Turtleneck sweaters have long been a staple of men’s (and women’s) attire, but their place in fashion has changed pretty dramatically over the years.

In their earliest forms, they were worn by knights, who used the high necks to prevent rashes and chafing from their chainmail and helmets. Later, they were worn mostly by laborers, athletes and seamen, likely because of the convenience of built-in scarf-like protection, and still for a largely utilitarian purpose – function over fashion.

mens turtleneck sweater history definition

However, as modern fashion styles began to develop, the turtleneck took a unique position at the center of the counter-formalwear movement, or the ‘anti-tie’ look.

In the early 1900s, it was iconically worn by celebrities, artists, progressive politicians and other counter-culture or rebellious figures who rejected traditional formal attire. French philosopher Michel Foucault made it his signature look, while European film stars brought the look the rich and elite.

mens turtleneck sweater history definition

| BRIAN WEARS | Montezemolo coat, Uniqlo turtleneck, PT01 pants, Mario Portolano gloves, Suitsupply shoes | PHOTOGRAPHY | by Rob McIver Photo

In the 1960s, designers like Yves Saint Laurent ushered the turtleneck into business attire, to be worn in place of a dress shirt under your classic grey and navy suits, and the look was picked up by powerful men like Senator Ted Kennedy. All the while, turtlenecks kept one foot squarely in the ‘cool kid’ echelons as they were rocked by pop icons from the Elvis or Beatles to Steve McQueen and Robert Redford.

Then, as fashion trends often do, the turtleneck movement saw the ebb to follow its flow, and spent the 90s and 00s as the butt of many a fashion joke as fits became loose and shapeless and the image went from suave businessman or creative rebel to dorky dad or stodgy professor (or an awkward teen trying to cover an embarrassing hickey). Still, even through the slump, some of the suavest men kept turtlenecks looking good.

mens turtleneck sweater history definition

And now turtlenecks are back, and there’s lots to love. A dark merino wool, cut in a slim, flattering fit frames the face almost like a sculptural bust and draws attention away from the torso (there’s a reason style-savvy cartoon ‘Archer’ is so fanatical about the ‘tactileneck’). On the other hand, a chunky, cream-colored cable knit exudes rugged sailor and is a perfect look for a cool night at a beachside bonfire or for sipping hot chocolate on a snowy cabin escape.

mens turtleneck sweater history definition

Thanks for reading.

Stylishly Yours,

Adam Lehman
He Spoke Style

Menswear history buff? Read more of our Style Defined series and explore the Glossary.


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