What Actually Happens When You Put On A Black Turtleneck

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If you are the kind of person who wears mostly black, and if you have ever tried to add pieces to your wardrobe by rummaging through the color-sorted racks of a thrift store, then you have probably at one point or another felt like you might never find hidden fashion treasures. In fancier boutiques, where the lighting is designed by a professional and each item is lovingly displayed on its own plush hanger, black clothes look regal, sturdy, distinctive — like pieces of the architecture that you can take home. But in a resale store (or even a big-box store, where everything has been smushed together on overstuffed shelves by a bored salesgirl who can’t wait for her next Snapchat break), the inky sea of black clothing is a nightmare. Every item on the rack looks the same, so it's nearly impossible to laser in on any one piece that works. The only way out is by picking through. You must deep-dive into a pile of onyx if you want to return from the depths with something great. And that effort is why all of my most prized pieces tend to come in black: I had to dig for them, through rubble, with my bare hands.

One such deep dive into the secondhand abyss changed my life — I know, I know, the term “changed my life” when applied to clothes is something that is usually tossed off in blasé quotes by actresses talking about how liberating it was to finally wear boyfriend jeans. But in this case, I fully mean this: This one item of clothing changed my life.

Here’s the story: Three years ago, knee-deep in witchy garments in a Beacon’s Closet in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I felt a black, wisp-thin Jil Sander turtleneck, so delicate and soft that I almost missed it. It was made of the kind of springy lycra-spandex that shrinks up so small that it is difficult to imagine it fitting one’s arm, let alone the entire torso of a grown woman. It looked like it might have been a misplaced American Girl doll accessory. I laughed when I first saw it, thinking it was perhaps one of those chic baby pieces that Alexander Wang designed for his toddler niece. But checking the size (and then googling it — European size 40, what the hell are you in American?), I saw that it was somehow supposed to stretch to accommodate my body. I felt like it offered me a challenge I could not refuse. So it came with me to the dressing room.

Every time I look at this absurdly tiny turtleneck, I still don’t know how they (either Jil Sander or Raf Simons — I don't know who was responsible) did it — how this flimsy piece of black material can make me feel more glamorous than anything I’ve ever owned. Because it fits like someone poured it onto my body. It fits like I had it made. It fits like I always dreamed a turtleneck would fit: no gapping, no bunching, nothing but a seamless casing of sleek fabric that hugs every inch of my top half. It holds all the curves, and then smooths them out. It makes me feel almost bionic.

During the cold months, I wear the turtleneck almost every day (unless it is at the laundromat, when I actively miss it like a long-lost child and think about all the adventures we will have together when it gets back). When it got chilly enough last week for me to pull it out again from its sacred space in my closet, I welcomed it back into my life with a yawp of glee, like one of those dogs on YouTube welcoming home a soldier with ecstatic, sloppy kisses.

This turtleneck is my north star, the end of my quest, my excalibur. True, I got it at an insane discount ($1,200 for the original, and I paid $60. Shop consignment forever, I guess?), but its continuing power over me is more than just the afterglow of an epic steal. Finding the Jil Sander piece was the crowning moment of a decade-long hunt for the perfect black turtleneck, a hunt that has led me across the globe and through at least 20 different contenders before I found the one. I have been obsessed with black turtlenecks ever since I started wearing them in college. I did this the way most sophomores studying art history who want to be taken seriously in seminars do: awkwardly, with a faint air of desperation — until I realized that what started out as a costume was feeling more and more like an expression of my best self. I found that when I wore a black turtleneck, I always felt more powerful, more seductive, more clever.

In my experience, a black turtleneck is simply the best thing a girl can wear when the weather turns. Turtleneck skeptics, hear me out on this.

Black turtlenecks are often derided as cliché, as the chosen uniform of the try-hard. This reputation dates back to the late 1950s and early '60s, when the beats took what was historically a sporting and military undergarment and turned it into a cultural signifier of urbane sophistication, topped off with a fey little beret and a dangling cigarette. Around the same time, the poets and jazz flautists and their hangers-on began to wear turtlenecks en masse, and the press began to criticize the “bohemian” underground scene, mocking a subculture that prided itself on affected intellectual superiority.

