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, a simple and inexpensive cotton, and a balloon sleeved sweater version. A turtleneck sweater dress and a lace turtleneck blouse are hanging around in there too so I guess that makes six. (This is getting embarrassing.)
The turtleneck is iconic as much as any garment can be. It first came about in medieval times. Catholic knights used it to prevent skin chafing from chainmail. What we might think of as a minor irritation could actually be a death sentence because it prevented a knight from moving his head quickly in the heat of battle.
In the 18th century, it took on the name of “polo neck,” which is still common in England and some remnants of the British Empire because it was worn as part of the polo players’ uniforms.
Turtlenecks became perhaps most associated in our imaginations with the mid-twentieth century. From beatniks to directors and radical professors eschewing the shirt and tie and opting for a turtleneck under their sports coats, it can be associated with an insufferable pretension, but having been ubiquitous long enough, such associations are mostly sloughed off (at least for female wearers). While Audrey Hepburn might have donned one in Funny Face as a nod to the beatnik uniform, it became connected to her personal style off screen as well as on. 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 more and more often I 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 called 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 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 those whose faces are on the diminutive end of the spectrum.
Catholic women are called to be dignified and that includes our clothing. 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 your 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 and elegant are always good guidelines.