the turtleneck is an icon of thoughtful design

Hermione Hoby unpacks the Prius of garments.

by Hermione Hoby
23 October 2017, 4:12pm

Photography Getty Images / Alan Dejecacion.

We asked writers to pick one of the 111 items in MoMA's monumental new fashion exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern? , and share an ode to its significance.

There's the Audrey you know best: the Audrey of diamonds and pearls and a prim simper, the Audrey of a thousand dorm room walls, underfed and overexposed as Holly Golightly. She's a character reduced, in our collective visual memory, to a little black dress (and never mind the complications of the money-hungry call girl wearing it). And then there's Audrey in a black turtleneck. As Jill Stockton in Funny Face, a film that predates the more famous Breakfast at Tiffany's, she wore a simple mock-necked iteration of the shirt. It's just a sweater on a starlet, yes, but it's also a kind of apotheosis for the garment. A garment which seems, in its modesty, plainness, and utilitarianism, to be in every way a non-statement. With clothes, though, there is always a statement.

Audrey's Jill is a Greenwich Village bookstore clerk aspiring to be a beatnik bohemienne. She disdains fashion. Specifically, fashion magazines. They represent, as she so piously chides, a "chichi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics." But then a fashion shoot invades her dusty little book store and Jill is strong-armed into modeling by a domineering fashion editor and photographer, a pair tickled by their oh-so-radical idea of championing "character, spirit, and intelligence" rather than just pretty faces. Taking her chance to meet a philosopher whose work she admires, Jill relents and allows herself to be whisked off to Paris.

There follows a thoroughly ridiculous yet somehow irresistible number called "Bonjour Paris!" in which Audrey, rapturous and giddy, sings,"I want to see the den of thinking men like Jean-Paul Sartre, I must philosophize with all the guys in Montmartre." To do so, to gain entry into this "den of thinking men," she needs the right costume. The Paris scenes have her leaping around in black loafers, white socks, black skinny jeans and, finally, the black turtleneck, a garment which is both this outfit's pièce de résistance and, more broadly, a piece of resistance. It's a declaration of non-conformity, an austere refusal, a non-outfit of an outfit. It says, I opt out.

With it, Audrey joins a club that includes the Black Panthers, second-wave feminists, and of course, Steve Jobs. It's a motley crew but they're united by two messages. One, I'm different and two, Don't mess with me. In the movie, however, which so merrily mocks the pretensions of bohemians and would-be philosophers, people do mess with Audrey. We're meant to see her black turtleneck as a kind of joke, a poseur's accessory. Like a big old Thrasher sweatshirt in the year 2017, it transparently signals someone's longing to be identified with a certain group. I think of the pink polo shirt, so clearly her dad's, that Lindsay Lohan wears to comply with the famous "on Wednesdays we wear pink" dictum in Mean Girls. Or Lisa Simpson, never more adorably, hopelessly neurotic than when affecting a backwards baseball cap and tie dye to befriend the cool kids down under the pier.

Unlike cartoon tie dye, however, the simplicity and austerity of a black turtleneck makes it irreproachably chic. Which is why, despite all its iterations over the years (including that pre-normcore nadir with Joey from Friends) it's never suffered too long as "faddish". Audrey may be mocked by square old Fred Astaire and sexually harassed by the French philosopher she admires (he wears a black turtleneck, naturellement), but in our imaginations she's dancing in perpetuity, never more vivid than in head-to-toe black. That look, in fact, is so iconic that it's proved worthy even of the biggest icon of our time. In her 2011 "Countdown" video Beyonce emulates the Funny Face outfit down, even, to the white ankle socks.

In her second memoir, Diane Keaton declared turtlenecks, "particularly underrated" - "Buy one. I dare you. . . .Turtlenecks cushion, shield, and insulate a person from harm." This is more illusion than reality - what a woman wears does not protect her from, for example, sexual harassment. That's purely on the would-be perpetrator. Nonetheless, like Keaton, I feel armored in a turtleneck. Sober, but the opposite of sexless. A turtleneck looks best with the absence of a smile. Especially when the wearer is 70s-era Angela Davis. It's a piece of clothing to observe others in, rather than be observed. The question is ridiculous but here I am asking it anyway: do I write better in a black turtleneck? Maybe.

A turtleneck does not accommodate or invite; it's for the wearer, not the viewer. It also encourages an ambiguous deflection from the body. As Rachel Syme wrote for Refinery 29: "Your head becomes a sculpture. Once you emerge through that tube of fabric, you start to resemble a marble bust — your skull and all its features are on display, like the diamonds plopped on top of black velvet in the Van Cleef windows. [...] It makes you realize how beautiful your face is, because it's so out there, floating atop your shoulders for the world to appraise." That's so gorgeously true of the "Countdown" video. No one's ever needed help finding Beyonce's face beautiful but, in that black turtleneck, her eyes - blinking and widening and lash-batting - are the central event.

The way Steve Jobs wore his was, predictably, a little different. It functioned, in fact, as the sartorial underscoring to the company's original slogan, "think different." He adopted his famous uniform after he visited Sony offices in Japan and saw that all its workers wore the same thing, a traditional blue and white work jacket designed by Issey Miyake in 1981. Soon after, he asked Miyake to reproduce the discontinued black turtleneck, although his were distinguished by a central vertical stripe down the front. When he died in October 2011, the label St Croix reported sales of their black turtlenecks doubled overnight. The mantra of "difference" honored in mass same-ness.

I'm too flighty for a uniform, too invested in playing different characters. Every outfit is a costume of sorts and some days (many right now, in fact) I wake up as a turtleneck person. Other days, there's no forcing it and I accept my fate as a floral dress person. But before the month's out I'm resolved to pick up a pair of black loafers in a thrift store, pull out my cleanest, whitest pair of socks, and enjoy my easiest Halloween costume ever. I'll be channeling the lines that Audrey delivers with a breathy sincerity, right before she launches into an experimental dance routine: "Isn't it time you realized that dancing is nothing more than a form of expression or release? There's no need to be formal or cute about it. As a matter of fact, I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use a release."

Think Pieces
Steve Jobs
audrey hepburn
items: is fashion modern?