How the turtleneck became a symbol of power

Was there ever a more emboldening garment?

Woman in turtleneck.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Deagreez/iStock)

The turtleneck has long been a symbol of subversion and appropriated power for women. From a turtleneck-clad Jo Stockton jumping into a beatnik dance in a smoky bar in Funny Face, to Shiv Roy's "I will destroy you" turtlenecks on Succession, this garment, which was originally sported primarily by men, has allowed women to inhabit male-coded traits of self-sufficiency and swaggering authority.

Originally a memento of football days, the turtleneck began as a Letterman sweater back in the late 1800s, when male college athletes in elite schools like Dartmouth and Princeton wore it to represent their teams. By the 1920s, women were dabbling in the look, to the chagrin of fashion columnists like Mary Marshall, who in 1925 complained that the turtleneck, when worn by women, gave off "a certain air of toughness."

Indeed, in the decades that followed, the turtleneck became a counterculture fringe piece worn to signify a woman's nonconformity to traditional feminized gender roles. Silver screen stars like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn wore turtlenecks among other traditionally boyish attire. The jersey turtleneck was adopted in the '40s when women had increased wartime responsibilities, then became a staple for the counterculture intellectual in the '50s, and eventually morphed into resistance wear for the women who marched in the civil rights and feminist movements in the '60s, a time when social standards were changing, and women were borrowing from men's closets with abandon.

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"At this time, women were taking pants from men; they were taking pant suits and shorts. And they completely co-opted the button down," Deirdre Clemente, a historian of 20th-century American fashion, told The Week. "In the late 1950s so many women across so many different fronts of society pushed the boundaries enough to the point where women in the 1960s could wear a sweater that 50 years before was only worn by a rich man in Harvard. It's co-opting and taking something that society wants to be able to say who can and can't wear."

For women's rights activists, the turtleneck became a poignant representation of control over one's own body. Because it covered so much of the chest and neck, it created a visual void. "You avoid the viewer's gaze," Clemente explained. "In a way, it denied men access to their bodies. Feminists wearing them isn't surprising; the message that they were delivering was that we have something more to say than the visual elements of the female body. The female body isn't the main focus of who we are."

But while the turtleneck of the '60s masculinized women, it simultaneously had the opposite effect on men. Because it was so form-fitting, it was seen to give them a feminized nature.

"Men could be softer in a turtleneck sweater," Jonathan Walford, fashion historian and curatorial director of the Fashion History Museum, told The Week, adding that artsy, academic, and gay men were closely associated with the look. In the 1960s, men began to wear turtlenecks with blazers, forgoing the classic collar and tie, which also helped to distance them from heteronormative masculinity. The turtleneck became non-conforming, anti-establishment ... and absolutely outrageous.

"It drove social critics crazy that men were wearing hip-hugger pants and tighter fitting clothes," Clemente said. "It really wrangled the establishment that men were wearing unisex clothing."

In a way, the turtleneck became a sort of neutral, unisex garment, sitting in the middle of the gendered clothing spectrum. When worn by women, it represented control over one's body. But when worn by men, it was seen as emasculating. "The idea of a man putting on a tight turtleneck and his girlfriend maybe wearing the same thing, it was upsetting in society," Clemente said. "It called into question fundamental aesthetics that were associated so strongly with gender."

Of course, women were seen as being partly to blame for this disruption. "While winning equal opportunities for themselves, women have inadvertently freed men from their inhibitions about the way they dress," The Associated Press wrote in 1967. "As women begin to look like and in a sense become men, the men, freed of the responsibility or running things ... become more flamboyant."

These days, the turtleneck has become a go-to no-nonsense uniform for those who want to be taken seriously.

Famously, Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck uniform since the 1990s. Infamously, Elizabeth Holmes, the now-indicted CEO of defunct health technology company Theranos, did the same as part of her effort to project an image of power and determination. "All my focus is on the work," she told Glamour in 2015. "I take it so seriously; I'm sure that translates into how I dress."

Public figures who have run into trouble with the law or public opinion have also donned turtlenecks, perhaps as a cloak of armor and control. Lori Loughlin wore a turtleneck to court for her role in the college admissions scandal; now-incarcerated lawyer Michael Cohen wore one while speaking on CNN as he tried to distance himself from President Trump. Ivanka Trump wore a black turtleneck in the 2017 meeting on workforce development where Chancellor Angela Merkel infamously gave her side-eye; Jordyn Woods wore a black turtleneck when she broke her silence on the Tristan Thompson scandal.

And of course, Succession's Shiv Roy frequently sports a turtleneck in her more combative scenes. As Emilia Petrarca wrote at The Cut, "Shiv Roy's turtleneck with destroy you." Long may the turtleneck reign.

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