Never trust a turtleneck. They’re elitist and they’re always trying to cover something up. They were first worn underneath chainmail to protect knights, who were in turn trying to protect the monarchy, who wore their own form of turtlenecks: stiff-starched ruffles all the way up to their chins. The higher the ruffles, the higher their status. What were the kings hiding? Imposter syndrome. Skin conditions.
A white turtleneck evokes a Kennedy squinting in the sunlight, balancing on his feet between two yachts. A black turtleneck summons Audrey Hepburn’s face, blooming like a lily from an austere stem. Or Steve Jobs, his salt-and-pepper smugness, who used the turtleneck as marketing tactic, a sartorial signal to the world not to bother him with mundane tasks, his mind teeming as it was with horizontal swipes and other rounded-edge preoccupations.
Although the turtleneck is secretly an exhibitionist, it’s outwardly modest and horrified at the prospect of appearing hungry for attention. There’s a reason why it’s equally likely to be found in the wardrobes of writers hanging out at bohemian coffeehouses and graduates of New England prep schools; it’s a shirt that practices doublespeak, conveying a superficial humility that secretly means, I’m sure I’m better than you.
And yet I am also jealous of the turtleneck, the same way I’m jealous of a girl I went to college with who gave a speech at a public ceremony that involved drolly reading aloud an insult someone had left about her on social media: “That girl acts like she’s Gwyneth Paltrow.” I’d never thought of the girl as Gwyneth Paltrow before, but now the association was seeded in all her classmates’ minds. She’d brushed the soil over it so lightly we never noticed what she was doing.
As you may have guessed by now, I cannot wear a turtleneck, though not because I am confused about how to put on clothes. I don’t like it when the contours of my body are mistaken for a character trait, and the silhouette of a classic turtleneck is close-cut to make people think about the parts of you they can’t see. The last time I tried one on, I felt scared inside that cotton tunnel which seemed to stretch on forever overhead, only pinpricks of light coming through the changing-room ceiling. It was positively claustrophobic, being trapped inside that shirt with my own frazzled hair and hot breath. I’ve never understood how people settle on which parts of themselves they’re comfortable revealing.