Giving each person on your holiday shopping list a unique widget they don’t need is sleep. So 2018.
Woke shoppers—people with 2020 vision, that is—Marie Kondo the giving process, honing their offerings down to a single thing that sparks joy in all.
Take a stand against consumer culture. Be the anti-Goop. Offer only one perfect thing, or variations on it, to all you love and admire—maybe even to those you loathe because this one gift is also good for rogues and grifters. Give black turtlenecks… and get them fast because there have been shortages of late!
But slow your roll daddy-o because this is hip shit, the epitome of cool, the rebel’s sartorial yell, the intellectual’s knitted wink, the hepcat’s second skin, the technologist’s model uniform, the artist’s canvas. It is a gift that comes with history.
Turtlenecks were first worn by medieval knights in the 15th century under their armor to prevent chafing. For centuries thereafter, they remained purely practical garments. Athletes wore turtlenecks in the 1800s, most notably polo players, and that’s when they started getting the attention they never demand but have ever since commanded.
By the early 20th century, female college students in the States were taken with the “sportswear,” donning turtlenecks off the playing fields. In 1924, British playwright Noel Coward initiated a turtleneck craze for fellows as well. By 1925, a column in the Cincinnati Enquirer declared, “There has always been a certain air of toughness about the turtleneck when worn by women.”
In post-World War II Paris, the turtleneck continued its ascent. Singer and turtleneck icon Juliette Gréco in 1946 co-founded the Paris club Le Tabou, which became famous for existentialist philosophy and jazz. And every self-respecting existentialist and jazz musician, including Simone DeBeauvoir and Miles Davis, signaled their hipness with this ebony knit. It was appropriately severe for a city in mourning, rebuilding, a harsh dark stroke marking the end of a terrible time, yet blank, a space to be filled with creativity.
In 1953, the actress Marilyn Monroe posed for Life magazine in a black turtleneck sweater. The garment was now unquestionably a star, not just smart but also glamorous.
Yet two decades later, in 1973, activist and icon Angela Davis is photographed in a black turtleneck and an Afro, cementing the sweater’s reputation as the fighter’s friend as well.
Then, in the 1980s, a technologist named Steve Jobs co-founded Apple and undermined this reputation somewhat. He was so obsessed with back turtlenecks, he made them his uniform, ordering hundreds of them from his favorite designer Issey Miyake. Jobs’ choice inspired copycats, like disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who adopted the same uniform decades later (it did not ensure the success of her products but did ring bells with investors).
Yet the item has steadfastly refused to be typecast. In 2017, Colin Kaepernick was named citizen of the year by GQ and appeared on the magazine cover sporting an Afro and black turtleneck reminiscent of Angela Davis’s Black Panthers look. This year, the fake heiress Anna Delvey, tried and convicted for swindling New York high society, sported a black turtleneck in court.
Moral of the story? This is a garment so glorious, its reputation only grows as its wearers come and go, rise and fall, are born and die, roam free and get locked up. The knit remains immortal and ever liberated, open to appropriation by and reinterpretation by whomever you may choose to give it to. And you can bestow it upon anyone.
The black turtleneck is a Zen master of fashion. Beyond time or type, this is an item that has transcended conventions. It is the empty vessel that overflows. The silent statement that speaks volumes.
It contains everything and its opposite. Dramatic yet plain, monastic yet sexy, unto itself but amenable to adornment, the black turtleneck draws attention to the wearer but tells the observer who controls the show. “Look at my face,” it says. “Don’t look at me. I don’t care.”
This is a flexible garment that molds like clay, shaping to whatever you need it to be—fresh as a bamboo, it bends to you. Like a redwood, it is ancient but remains forever young. It’s a no-fuss total piece that reeks of pretension. An undergarment that comes with overwhelming references.
If ever there was one item that embodies both art and utility, body and mind, yin and yang, a perfect thing anyone can get behind, it is this, a deceptively simple knit so complex and powerful it has spawned literary and visual odes.
For the black turtleneck was woke long before most of us were born. It’s not gendered and can be worn by anyone of any age for an astounding number of occasions, day or night. Or, as writer Nora Ephron put it, “I just bring a black turtleneck sweater everywhere—it’s the greatest purchase of my life. Period.”