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In essence, the first campaign against turtlenecks was the first campaign against hipsters, city snobs, and pretentious wannabes. The rise of the turtleneck and the jokes about it happened almost simultaneously: In 1957, when a gamine Audrey Hepburn danced around in Funny Face in a black high-necked top and horn-rimmed glasses — the scene was meant to be taken as satire. Greenwich Village got as much style flak in the ‘50s as Bushwick or The Mission or Silverlake does now: Poseurs lived there, said the snide comments, and they all loved turtlenecks.

But what starts with hipsters often goes mass-market soon enough, and after the beatnik turtle-wave came the mainstream one — the same way crop tops and mom jeans spread from deep Brooklyn to mid-Manhattan last year in a mighty ripple. Throughout the '60s, businessmen started to wear turtlenecks, pairing them with suits (we have Yves Saint Laurent to thank for this). Turtlenecks hit the big-time. They were worn by movie stars and used-car dealers alike. A New York Times journalist wrote in 1967 that “the turtleneck is as inescapable in Manhattan as air pollution, and the longtime turtleneck wearer feels he is just as conformist as the shirt-and-tie man.”

But just as fads swing from the edges to the middle, the edges always find a way to reclaim them, in fashion’s endless ebb and flow. After going garden-variety, turtlenecks found their way to the margins again. Second-wave feminists started wearing them as a way to harness powerful androgyny; they also became an essential part of the Black Panther uniform. Black turtlenecks, first the domain of snooty avant-gardes, then the must-have outfit for basic businessdudes trying to radiate hipness, suddenly became radical. And today, I think that’s where they remain. It is defiantly uncool to wear turtlenecks with any regularity (even as they start trending on the runways). Turtlenecks can never totally brush off that first media smear campaign, which said you must be either an affected artiste or a groupie thereof (or, depending on the fit, a Midwestern pre-school teacher) to even try the look. But of course, being defiantly uncool is where most iconic style begins. You have to fight all the cultural weight that comes with the black turtleneck and force yourself to wiggle into one.
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Because let’s talk about what happens to you when you finally put one on: Your head becomes a sculpture. Once you emerge through that tube of fabric, you start to resemble a marble bust — your skull and all its features are on display, like the diamonds plopped on top of black velvet in the Van Cleef windows. Suddenly, you will pass yourself in mirrors and think, Wow, my hair looks on point today. Or: Dang, I have fully mastered the art of the cat-eye flick. Someone should give me my own line at MAC; I am on fire right now. I promise you that when this happens, you will have done nothing differently that day except put on a black turtleneck. It makes you realize how beautiful your face is, because it’s so out there, floating atop your shoulders for the world to appraise.

You will want to take many selfies. This is encouraged. (If you do, tag them #blackturtlelife and send them to me.)

Photo: David Cairns/Getty Images.
Here’s what else happens when you wear a black turtleneck: You feel connected to the past. You are now part of a long lineage of female black-turtleneck wearers. Audrey Hepburn, sure. But also: Joan Didion on a long reporting trip. Sharon Stone in her most stone-cold-killer years. Hillary Clinton in the dress that made America first take notice of her. Princess Diana with a fresh face and fresh dreams that she could change things. Gloria Steinem marching on. Brigitte Bardot with her plaintive, irresistible pout. Angela Davis holding court in a room full of rapt women. Francoise Hardy epitomizing impossible French cool. Marilyn Monroe reading Dostoevsky and desperately hoping the world would see her as more of a brain than a blonde.

Yes, men still wear them, and they mostly continue to look like goofs. Steve Jobs had his way with the look many times over. I remember cringing when Joey on Friends would wear them — same with Jerry Seinfeld. (Was NBC in cahoots with the turtleneck lobby?) But pay these men no mind; they are not your dreamy fashion icons. They are not the ones you need to look to every time you pull your slender black armor over your head and pretend to be the effortlessly elegant Parisienne that you may one day still become if you play your cards right.

The black turtleneck is a very personal garment; it hugs you, and it puts all your angles on display. It makes you get comfortable with your bust (the turtleneck is nothing if not a breast showcase, but don’t let having a chest deter you — turtlenecks are for living!), your waistline, your jawline, whatever you are working with. It makes you confront your exact dimensions and then create outfits inspired by them, like building a skyscraper with a deep foundation. Black turtlenecks make you face your body and make your body all about your face. I love my Jil Sander turtleneck with a wildness that keeps me coming back to it, the kind of love we only have for the things that most make us love ourselves, the kind of love we save for the things that make our bodies feel most like homes.