There are a great many dilemmas to face in the realm of clothing. Do you go with boxers or briefs? Belts or braces? When popping on a pair of loafers, do you wear them with socks or without? When picking a dressy jacket, do you choose a sport coat or a blazer? Is your preference for jeans or chinos? T-shirts or polos? Neckties or bowties? There is an endless number of sartorial Sophie’s choices out there, some of them cast up by the fleeting fancies of fashion, others long-established and apparently immutable.
Filed under the latter category, you’ll find the case of crew necks and V-necks. Who among us has not opened a closet door or stood before a clothing rack only to be struck by the eternal quandary: Do I go V or crew on this one? Whether on pullovers or T-shirts, this eternal choice between the two most orthodox neckline options represents a set of interrelated histories, each integral to the development of more than a century worth of menswear.
The Case of the Crew Neck…
Since its name doesn’t offer much of a hint as to its appearance, a crew neck is a round, close-fitting neckline that you might find on a sweater, sweatshirt, or T-shirt. It fits more snugly than a collarbone-baring boat neck and is entirely circular, unlike its V-shaped cousin.
So why the name ‘crew’, exactly? If you had placed your etymological bets on ‘dance-’ or ‘pirate-’ I’m sorry to say that it is instead named for the rowing teams of the early 1900s who were known to wear sweaters in this style. A group of oarsmen is referred to as a crew and in the US the entire sport of rowing is commonly known as crew. Eventually, the name of the pastime and its participants became sufficiently entwined with the style of garment in question that by 1939 we find the first instance of the term ‘crew’ used to describe a round, collarless neckline.
In a sense, a circular neckline is the most natural and logical style you could come up with, given the shape of the human head and neck. It is also, in its most primitive form, simply a hole cut in a length of material (though more sophisticated modern designs tend to feature a piece of ribbing at the edge to finish the neck and maintain the integrity of its shape). Unsurprisingly, therefore, round necklines predate the early 1900s by some time. Nevertheless, the dawn of the twentieth century proved to be a boom time for just about every conceivable kind of crew neck.
While turn-of-the-century rowers and sporty types of every stripe were donning woollen jumpers to keep warm (as discussed earlier this week), new strides were being made in the creation of modern athletic gear.
In the early 1910s, a novel kind of underwear was being trialled by the US and Royal Navies. A natural evolution from one-piece union suits (picture all those cartoon cowboys eating beans in their all-in-one red underwear and you’ve got the idea), these new garments simplified things considerably design-wise. Thanks to a bit of cropping done above the elbow and below the waist, a new kind of shirt came into the world. Taking its name from the letter it most resembled when lain flat, these so-called T-shirts sported shorter sleeves, allowing sailors to move their arms more freely. They also featured the neckline of the hour, which means, given the naval setting, that yet another kind of boat crew was being outfitted in the eponymous neckline. Then, once commercial manufacturers like Sunspel and Fruit of the Loom got involved, the rest of the populace soon followed.
The other significant crew neck contribution from around the same time arrived with the development of the sweatshirt (which I covered in greater depth on this site earlier this year). Taking inspiration from both the aforementioned union suit and the woollen sports jumper, the sweatshirt arrives in 1926 courtesy of Benjamin Russell Jr., whose company still makes its pioneering garment today under the Russell Athletic brand. These cotton-based athletic sweatshirts, which were soon widely disseminated and imitated, all featured crew necks with a signature V-shaped stitch pattern. This V-insert (later also dubbed the ‘Dorito’) served the dual purpose of absorbing sweat and helping the neckline keep its shape even with frequent use.
…Versus the V-Neck
And speaking of V-shapes and necklines, that brings us to the V-neck, whose name conjures a much clearer picture of its style and appearance. It does not, however, offer many clues as to origins and utility.
Like its crew-neck counterpart, the V-neck is born on the sports fields of the early twentieth century. It grows out of games like cricket, tennis, and golf where it filled a similar function as the sweaters and sweatshirts discussed above, albeit with an air of slightly more refinement and sophistication. The man wearing your average 1920s V-neck wasn’t just a garden-variety jock, he was a gent.
The V-neck many have added a dose of sophistication to an otherwise dowdy jumper, but it also served a purpose. The wider neck made it easier to slip on and off, all while allowing some breathing room around the neck. It also added a natural focal point around the collar, perfect for displaying one’s collegiate or club colours, whether in the trim of the sweater or on a necktie or scarf tucked within (a characteristic that would merit its frequent inclusion in school uniforms).
The exact origins of the V-neck tee are less clear. Precisely when and why they came about seems to be anyone’s guess, though perhaps the most convincing account would be that they offered the option of an undershirt that remained invisible when one’s top button was left undone. Perhaps (as with similarly shaped sweaters) it was just a matter of ease and comfort, though, or simply an exercise in novelty. Whatever the case may be, by the 1970s, V-shaped necklines had taken hold on T-shirts, polos, and just about anything else you could fit them on.
In more recent decades, however, the status of the V-neck has faltered somewhat (when in the wrong hands, at least — or around the wrong necks, I should say). Rather like chinos or fedoras, over time V-neck sweaters went from representing hip urbanity to signifying a kind of middle-aged, middle-class sartorial cluelessness. They went from edgy to safe, from novel to overexposed. V-necked shirts haven’t fared much better, particularly since the mid aughts when they suffered a considerable reputational blow thanks to the plunging Vs of the metrosexual set.
Although, I’ll hasten to add, since I own more than a few v-neck jumpers myself, that not all V-necks should be tarred with the same brush. You need only open a new tab or your social platform of choice and look at some fetching Fiar Isles, cricket jumpers, or similar to see a quality V-neck put to good use.
If that helps you at all in settling the eternal choice between crews and Vs, you’re welcome. If not, join the club. I’ve been sat here this whole time trying to figure out which to wear…Ah, sod it, I can’t choose — just give me a cardigan instead.
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