has 18 years of fashion and retail experience. Her team has worked on more than 1,500 closets and wardrobes since she launched DC Style Factory 10 years ago. She has been featured by the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Washingtonian Magazine, Northern Virginia Magazine, and more. Her clients include U.S. politicians, lobbyists, authors, lawyers, and corporate executives.

DC Style Factory is a personal shopping and styling service for men and women looking to add polish and individuality to their wardrobes. We believe personal style is for anyone who wants it — regardless of age, size or budget.


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