Mirror, Mirror: For comfort and chic, think turtleneck

Mulberry turtleneck bodysuit by Wolford, $250 at Joan Shepp, with olive raglan cowl-neck sweater by Zoa, $118 at Denim Habit.
Mulberry turtleneck bodysuit by Wolford, $250 at Joan Shepp, with olive raglan cowl-neck sweater by Zoa, $118 at Denim Habit.
Posted: December 07, 2011

Got someplace to go this holiday season? You might want to put on a turtleneck.

Think of the thinly knit cotton or cashmere neck-warmer as this season's can't-live-without layering piece. It'll do more than keep you warm.

In a thoroughly modern, seasonless twist, neutral turtlenecks are turning summer's strapless floral-print maxis into trendy winter weather options.

And jewel-toned solid turtlenecks are key to helping us master the color-blocking trend. Fuchsia turtleneck + red pencil skirt = so-of-the-moment.

Who knew the 2011 version of the turtleneck had such star power?

"The right turtleneck can be edgy," says Sarah Van Aken, owner of Center City women's boutique, SA VA. Van Aken introduced several into her fall and winter collections. They are indispensable underpinnings, she says, for flowing dresses and jumpsuits.

"You can layer them under jackets and cardigans. They give everything a downtown twist," she said.

When turtlenecks aren't adorned with blinking reindeer and wreaths, they can be alluring. What other garment covers the whole bod while seductively outlining it?

A turtleneck with a pair of skinny pants shows everything and nothing at the same time. Happy New Year!

"Turtlenecks give you a silhouette-enhancing look without being overly sexy," said Celia Frank, associate professor of fashion design in the college of design, engineering, and commerce at Philadelphia University. "It's a nice change from the plunging necklines we got so used to."

We say choose a turtleneck in a bold color - bright red, fuchsia, or cobalt blue - to warm up a sheer maxi or a shorter sheath. Blacks, feather grays, and chocolate browns tone down boldly hued slacks, corduroys, or jeans.

And turtlenecks are the perfect undergarment for lacy tops, capelike sweaters, and, of course, the faux fur vest.

Lastly, if you want chic, rock a turtleneck dress - in this rendering, cowl necks are appropriate, too. We are partial to winter white. (There is a great one at Lacoste.) But as a dress, you can kick your color-blocking skills up a notch. Think holiday red. Or keep it simpler - a black dress, red tights, and sparkling clutch.

"Almost any woman can wear the [turtleneck] sweater dress," said Jennifer Robin, a Los Angeles-based personal stylist, image consultant, and author of Growing More Beautiful: An Artful Approach to Personal Style (Artful Press, 2009). "I like them [dresses] with a shorter hemline because it balances out a fuller top."

Men's wardrobe options are much more fitted and preppy. Turtlenecks are working for them, too. Guys are erring on the side of neutral shades.

And while some men aren't afraid to wear a ribbed turtleneck with skinny, flare-leg jeans, the majority of dudes are layering cashmere sweaters under blazers, leather jackets, or cardigans with elbow patches - fashionably old-school.

"Guys are finally getting away from the mock turtleneck and three-button suit," said Baba Taiye Renfrow, managing partner at Distante men's boutique. (Thank God.) "It's a very classy movement underfoot."

Women may dominate turtlenecks now, but the style's origin is Y-chromosomal.

Turtlenecks entered our lexicon in the late 1800s on cold-at-sea seamen. And they were a part of the British athlete's sports uniform, said Philadelphia University's Celia Frank. They were called polos in England and skivvies in Australia.

They emerged in haberdashery in the 1920s when playwright Noël Coward became known for his black turtleneck.

In the 1960s, Audrey Hepburn wore a fitted black turtleneck in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Combined with trousers, it was "rebellious," Frank said.

Turtlenecks became part of the uniform for the artsy (the Beatles) and working girls (Mary Tyler Moore). In the 1980s, Donna Karan turned her turtleneck into a crotch-snapping bodysuit. So sleek. But when the 1990s rolled around, turtlenecks lost their form and their cachet.

Now, after decades of sparkling tanks and deep V's, designers such as BCBG, Diane von Furstenberg, Celine, and Phillip Lim have featured turtlenecks as layering pieces with longer silhouettes and demure looks.

However, before we start rejoicing over the return of the retro piece, Robin cautions us not to be fooled by its ease. Turtlenecks can be misused.

"Women think they can use them to hide their bodies," Robin said. "But it only makes matters worse. Turtlenecks create a sleek and classic look. They are for confident women."

Not to mention perfect for sitting by a toasty fire drinking eggnog.


Mirror, Mirror:

Check out Elizabeth Wellington's "Mirror, Mirror" blog at www.philly.com/style


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.

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