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It’s a garment that comes tightly woven with layers of nostalgia: think Gauloise-smoking beret-wearing Beats, the protagonists of the Left Bank or Warhol dressed in black Halston cashmere. What is this sartorial Madeleine? The turtle – or roll – neck. And, despite the unfortunate name, it remains a cornerstone of the contemporary wardrobe – this season more than ever.
At Issa’s autumn/winter show, for example, turtlenecks were worn underneath print dresses and styled with a Joni Mitchell fedora. At Jean Paul Gaultier, the turtleneck appeared in both leather outer garments and classic knitted numbers, under voluminous ankle-length coats. At Yohji Yamamoto, a black high-necked minidress was teamed up with a knee-length billowing coat (also in black) and black tights and platform shoes (black, of course). Gucci designer Frida Giannini presented a sassy, decidedly Milanese version in black leather, styled with a bordeaux wool cape coat and skirt. The look was more android dominatrix than beatnik with bongo drums – proof positive, if any were needed, of the garment’s endless mutability.
“I love the instant gravitas and elegance that a black cashmere turtleneck adds to anything,” says designer Rick Owens. “It turns anyone into an existential Avedon swan. Wrapping the throat in a swath of black cashmere subtly presents the head as an objet d’art.”
“It’s really versatile,” says Carmen Haid, of vintage clothing company Atelier-Mayer, who wears turtlenecks throughout the winter in a variety of ways. “Worn with a bold statement necklace, brooch or scarf, it looks smart, à la Nan Kempner, or you can wear [one] in the evening with a full-length skirt and large belt.”
Indeed, the beauty of the turtleneck is that it can be smarter and sexier than any slashed, barely-there gown or low-cut blouse. Case in point: “In 1957, when Marilyn Monroe was filming The Prince and the Showgirl in London, she bought a black John Smedley roll-neck from Berks in Burlington Arcade,” says John Smedley MD Ian Maclean. “Its versatility means you can dress it up or down to suit the occasion.”
For seriously swanky cashmere, ESK offers a “Sophia” roll-neck (£295) “in super fine 100 per cent two-ply cashmere,” says creative director Lorraine Acornley. Similarly, TSE has made a staple out of slim-fit, long-sleeved, turtlenecks in four colours ($425), as well as a newer version with a subtle herringbone stitch detail ($595). Recently launched knitwear brand Rae Feather sells an oversized poncho with a roll-neck and chunky cable knit detail (£150), perfect for layering, and Ann Demeulemeester has an alpaca wool cape (£596), as cosy and all-encompassing as it is chic.
Still, few designers are more associated with the turtleneck than the king of body-consciousness and cling, Azzedine Alaïa. It has been a part of his canon since he fashioned his aesthetic in the 1980s with ultra-fitted, insanely luxe leather and leggings. As author and Alaïa fan Joan Juliet Buck has said, his women stormed on the fashion scene like “highly sexualised versions of Darth Vader” – and although the Alaïa look has become more romantic in recent years, turtlenecks are still key. His autumn 2013 black roll-necked body suit is, for example, essentially balletic underwear. According to Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Browns, “It’s great for layering or – for a bit more ‘va-voom’ – on its own.”