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What are Turtlenecks?

By Devon Pryor
Updated May 21, 2024
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Turtlenecks are a style of shirt with a long collar that extends up to cover the neck. The shirt gets its name for this collar, which can be elongated or drawn back, like the neck of a turtle. The collar of the most common style of turtleneck is close fitting, and long enough that it is usually folded down over itself, forming a double layer around the neck of the wearer. However, there are a number of similar styles of shirts with varying collars that are also considered turtlenecks.

One variant of the turtleneck is the polo neck shirt. This style is common in sportswear, and is characterized by a collar that, similar to a true turtleneck, extends up to cover the neck closely. The collars of polo neck shirts, however, only cover part of the neck, and are sewn at the base of the collar so that the collar cannot be extended.

Other styles of turtlenecks may be made of a cable-knit material, in which case the neck often rolls down, creating a unique look. Some turtlenecks are not worn folded over, but rather scrunched down around the neck. The cowl neck is similar to a turtleneck in that it has a long, extending collar. Cowl neck tops have collars that are over sized, and do not fit tight around the neck, but rather fold down onto the bodice of the shirt. Nevertheless, a cowl neck is sometimes called a cowl turtleneck top.

The most common style of turtleneck is a long sleeved shirt in jersey material. The turtleneck may also appear in the form of turtleneck dresses, turtleneck sweaters, and turtleneck tops with short sleeves. One particularly unique variation of the turtleneck is the turtleneck shrug. Like a regular shrug, this clothing item has sleeves and a bodice piece that covers the top half of the back and across the shoulders. What gives the turtleneck shrug its name is the addition of a turtleneck collar. Turtleneck shrugs can be a great way to add warmth to an outfit without covering up the bodice of the shirt worn below.

Turtlenecks first became fashionable in the 1920’s when a well-known British actor, Noel Coward, was seen wearing them. Women involved in the feminist movements of this era wore turtlenecks as a statement about equality, thus changing turtlenecks from a man’s clothing item into a unisex clothing item. Turtlenecks were, perhaps, most popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They were a staple of the beatnik fashion, and were worn by both men and women during this time. Toward the end of the 20th century and on into the 21st century, the turtleneck has morphed into more of a women’s fashion. Yet, it is still seen in men’s clothing, particularly in men’s sweaters. Turtlenecks also have somewhat of a reputation as a preppy clothing item, and as one worn by intellectual types.

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