By Noelle Mering
Whenever I don’t know what to wear I put on a black turtleneck. There are four of them in my closet currently: an oversized cashmere, a fitted ribbed version, a simple and inexpensive cotton, and a balloon sleeved sweater. A turtleneck sweater dress and a lace turtleneck blouse are in there somewhere too so I guess that makes six. (This is getting embarrassing.)
The turtleneck is iconic as much as any humble garment can be. Dating back to medieval times, Catholic knights used turtlenecks to prevent skin chafing from chainmail. What we might think of as a minor neck irritation could actually be a death sentence if it prevented a knight from moving his head quickly in the heat of battle.
Worn as part of a polo player’s uniform in the 18th century, it took on the name of “polo neck,” which is still a common name in England and some remnants of the British Empire.
But it was the mid-twentieth century when it really took hold of our American imaginations. From beatniks to directors and radical professors eschewing the shirt and tie and opting instead for turtlenecks under their sports coats, the garment can connote an insufferable pretension, but having been ubiquitous long enough, such associations are mostly sloughed off. While Audrey Hepburn might have donned one in Funny Face as a nod to the beatnik uniform, it became connected to her personal style as well. On her the turtleneck served its greatest purpose: to simply and elegantly showcase the woman.
My personal preference for the turtleneck has been constant, but with time and age I increasingly find it’s also just a practical choice. For a while I kept wondering why I looked tired more frequently until one day I realized, “Oh! This is just aging.” While other shirts accentuate that unfortunate new reality by pulling my features down, turtlenecks can have the opposite effect.
The simplicity of form has other positive benefits as well. Once in conversation someone pronounced to me, “You have a small face.” I don’t think it was a compliment, but it helped me make sense of why I could never pull off large patterns or oversized shirts. A turtleneck can be oversized, but it always funnels into a narrow little cap on top: perfect for those of us whose faces are on the diminutive end of the spectrum.
As Catholic women we are called to represent our internal dignity in how we present ourselves. Style and fashion might tend toward frivolity or vanity in the grand scheme of things, but we’re composites of body and soul and what we’re wearing can inform others about who we are and what we’re about. It’s never a good look to be chasing our youth either via young trends or too revealing clothing. At some point a woman must know what works on her and stick with versions of that look. While that will vary from one to the next, understated elegance is always a good look.