Up to the Neck: A Hundred Years of Polo Neck Jumpers

Vintage man wearing a turtleneck
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

High-necked knits — variously called turtlenecks, roll necks, polo necks or even skivvies depending on where you are in the world— have found a place in the fashions of just about every decade of the last century. While the style can be traced back to mediaeval Europe when knights wore similar garments under chain mail to prevent chafing, it’s really only in the early decades of the twentieth century that the style transformed from something more purely utilitarian into the versatile garment we know today. 

Among the first trendsetters to adopt the style a hundred years ago were the then Prince of Wales, who took to pairing turtlenecks with sports jackets and plus fours while playing golf, and playwright Noël Coward, who discovered one evening in 1924 upon opening the newspaper that he had been credited as originating a fad for colourful high-necked jumpers. Coward claimed that he favoured the style ‘more for comfort than for effect’, although did concede that ‘more and more of our seedier West End chorus boys’ appeared to have been squeezing themselves into roll necks in his wake. Evelyn Waugh confirmed as much in November of that same year when he wrote in his diary of a party he had attended at Merton College, Oxford: ‘Everyone was wearing a new sort of jumper with a high collar rather becoming and most convenient for lechery because it dispenses with all unromantic gadgets like studs and ties. It also hides the boils with which most of the young men seem to have encrusted their necks.’ Just a few weeks later Waugh had bought himself one to try, although noted that he didn’t much care for it.

Within a decade, turtlenecks had hit the mainstream and were superbly modelled by the stars of the 1930s and ’40s: Robert Taylor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich. Black was particularly popular (then, as it is now) and all the better for framing their famous faces. A preference at the time for swapping out a shirt and tie for a polo neck when wearing a suit or a sport coat has also never quite left us, and thank goodness for it. As Bruce Boyer put it: ‘Turtleneck sweaters are — or at least should be — a default item with tailored clothing in cooler weather. A turtleneck sweater with a suit? Why not?’ 

The beatniks of the 1950s took a decidedly more proletarian approach, pairing turtlenecks with workwear and military gear such as jeans, khakis, dufflecoats, and field jackets (not to mention some dark glasses and a few bongo drums thrown in for good measure). In Europe, meanwhile, Britain’s ‘angry young men’ similarly shunned the conservative, white-collar associations of the suit in favour of roomy roll necks, wide-wale cords, and thick brogues in a show of working-class solidarity, while France’s intellectual counterparts preferred pairing them with black leather jackets à la Michel Foucault

Sean Connery wearing a tweed jacket and turtleneck
Noted roll neck fan Sean Connery
Image credit: Nationaal Archief / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

This rebellious edge was carried into the 1960s and ’70s as turtlenecks became a favourite garment of feminist and civil rights activists, including Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, and various other members of the Black Panthers. At the same time, a more louche and tailored approach came into vogue as epitomised by the likes of Sean Connery, Lord Snowden, and Mr Playboy himself, Hugh Hefner. 

By the 1980s, the preps had gotten their mitts on the turtleneck (it was listed as a staple in Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook) and as the decade wore on and extended into the 1990s, it — along with just about everything else in fashion — ballooned in size, resulting in Billy Crystal’s fisherman’s jumper in When Harry Met Sally, Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s matching pullovers in Mad About You, and the bevvy of oversized high-neck knits donned in any given episode of Friends

No one in the twenty-first century has owned the look quite like Steve Jobs did, who famously got his mock necks from Issey Miyake and inspired Elizabeth Holmes to don a similar uniform. 

All of these styles and uses have left their trace on the turtleneck. It has variously been associated with the garb of fin de siècle fisherman and century-old sportsmen, of mountaineers and explorers, of folk singers, jazz musicians, movie villains, and the ultra chic fashion crowd. They can be rugged, sophisticated, or downright fiendish. 

Antarctic explorers wearing polo neck sweaters
Image credit: Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Polo necks have graced such notable album covers as With the Beatles, Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel, and Turtleneck and Chain by The Lonely Island (and yes, the latter most certainly does count as notable). On screen, apart from just about every cat burglar ever committed to celluloid, they have been worn by actors as varied as Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957), Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968), Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971), Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession. Other notable fans have included such famously chic figures as Katherine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Robert Redford, and Emmanuel Macron. 

It’s not hard to see the appeal — for some of us, anyhow. While this admittedly divisive garment sends some people clawing at the walls for how itchy and constricted turtlenecks make them feel, others swear by the style for its cosiness, its sleek silhouette, and its ability to hide all manner of sins and imperfections by framing the face and drawing the eye upward. It also has the further bonus of hiding one’s neck, which Evelyn Waugh already pointed out a few paragraphs back. Fellow writer Nora Ephron agrees. In the titular essay of her book I Feel Bad About My Neck, she writes: ‘Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ms Ephron was a fan of the polo neck, as were several of her on-screen creations. 

In my own case, I’ve only recently discovered the many virtues of the roll neck — or I should say rediscovered since polo neck jumpers represented perhaps my first foray into the world of fashion at about the age of five, at which point I staunchly refused to wear anything else come wintertime. It meant that every school photo taken of me on picture day for a couple of years looked like the mug shot of a budding Existentialist. So intense was this period of attachment and so lasting was my mortification at its memory that for a solid quarter century I didn’t so much as look at a turtleneck. Last year, however, I cautiously dipped my toe back in the pool by way of an affordable lambswool number from Uniqlo and, judging from the amount of use it has gotten since, I’ll be bankrupting myself with cashmere equivalents in no time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger dancing in a turtleneck
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

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