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Why a turtleneck is the most flattering piece of clothing you can wear

It's time to start dressing like you mean it

Why a turtleneck is the most flattering piece of clothing you can wear
03 November 2017

“The turtleneck is the most flattering thing you can wear,” wrote Tom Junod in his seminal GQ feature ‘My Father’s Fashion Tips’, with this rule central to his old man’s philosophy. You can think of Junod as menswear Moses hurtling down Mount Sinai with an armful of merino wool.

The turtleneck is the most flattering thing you can wear. Period. I’ve never said the word ‘period’ out loud before to mean ‘full-stop’ but then I’ve also never seen anyone look bad in a turtleneck. It is simply unfuckwithable. 

“This is axiomatic, inflexible and enduring,” wrote Junod. “This is an article of faith and, as we shall see, the underpinning of a whole system of belief. Mention the word turtleneck to any of my college roommates and they will say ‘the most flattering thing a man can wear’. Mouth the phrase ‘the most flattering thing a man can wear’ and they will say ‘the turtleneck’.”

Michael Douglas in a turtleneck with a suede jacket, 1971 (Rex)

Despite its status as handsome-making maxim being reasonably unassailable, there is an element of fear involved. The turtleneck was out of fashion for so long - the domain solely of pretentious art school wankers and kids in bands nobody listened to - that there remains an element of danger. The turtleneck, by design, is not a subtle thing. It is aggressive in its comfort. It is a garment that looks to strangle you. It is a jumper that looks to consume you, reaching upwards from clavicle to throat to chin. You are in its grip. Nobody accidentally wears a turtleneck. It is a decision.

It’s time to accept that the decision is the right one.

MHL Mélange Wool Rollneck Sweater (Mr. Porter; £155)

(I’ll say here that the nomenclature of the turtleneck is more complex than you thought. The neck bit, yeah, you get that, because it covers your neck, but the difference between a turtleneck, a roll-neck, and a poloneck is marked. For my money, though, it is also negligible. That they all basically refer to the same thing and yet can’t settle on hyphen/no-hyphen leads me to the end of my rope. So let me say right now that I’ll be calling everything a turtleneck today, just for ease, except when it comes to mocknecks, which are both brilliant and coming later, and that if you’d like to pick holes in the fine knit of my wording then you can go to some other comment section, buddy, because I don’t want to hear it.)

You look good in a turtleneck. That is unrelated to your body shape. If you have a neck, you’ll look good in one. Even if you don’t have one, even if the bottom of your face slumps into your chest like a beloved childhood sledding hill, you’ll look good in one. Junod again: “The turtleneck is the most flattering thing a man can wear because it strips a man down to himself - because it forces a man to project himself.”

You are your purest, best self in a turtleneck. You exude class, style, sophistication; you can dress it up or down – with a leather jacket, a denim jacket, a blazer, maybe even a full-on double-breasted affair, if you wanted - and nobody will have to know that you never mastered the double-Windsor. There are weights and styles for every occasion: from chunky, woolly fisherman’s knit to fine gauge knits from the best materials around. There are expensive turtlenecks from Berluti, MHL, and Lanvin and cheaper ones from Uniqlo, Cos, and H&M. There are even some in T-shirt cotton for the temperaturially challenged. There’s something for everyone and, even better, their knack for keeping you warm means you can keep your lighter jackets in rotation for longer, right up until the icicles start to form on your eyelashes, so even you, red-faced boy reading these words, can be a turtlenecked man.

But know this: you will not tamely wear the turtleneck. You will not be shy. Even while they emanate introspective, intellectual charm, they need you to attack it. They say the meek shall inherit the Earth, and that’s fine, but you fucking bet they’ll be in a turtleneck at the exec dinner.

Left: Turtle Neck Jumper in Grey (The Idle Man, £25); Right: Sunspel Roll Neck Jumper in Black (The Idle Man, £85)

One of the worst things you can say about an item of clothing is that the piece is wearing you. That you look like you’re in costume. That you look like the big puffer coat or silly frilly shirt you’re wearing might as well be a TV you’re lugging down the stairs for all its subtlety. But the turtleneck is, perhaps, the exception to the rule. It leads the way: it is, as we say in the business, a strong look. You are immediately The Cool Guy. Even luxe Essex lads flush from cash-in-hand “barely have to lift a finger, mate, if I’m honest” construction jobs with eyebrows cut Hatori Hanso sharp look great in a turtleneck. You watch them, lining the good seats at the next Anthony Joshua fight, hooting along to the national anthem, Corona con lime in their hand and their mate in a headlock… Each one of them looks fantastic. Even Dapper Laughs looked great in one when he dressed up and went on television to say that he was only accidentally making a career off misogyny. 

The turtleneck is the great leveler. While not everyone has the opportunity to be great, now everyone has the opportunity to look like they are.

The turtleneck’s new lease of life came with Drake - the cosiest boy in all and Christendom - and his chunky, over-sized turtleneck with the emo sleeves and beard-enhancing form in the video to the irrepressible ‘Hotline Bling’. But it’s about more than that. More than surface level style-nicking, its influence was about the turtleneck as a shield. It protects, it deflects. Drake’s nakedly lame dancing is protected by his instantly iconic jumper, deflecting your attention back up to his smug, lovable face. 

Drake in the video for ‘Hotline Bling’

Look at him.

But note this: Drake doesn’t have that strong a jawline, but you think he does. The beard frames his face in such a way that it projects strength, solidity. The turtleneck does the same. It isolates the jawline, it frames your face. It says: “Look at me, I’m a goddamn piece of artwork”, even if you’re really just a scribble on a bar napkin. A great gallery is as much about the space as the paintings. Take a Cy Twombly off the wall of the Tate Modern and plop it next to the road, and it’s just some crayon bollocks on a big rectangle sheet. Frame it right, however - literally, you know, with a frame - and it is art. Your face and head are the same: if you isolate, if you focus, if you frame it just right, in enough of a way that shows You Know What You’re Doing, in enough of a way that shows the audience - and in a turtleneck there is always an audience - that you are The Shit, then you are The Shit. Who are they - the cold-necked gaggle - to doubt you?

The tragedy is that 75% of the year, it’s too hot for a turtleneck. Like being drunk, you can’t do it every day. But as night creeps in earlier and earlier, and the mist at your mouth grows into a great grey plume, it is time. The turtleneck is the most flattering thing you can wear, you just have to go out and wear it.

(Main Image: Jeff Goldblum by Dylan Coulter for ShortList)