The Genesis of Turtlenecks

Part one in a new series called “The Real History of Fashion”


Inspired by our comedic brethren’s drunk versions of historical events and encouraged by the impending cold — which coincidentally also inspires a glass of red wine or two just after sunset — we’re putting forth a new series titled “The Real History of Fashion.” Up first and a half*: Amelia dissects the genesis of turtlenecks. 

Turtlenecks are great. I have always thought so, even when Jessica What’s-her-face in my third grade class told me that only babies wear turtlenecks. There’s something about them that create this sense of instant elegance, hearkening back to a long-necked Modigliani painting or a very cool giraffe, especially when long hair can remain tucked inside the confines of the fabric.

Maybe it goes back to the idea we touched upon a few weeks ago wherein pop culture’s excessive saturation of the naked body has rendered us numb to nudity and therefore a covered up neckline is intrinsically more exciting.

Or, perhaps on a more Freudian level, there’s something to be said for the turtleneck’s similarity to the birth canal. I apologize for the visual but show me a woman who doesn’t feel as if she’s being born each time she presses her face through a turtleneck and I’ll show you a woman whose mother had a c-section.

Jessica Something-or-other’s words found themselves new life this past winter by way of my own friend Alex. I was inspired by Céline’s Fall 2012 stark white necks that stretched out from the confines of burgundy leather and fuchsia fuzz. Such styling was simplistic yet brave — simple because surely everyone owned similar elements and brave because turtlenecks weren’t exactly “back” — and then on a cold night when I had plans to meet a group of friends for dinner, I was feeling Phoebe-Philo-white-turtleneck-brave.

I entered the restaurant and took my coat off while fashioning my best “notice anything different?” gesture. I’d paired a white cotton turtleneck (a third grade relic) with a gray neoprene sweatshirt and I’m telling you that if you saw me you’d say, “Hey! That girl looks cool!” But instead, Alex asked me if I got dressed in a preschool teacher’s closet.

It was then that I found myself determined to prove the turtleneck’s worth. This, I somehow got into my head, meant extensive research on its history. I spent hours in the library with my head in books, scribbling notes onto scraps of deli napkins because the library had run out of computer paper. Unfortunately, I used the napkins to later blow my nose, which means I lost a majority of my notes and now have to rely on memory.

Never mind that, though. The turtleneck was born during the medieval ages. Knights were riding around in chainmail armor like it was the final hour of Comic Con and as a result developed rashes from the metal’s friction. Chaffed necks made it impossible to turn their heads quickly during battle, which meant an opposing soldier could — and would — turn it for them. A turtleneck worn underneath solved the chaffing issue (and separately offered an easier “knight to night” transition post-battle).

In the mid-sixteenth century Queen Elizabeth I of England drew upon the knighted turtleneck but blew it up to couture proportions by way of starched ruffles and dubbed it a “ruff.” I think nothing quite says “party animal” like a stiff, ruffled collar that was, in all seriousness, likely meant to cover skin irritations developed from a lack of bathing.

Covered throats remained the party girls’ anthem throughout the early 1900s, where Gibson Girls boasted high-necked dresses and also — fun fact — wore bustles to make their butts appear larger. Sign me up for that era, am I right?

Flapper girls threw out the turtleneck along with modesty as a movement, and either I fell asleep while reading the next few chapters or my retention capabilities are faulty but I’m fairly certain that the turtleneck didn’t see a true rise again until Diane Keaton was born.

Our history lesson for today can conclude right there because everyone knows Keaton owns the market on the covered neck. She’s the only one who has figured out how to wear one during the summer, and I’ll be damned if I don’t discover the key before I die.

During last September’s shows when it seemed every model had a covered-up throat, I texted my skeptical friend Alex, “The turtleneck is back.” And ha ha to you, Jessica Last-names-are-for-babies. I don’t have your cell number or else I would have texted you too. Ya hear me world? The turtleneck is back.

*For The Genesis of Ruffles, click here. Market work by Charlotte Fassler

Get more Fashion ?
  • Not in my house, though … while turtles may be able to hide their neck under their shell or bend it and look dapper and swell, I never manage to hide all the folds and end up morosely counting the still protruding chins-that-really-are-for -babies-only 🙂

  • Quinn

    I’ve gone to the same school since the beginning of time and from grades 1-3 a white, part polyester, part uncomfortable turtleneck was a part of the uniform. The kilt the girls were required to wear was this check print that was too Scottish for an institution that declared themselves modern. Looking back on it now, it would have been pretty trendy now but in those days I was in the peak of my tomboy phase and totally rejected it. I refused to wear a turtleneck for years, similar to Leandra’s maxi skirt situation. Once I finally gave in, I knew I couldn’t go back. It was just so comfy I wanted to hug myself all day long. As for the uniform, I’m just breaking it one J. Crew blouse at a time!

  • Didi Ramirez

    Oh my gosh YESSSSSSSSS! Finally an article just about turtlenecks! They have had a bad rap among the 20+ group. This baffles me because they are the most versatile, elegant and timeless article of clothing you can own (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor, Kate Moss, Fei Fei Sun)

    How can you NOT look hot wearing a black turtleneck paired with J.Crew trousers and matching Manolos?

    This made my day. Three cheers for turtlenecks!!!!!

  • Leandra Medine


    • Amelia Diamond

      Another day, another history lesson, my sweet pupil.

  • Chucko

    Don’t forget Katharine Hepburn! She was the queen of the turtleneck!

  • As my fictional counterpart from the TV show Freaks & Geeks said, “Everyone looks cool in a turtleneck.”

