A turtleneck is a knit shirt or sweater with a high, close-fitting neck resembling a tube. There are various sources stating different facts about the origin of the word, but we’ll go with ‘turtle’ + ‘neck’, and say that the neckline is named so because your head just barely comes out of the collar, resembling a turtle coming out of its shell.
The first turtlenecks were designed in the middle ages, but they didn’t really catch on until the late 19th century. At that time, the turtleneck was popular in Britain (where they are called ‘polo necks’) with laborers, athletes and military. The style took a fashionable turn in the 1950s when it became closely associated with the artists and philosophers who sported a chic, black version of the shirt. Stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe brought the style into the mainstream, and made the look popular for women. And in the 1970s, the turtleneck made a feminist statement thanks to Gloria Steinem. After a somewhat frumpy decade in the 1980s, the shirt had a revival and is now an iconic silhouette for women.
Sweaters often come to mind when we think of the turtleneck, but there are actually many variations on the classic design. First, the neckline. The classic is a long and fitted neck that can either scrunch around the neck, or fold over. Looser necks, like the cowl neck have become increasingly popular in recent years. And, of course, there is always the mock neck, which will forever be associated with Steve Jobs. As far as silhouettes go, there are basic slim fitting designs, cropped styles, tunic cuts, and dresses. And although it’s counterintuitive, given the design’s intent to keep in warmth, the turtleneck can even be found in short sleeve and sleeveless styles.
You can come out of your shell just about anywhere. Thanks to the variations in sleeve design and variety of fabrics, there is a turtleneck for all seasons. To achieve the classic look, pair a chunky knit turtleneck with jeans, boots and a satchel. For the office, a slim lightweight top in a dark color, with skinny pants is a super smart outfit. In the warmer months, try a sleeveless or tank design with a skirt and sandals.