How the black turtleneck came to represent creative genius


Written by Digby Warde-Aldam

This text was revealed in partnership with Artsy, the worldwide platform for locating and amassing artwork. The unique article will be seen here. The opinions expressed on this commentary are solely these of the creator.

When the disgraced well being entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes was indicted on fraud fees for her lab-testing firm Theranos in 2018, a lot of the media dialogue rested not on her alleged company recklessness and staggering abuses of belief, however on her sartorial selections: black jackets, black slacks, and — most significantly — black turtlenecks.

“I most likely have 150 of those,” she mentioned of them again in Glamour magazine in 2015. “(It is) my uniform. It makes it straightforward, as a result of on daily basis you placed on the identical factor and do not have to consider it — one much less factor in your life.” Holmes’s statements would in the end come again to chunk her, summing up her checkered enterprise profession in microcosm: type over substance, picture projection over integrity.

Steve Jobs has lengthy been related to turtlenecks. Credit score: Justin Sullivan/Getty Photographs North America/Getty Photographs


Trivial because it appears, that element appeared to make clear her character. In line with one former worker, Holmes’s style in sweaters was a aware channeling of the late Apple supremo Steve Jobs, who was not often pictured with out one of many many black Issey Miyake turtlenecks he owned. His maverick status was related together with his trusty wardrobe staple, his black turtlenecks projecting a cool mind and normal unfussiness. They advised that he was a unique type of businessman — a “visionary” who didn’t play by the boardroom guidelines. Had he dressed like Invoice Gates or Jeff Bezos, would we actually bear in mind him as something aside from an uncommonly shrewd CEO?

There’s an apparent query right here: How did a fundamental merchandise of clothes come to build up such lofty signifiers? The reply lies in its very simplicity. The turtleneck’s attraction rests largely on what it isn’t: It makes the basic shirt-and-tie mixture look priggish and the T-shirt seem formless and slobbish, hitting that in any other case inaccessible candy spot between formality and insouciance. It’s sufficiently good to be worn below a go well with jacket, but informal and comfy sufficient for repeated on a regular basis put on.

Audrey Hepburn pictured on the terrace of the Restaurant Hammetschwand at the summit of the Bürgenstock, Switzerland.

Audrey Hepburn pictured on the terrace of the Restaurant Hammetschwand on the summit of the Bürgenstock, Switzerland. Credit score: Graphic Home/Archive Images/Getty Photographs

Developed within the late nineteenth century as a sensible garment for polo gamers (therefore the British title for it: the “polo neck”), it was initially a utilitarian design largely worn by sportsmen, laborers, sailors and troopers. However by the daybreak of the twentieth century, European proto-bohemians have been already seeing potentialities within the garment’s elegant performance, which chimed harmoniously with embryonic modernist design beliefs.


A lot of the credit score for the turtleneck’s subsequent reputation will be attributed to British playwright Noël Coward, who usually sported one for a interval in his Nineteen Twenties heyday. Although he mentioned his adoption of the garment was primarily for causes of consolation, it grew to become a trademark that instantly advised a disdain for conference. In any case, it caught on, in no small half because of its risqué potentialities. The tirelessly androgynous actress Marlene Dietrich relished the turtleneck, pairing one with a dishevelled, masculine go well with and a realizing grin in an early Nineteen Thirties publicity {photograph}. Author Evelyn Waugh, in the meantime, believed it to be “most handy for lechery as a result of it dispenses with all unromantic devices like studs and ties.”

German actress Marlene Dietrich, pictured here in 1971, continued to wear black turtlenecks in later life.

German actress Marlene Dietrich, pictured right here in 1971, continued to put on black turtlenecks in later life. Credit score: George Stroud/Hulton Archive/Getty Photographs


However the turtleneck’s second of true glory didn’t arrive till the top of World Conflict II, when the post-occupation cultural renaissance of Paris made it essential for aspirant existentialists the world over. The garment grew to become related to the glamorous writers, artists, musicians, and movie stars related to the town: Juliette Greco, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel and Miles Davis, to call just a few. Audrey Hepburn notably co-opted the look within the Paris-set 1957 Fred Astaire automobile “Humorous Face,” and the place Hepburn went, different Hollywood stars adopted.

Extra importantly nonetheless, the French associations — moody, stylish, deeply severe — earned the turtleneck an underground credibility within the US within the Nineteen Fifties. Over the subsequent twenty years, everybody from Lou Reed and Joan Didion to Eldridge Cleaver and Gloria Steinem was pictured sporting one. Bob Dylan was not often seen with out one in his so-called “Electrical Interval” of 1965-1966. That very same decade, Andy Warhol adopted the black turtleneck as his signature look, pairing it with shades and a floppy wig. It was arguably the best makeover in artwork historical past; his pre-fame apparel consisted of preppy fits and ties.

Fashions, nevertheless, will all the time lend themselves to parody, and with that, an undignified slide into the gutter. The Nineteen Seventies noticed the turtleneck worn in a variety of garishly shiny colours that killed any phantasm of cool that it might need beforehand bestowed on its wearer — take Leonardo DiCaprio’s wardrobe in final 12 months’s “As soon as Upon a Time in Hollywood,” for example — and, what’s extra, the usual black variant got here to be seen as a laughable emblem of pretension within the years that adopted. Within the 1997 film “Tomorrow By no means Dies,” Jonathan Pryce’s character, a Murdoch-like media mogul, sports activities a black turtleneck in virtually each scene; the look stands in for his hubris, megalomania and deadly overestimation of his mental skills. Presumably, Elizabeth Holmes was not paying consideration.

But the turtleneck was all the time too helpful, too sensible, too cool, to ever be consigned to the dustbin of historical past. If doubtful, have a look at these basic monochrome images of the Velvet Underground, or Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” (1968), or Angela Davis in full-on radical garb circa 1969. The checklist might go on.

A brief historical past of the style present


However as a devotee of the turtleneck, my favourite picture of the garment will all the time be the earliest depiction of it I am conscious of. Painted in 1898, when he was simply 26, the German artist Bernhard Pankok’s greatest self-portrait captures himself from simply above waist-level, framed in opposition to the window of a merely embellished room. His wild hair, wispy mustache and expression of supreme confidence look backwards to the younger Rembrandt, however the art-historical homage is skewed by the tight-fitting black turtleneck he sports activities.

In each compositional and sartorial senses, Pankok’s selection of clothes foregoes the extraneous frippery of the period’s fashions — shirt collar, jacket, necktie — and leaves us to ponder the necessities of the portray and its topic’s options. Lengthy earlier than the remainder of the world had caught on, oblivious to the pop-cultural connotations this singularly sensible merchandise of clothes would purchase, Pankok distilled the essence of modernity right into a single picture. He presents himself as a person of the twentieth century earlier than the actual fact and, with out realizing it, one for the twenty first, too.


This text was initially revealed in October 2019.

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