The turtleneck is such an iconic wardrobe staple that it's hard to think of a time when it didn't exist. But just like the women's winter parka,the cardigan, or the blazer, there was indeed a time when the world was sans-turtleneck, and that time wasn't very long ago. Join us as we trace the history of the turtleneck, staring right from the very beginning.
The turtleneck is said to have originated among the fisherman of the Aran Islands, a collection of rocky islands located just off of the western coast of Ireland. The position of the Aran islands in the North Atlantic Ocean made seafaring a decidedly frigid affair, but those hearty Aran fishermen weren't going to allow a little cold to keep them from sailing. Instead, they bundled up and created a number of sweater styles we still know today (ever hear of an Aran sweater?).
The most successful of these was undoubtedly the turtleneck. Those first turtlenecks worn by the Aran fisherman were designed for purely utilitarian purposes, and as such were woven from heavy, dense cloth that could keep a fisherman warm amid a sea squall. But the most important—and identifiable—feature was the signature rolled neck, which is also what gave it the term "roll neck sweater," when the style carried over to Britain.
It was also in Britain—and soon, the United States as well—that the turtleneck cast off its exclusive associations with sailing and was adopted for a wide variety of outdoor activities and sports. In an age before performance fabrics, the coverage that was provided by a turtleneck sweater made it an invaluable article of clothing for newly popular activities like bicycling, hiking and polo.
But just as the turtleneck had found new wearers beyond its original cast of Irish fishermen, the turtleneck craze soon spread to those who weren't doing any physical activity at all. Thanks to the example of dashing 1930's Hollywood movie stars like Errol Flynn, turtlenecks began to be worn with suits and men's sport coats. These turtlenecks had little in common with what those Aran fishermen originally wore: in order to slip under a jacket, these turtlenecks were woven from lighter, finer fabrics like merino wool or cotton. This was the moment in the history of the turtleneck when the garment first began to resemble to version most commonly seen today.
But the turtleneck wasn't done with the sea yet. During WWII, German U-boats posed a great danger to Allied shipping. To combat this threat and keep the vital supply line between the United States and Great Britain open, the Allies waged what became known as The Battle of the North Atlantic. Thousands of American merchant marines were deployed to the same waters trawled by the Aran fisherman a century before, and relied on hearty, military-issue turtlenecks to keep warm as they guarded convoys and swept for mines.
When the war ended, ex-servicemen attending college on the GI Bill continued to wear some of the same clothing they'd been issued in the war on college campuses, including chinos, peacoats, and turtlenecks. Before too long, turtlenecks became a common sight amid college quads, and were adopted by yet another group—the beatniks.
This loose collection of artists, jazz musicians and writers like Jack Kerouac made the turtleneck part of their daily uniform, often pairing it with chinos, desert boots, and the occasional beret. Before long, the turtleneck had become downright counter-cultural.
But once again, Hollywood came knocking. The turtleneck saw a resurgence on-screen and off in the 1960s, as it was worn by Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen and other luminaries of the silver screen.
What's most striking about the history of the turtleneck is the diversity of people and places where it has been worn. From salty Irish fisherman to movie stars, from the naval battles of WWII to Greenwich Village jazz clubs, the turtleneck has never found a time or place where it couldn't warm a few necks and look good doing it.