    Your Friend, Jess

    • Gene

      TV-reference-gasm!!! Love that show. Bill Haverchuck…

  • I can’t do the turtle necks that are fitted around the neck. I feel claustrophobic, like I am stuck in the birthing canal (which I was… large baby). Also, I am a small person, so if I wear a turtle neck with long sleeves and pants, then I just look like a floating head….
    But the sleeveless white turtle neck in pic #4…. swoon worthy.

  • CDJ

    I thought Queen Elizabeth wore them to cover up hickeys since the “It’s a curling iron burn” excuse was not valid way back when.

  • Rebecca

    VIVE LA TURTLENECK! I just can’t get enough! Also good for hiding aging necks…you’ll learn about that soon enough!

  • Aurora

    I just want to say the word play in this article is genius. Rob ford crack scandal kind of genius.

    • Amelia Diamond

      Hahah thank you. I think? Rob Ford crack scandal as a compliment is kind of genius.

  • HA52309

    I have big breasts and I cannot lie, turtlenecks make them look HUGE! Take away the little big of skin, and I look like a head on top of boobs attached to hips. Which therefore makes me feel more on display instead of covered up. In my wardrobe, they are only to be used as a layer under winter hiking or ski clothes.

    • Amelia Diamond

      One of my best friends has DDs and I always love her in a turtleneck! I think it’s finding the right fabric and fit for each body — a thinner fabric with a high, tight neck and slim cut all around might change your opinion (this is also my preferred way to look like a fancy turtle). But if not, that’s ok too! Flaunt what you got!

      • HA52309

        I got curious, and a bit jealous, so I did a little investigating. Another recommendation is to wear a turtleneck in the style you described, but with a pretty scarf, which I already love. I’m making that my shopping mission this weekend.

        • Amelia Diamond

          Well we’d love to see a pic if you find the perfect combination! Post it here and I’ll be sure to check back!

  • Rachel

    This post couldn’t have been more been more apt. I was once anti-turtleneck but embracing it just opened my world to a whole new level.


  • The Foolish Aesthete

    As a longtime turtleneck fan (but not quite as long as Diane Keaton), it’s nice to know, sort of, that it had noble origins!

  • Yeyy !! Finally someone understands me haha ! Long live practical fashion ! And long live your brilliant posts, Amelia ! 🙂

  • B.

    YES! I’ve never understood those who didn’t understand turtlenecks. I was also made fun of for wearing them (i stopped caring in high school) but I swear every winter when I find them at the bottom of a drawer I get so excited because omg how much more exciting is layering?!


  • Steph

    I understand you man. I had a brief but passionate love affair with a black turtle neck in the eleventh grade and some people would not have it. A frenemy of mine (a boy) would often ask me if I mistakenly thought I was in my forties. Well that little asshole has lived to rue the day! At last!

  • I’m a V-neck person, not a turtle neck one 🙂

    Mafalda ❤

  • while i can’t deny their chic factor, when it comes to turtlenecks i’ve always ascribed to the mitch hedberg school of thought that wearing a turtle neck is akin to getting strangled by a really weak guy all day.


    • Amelia Diamond

      Hahahahah I love him so much! I forgot about that!!!

  • Margaret Ely

    Hooray Hoorah! I love turtlenecks and I think I have since birth, it is a probably a coping mechanism since my mother did in fact has a c-section and I didn’t get to experience natural childbirth. I went to a catholic school my whole life so we had to wear uniforms, but on the occasion we got to dress down or up, I would show up in a turtleneck. I love the feel and the look, I always think I look like a million bucks in one, so hey why not?
    I remember when all of my friends in high school were going through this terrible phase where they wore those shirts from Abercrombie and fitch then the tanks underneath with the lace that were long enough to show. I barfed, and just repeatedly wore my teal turtle. Also, I owned a white SLEEVELESS turtle neck which could be wore year round which was key. what an investment.
    Thanks for the post, and informing me that are officially “in” so when people say “omg love your turtleneck, they are so in right now” (that will never happen) I can say “THEY WERE NEVER OUT!”

  • giselaandzoe

    i do agree Dianne Keaton how do you effortlessly pull it off in the summer and manage to look so dang chic?! living in California i would stand out like a sore thumb…

  • the fashion ghost
  • Turtleneck & Vests are the appendix of fashion. They are are apart of every fall wardrobe but not only do you not need them to survive but they can kill you.

  • AshleyOlivia

    Fantastic! I love the shot by Phil Oh of the white turtleneck under the buttoned-up chambray. Adding a white turtleneck to my shopping list asap so I can replicate the look!

  • Lavender

    love turtles, cozy and warm

  • Looove turtlenecks! Just got two super soft ones at Calypso on sale. I especially adore a sleeveless turtleneck with an extra high neck, so chic! The picture of Mila Jovovich is so great, what cute hair!

  • Tamara

    Not a fan. They are uncomfortable, choky, hair-frizz inducing (curly girls, try to pull one over your head and just see what happens!). My mother wears turtlenecks. Her friends wear turtlenecks. Women of “a certain age” wear turtlenecks. Remember the song from Peter Pan? “I won’t grow up, I don’t wanna wear a tie or a serious expression in the middle of July!” That’s how I feel about turtlenecks.

  • Tamara

    Yup. As I thought. The pics are all but one of girls with straight silky hair.

  • Chelsea


    Takes me back to the 90s. I still wear them because they make us stand out today!

    Chelsea S

  • 25highClothing

    Must admit. I only own one turtleneck. and i get so many compliments every time i wear it.but I don’t actually like to wear it. I hate the feel of something constantly on my neck. Plus my collar and neck are very well formed. I like to show them off, not cover them up. I actually usually skip wearing necklaces as to bring the attention to my neck and not my accessories

  • A turtleneck is always so chic.

  • Definitely they are back. I love it when the necks are very cozy and thick.

  • Allie Fasanella

    matt bomer in a turtleneck is everything though