On their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a sage group of poet-philosophers from Staten Island known collectively as the Wu-Tang Clan insisted that one must always “protect ya neck.” The meaning of this phrase is open to interpretation, but from a sartorial perspective, the best way to protect one’s neck is with a high-neck shirt or sweater. For centuries, humans have extended the hem of their neckline above the collarbone to provide warmth and protection, and sometimes even for style purposes alone.
Turtle, Roll, and Mock
The many varieties of high-neck garments are traditionally broken down into three categories: turtleneck, roll neck, and mock neck. A turtleneck — or polo neck, as it is sometimes known in the UK — is the most common variety of high-necked garment. The neck hem is extended for 6 to 8 inches and then folded over at least once so that the top of the garment sits just below the jawline. Turtlenecks come in knitted forms like sweaters and jersey garments such as sweatshirts and longsleeve tees. Both varieties come in all manner of thicknesses and fabrics.
A roll neck is, quite literally, when the neck is rolled so that it sits an inch or two below the jawline. These high-neck shirts must be knitted by design. A knitting technique known as purling is used to create a curled effect in the fabric so that it will never straighten out no matter how often it is worn and washed. In fact, as the knitted yarns tighten with age, the curled effect will strengthen. This effect cannot be duplicated with woven fabrics.
A mock neck or mock-turtleneck, is one layer of fabric that sits at or near the jawline. It does not fold or roll. There is a range in which the neckline can sit and still be considered a mock neck. Some mock necks will only go an inch or so above the neckline and appear more like a very wide collar. Others will be the same length as a turtleneck and sit at the jawline, just not rolled over. Most often, however, mock necks sit just about at the Adam’s Apple in a man’s neck.
High-neck tops date back to the middle ages when men wore garments that extended up their neck to protect them from their own armor. Whether you were a knight in a full suit of armor or a foot soldier with just a breastplate, you were susceptible to a lot of chafing and pinching if you didn’t protect your neck. From there, various high-necked garments were worn by the aristocracy of Europe to indicate that they were the knighted class. While these styles evolved over the centuries, they bore little resemblance to the high-neck shirts of today.
insert archive image of mid-1800s turtleneck
You have to go to the mid-1800s in order to find any examples that look anything like modern turtleneck sweaters. Heavy wool sweaters with large, thick turtleneck necklines were worn by sailors to keep them warm and dry. These high-necks were very much workwear as they were first adopted by fisherman, longshoremen, and other working-class men of the sea. Their effectiveness did not go unnoticed and by the late 1800s, turtleneck sweaters were standard issue in most navies, including both the British and Americans. As navy-issued garments began to creep into civilian fashion after both World Wars, these navy turtlenecks made their way inland as common cold weather garb.
The Ivy Take
The reason folded over high-neck shirts are called polo necks in the UK is, as you may suspect, they were worn as polo uniforms starting in the mid-1800s. While their nautical brethren were bulky and woven from wool, British civilian polo necks were much thinner and usually knitted from cotton. As with so many other preppy garments, these lightweight high-neck shirts made their way from the upper-class playing fields into popular fashion by way of prep schools and university campuses. English playwright Noel Coward is credited with sparking a polo neck craze in the 1920s. Bright-colored turtlenecks have been a feature of prep and ivy fashion ever since.
Polo necks also became a part of female gender nonconformity style in the 1920s. As women began to wear men’s clothing in rebellion against sexist social norms, lightweight polo necks or turtlenecks became a favored garment of the revolution. This same spirit was revitalized in the 1960s and 1970s, as iconically demonstrated by Diane Keaton in Interiors and Annie Hall.
James Bond and 1960s Style
Turtleneck and mock neck sweaters entered the world of high fashion in the 1960s. French designer Yves Saint Laurent popularized a thin wool turtleneck that was form-fitting and had a neck that hugged the jawline. It was a turtleneck you could wear with a suit or blazer. The style initially came in black but soon fanned out into a range of muted colors like grays and earth tones.
Rock stars on both sides of the Atlantic also started wearing high fashion high-necks during the late 1960s, pushing the style further into pop culture. Menswear icons like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, and Michael Caine made turtlenecks unquestionably cool. However, it was a certain fictional British spy who did more to immortalize the high-fashion turtleneck than anyone else.
James Bond wore slim-fit turtlenecks as a tactile measure in both the films and the novels. Ian Flemming, author of the Bond novels, chose to outfit his protagonist in dark turtlenecks because they were worn by real-life British secret service agents during WWII. The iconic Bond turtleneck, best exemplified by Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, has been copied by everyone from Austin Powers to Archer.
The varieties of high-neck shirts available in menswear have been pretty steady since the 1970s. The popularity of certain styles has waxed and waned over the decades since. Cotton turtlenecks in bolder colors were popular in the 1990s. Roll neck sweaters with a matching rolled cuff and hem had a moment in the late 1990s and early 200s. Form-fitting knit turtlenecks, often made of thin merino wool, became a part of the suiting renaissance of the late 2000s and early 2010s.
The one constant that has remained cool through all those trends into today is a chunky nautical-inspired high-neck sweater. These beefy wool knits come in all three neck varieties and feature everything from ornate cable knit patterns to single rolled cuffs. It seems like a common occurrence in fashion that the original variety of a garment is the variety that has the strongest staying power. While so many successors of the heavy wool sweaters worn by 19th-century sailors have come and gone, the original sea-faring jumpers are inspiring so many menswear designers right now.
Makers of high-quality high-neck sweaters include: