I’ve been wearing high neck tops regularly since I was a pre-teen, initially for sports and then simply because I found them comfortable and flexible as smart-casual wear. I inherited the first two from my mother who adversely enough dislikes them to a similar degree to which I love them. Hence in this guide I will try my best to outline both the positive and negative aspects of this surprisingly divisive and seemingly simple piece of clothing but will openly and honestly say that the high neck top is my go-to item.
High collars come on many garments be them tops, shirts, waistcoats or jackets e.g. Mandarin or Nehru styles but in modern Western culture they are most often associated with the ‘roll-neck’ though that in itself can be confusing. High necked clothing doesn’t have to roll, some have a collar high enough to be worn scrunched or rolled over and some are designed with just enough fabric to stand up and cover part of the neck.
The terms ‘turtle neck’ and ‘polo neck’ used to refer to the extent which collars with more fabric could be rolled i.e. turtle necks were apparently rolled down a few times to cover part of the neck and polo necks were folded once to cover the neck fully. The term ‘roll neck’ is a fusion of the two meaning either style.
WHAT IS IT EXACTLY?
One type of clothing, many names.
US: Turtle Neck
UK: Polo Neck.
All refer to what is basically a top with any length sleeves or sleeveless and most importantly a collar which covers at least part of the neck and is not sewn on separately such as on shirts/blouses.
It can be confusing to understand what a person means when they use any of the above terms because of culture differences e.g. in the UK the ‘turtle neck’ refers to a top usually of short sleeves, with a rounded and defined neckline that sits close to the base of the neck usually covering the collar bones but not always (known as a ‘crew neck’ too). OR in the US the term ‘polo neck’ could be mistaken for ‘polo shirt’ which is an item of apparel associated with people who play the sport polo. Those shirts have made their way into many schools as part of Physical Education uniforms as well. The Australian and New Zealand term ‘skivvy’ is probably most appropriate because ‘skivvy’ is also a common term for underwear or under garments in general and the top was and is still commonly worn for layering against the weather and was often worn by manual labourers, athletes and sailors.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY NAMES FOR ONE PIECE OF CLOTHING?
It’s like ‘pants’ and ‘trousers’ or ‘sneakers’ and ‘trainers’, with nuances in language, geographical boundaries and new generations names change and mean different things. However it seems that we’ve reached a consensus and the term ‘roll-neck’ or ‘rollneck’ (à la the New York Times) has become the interchangeable overall term for the garment which includes any sub-types and makes defining those sub-types unnecessary. I think using a general term like that is helpful (though I personally prefer ‘high neck’) as defining what is essentially a basic and functional piece of clothing to its minute detail is pedantic unless part of a discussion between garment designers/manufacturers… Or fashion bloggers explaining their role in history 😉
SMART IN BOTH LOOKS AND BRAINS?
In the earlier part of the last century high necked tops were adopted from the working class by famous creative thespian types such as Noel Coward and Andy Warhol and hence made popular in fashionable circles full of raconteurs. Later on in the century they had filtered down to the less glittery but still artistic and thoughtful ‘poetry house/café crowd’. Either way they most oft adorned the bodies of those considered intellectual, deep and broody, creative or those self proclaimed as such and thought of as smart mouths and bums/street philosophers to many.
DOES THAT MAKE THEM ELITIST?
As a bastion of pride that one clings on to for the sake of honour and one’s own kind for the lower working class whose item the high neck top was a staple part of, it being stolen by those who didn’t need it so much and wore it fashionably could have been wounding. Those with pretensions above their given station in life may have found it helpful as a transitional and trendy piece which they could afford yet wear amongst those who didn’t need to think about the price of their clothes so much. Those who could afford to wear it more for form than function and didn’t need to bow to social trends so much may have seen it as quaint until normalized into their circles.
In all those ways this item of clothing has been seen as elitist whether it was by class or education but the high neck top has been around from at least the 15th century and without detailed research and perhaps time travel I couldn’t say exactly what it meant to different people or if it had any significance at all up until the 20th century. It’s interesting that it has polarized popular opinion so much in recent times and has been seen as elitist by many and yet the opposite is also true for many who’ve actually worn and loved them.
High neck tops have become unisex and were made so by people seeking to forward women’s position in society through the feminist waves in the early to mid 20th century. That in itself was a huge anti-elitist point coming after the worldwide history of women having to wear skirts and dresses no matter what the terrain, weather conditions or activity and those flouting convention having received mass backlash both as humans and as cultural/religious members. Once they had taken that step items such as high neck tops and fedoras were to follow. Then the film Annie Hall (1977) really broke the boundaries and catapulted menswear towards women and the title character was notably played by Diane Keaton who of course is known for being very dapper.
Another arena in which high neck tops play an anti-elitist role is in the workplace, specifically offices. Most adults are acquainted with business suits whether for work or special gatherings dealing with the ownership and belonging of people such as ceremonies connected to birth, death and marriage. Suits are sometimes known as ‘stiff’ (particularly those associated with the latter occasions) and thought of as uncomfortable with images of choking stiff collars (some detachable), braces, cummerbunds, ties/bowties, suspenders, cufflinks, possibly detachable cuffs, tie pins and other accessories coming to mind. Some of those items are required social paraphernalia and whilst some have been dispensed with altogether in modern times, such as the shirt bib, high neck tops offer an alternative to getting so dressed up whilst remaining smart or a freedom from the mounting feeling of constriction. Whilst I personally think that there’s few things better than a well cut and tailored/customized suit for making you feel smart, confident, strong and making you look sleek and elegant – it can be too much, particularly in warm weather or if the event is semi-casual/formal. In the early stages of the garment’s popularity wearing them as part of visible formal wear was seen as defiant, as a form of individuality, making a stand against the shirt and tie combo and what it represented to those who rebuked the whippersnappers and dissenters daring to do different.
Such a simple item of clothing, yet so controversial!
Back to practical matters, to the modern person considering wearing a high neck top a major aspect of interest is comfort. How comfortable are they, really?
Unfortunately there is also debate around this point and sometimes pretty heated debate at that. Many people who dislike high neck tops on principle do so because they view them as uncomfortable, as itchy, as tight or something that would cause them to fidget. My mother for example hates high neck tops and anything with a collar in general, it doesn’t help that she also dislikes full length sleeves on tops so this item of clothing really isn’t for her. She isn’t the only one and people I’ve queried in the past that fall into her camp of disliking them on principle tend to be those who don’t like things covering their neck. Whether the sensitivity stems from the skin itself, the feeling of being restricted or the idea of being restricted it’s unlikely that they would change their minds as the dislike is a little too personal.
Then there are those who believe the above characteristics and generally stay away from the tops but are open to changing their minds if they see them worn in a way they are impressed with or can relate to such as on a catwalk or on someone they know. It is for those and people who already like high neck tops that the quality of comfort can be pragmatically addressed in terms of fabrics and lengths.
We’ve moved on from the days of itchy, scratchy undergarments and clothes that immediately touch our skin. Our variety of fabrics has increased and high neck tops come in everything from cotton to stretchy mesh, woven to unwoven, knitted to netting. Many are soft, smooth and stretchy which are nice for everyday wear and depending on the fabric, breathable. Some are rugged, heavy and chunky for colder weather. Then there’s the type associated with athletes e.g. leotards, unitards and separates worn in various sports from athletics to gymnastics to swimming. It was actually through gymnastics that I first experienced wearing high necks (worn with shorts) and once I stopped in my teens I cut the leotards into tops so as not to waste them because by then I’d thought of them as an asset for coverage, layering and comfort. I found they gave a feeling of both safety and warmth underneath my school uniform and were like tights/hose but for the upper body instead. They also didn’t scrunch or upset the upper layers so I never had to adjust or wriggle around whilst wearing them. It turned out that it was lucky to cut them into tops because shortly after it became increasingly difficult to find lycra leotards in women’s underwear/shapewear shops and the only places they were available in were sports stores within a considerably higher price bracket.
The comfort of layering is different for different people but it is possible, especially with the advent of internet shopping, to find high neck tops that you will feel comfortable in.
We’ve discussed the history and covered the basic elements of what makes a high neck top and how they can be used/worn, but there’s also the subjective element of taste and the fashions brought about by different preferences. In short, style darling.
Sleek silhouette – this is in my opinion is ultimately the look that high neck tops help create. They smoothen the body shape and give an almost all-in-one flow between the upper and lower body whether wearing a skirt or trousers, for everybody regardless of sex or gender. Instead of the body being cut in half by a loose top or shirt the length is preserved more with a high neck top and the effect is one of sleekness. When combined with classic Black the illusion of length and slenderness is intensified even when worn with a belt. Those two qualities may not be particularly desired by the wearer though and the effect varies per person but it is noticeable so if you don’t want to look like a stereotypical cat burglar nor perhaps too thin or elongated but still want the sleek effect you can always opt for classic White (including any of the Whitish shades) 🙂
Sweater girl – the above effect can be seductive and that led to a phase in US history which is currently being re-played by many worldwide and is known as the ‘sweater girl’. It’s all about contours. When a tight fitting or figure hugging high neck top is worn the silhouette can be accentuated where the fabric being a second skin is suggestive and perhaps flirty. Originally the sweater girl was not an overtly sexual image but that quickly changed. This phase in fashion’s circular history is usually accompanied with short button up cardigans and boleros/shrugs and commonly with soft fabrics which help add to the ‘cute yet appropriate’ or ‘cute and wanting to touch’ effect. Many men have caught on to this style too, wearing high necked tops to show off their physique particularly if they have developed musculature with trim waists.
Tight or loose necked tops – tighter necked looks smarter when made of a thinner fabric rather than thick fabric which can make it look like the wearer is being strangled. High neck tops with loose necks tend to be of thicker fabric to allow for layering underneath but when loose necks are combined with thin fabrics it’s usually so that the neck isn’t folded over but left to sit/fall in a wavy/curvy shape giving an informal appearance.
Even cowl neck tops (uh-oh another one – cowl necks are tops with very loose/draped collars that usually sit below the collar bones and sometimes sitting on the very edge of the shoulders) can be pulled up and pinned behind the neck for a high neck look and then released back to their original style when/if necessary.
Preppy – this term means a lot of things to different people. In my opinion it generally means smartly/well dressed in an ode to school uniform and involves visible layering. Most wearers tend to be students and young adults as older adults with the same dress sense tend to be thought of as product of the ‘old boy’s network’. ‘Preppy’ is similar to ‘dapper’ as both sets of subscribers have a level of regimentation and uniform rules historically ascribed to them by their class and even though both have shed those shackles to an extent by opening the doors (or having them pushed open) to the lower classes and doing away with the dependency on a high budget, ‘dapper’ allows more personal flair and ‘preppy’ is more associated with being conservatively appropriate.
How do high neck tops fit into this? Well again it’s about freedom of movement and preference, no matter how much people want to fit into groups or feel obligated they still need to know they have some say and when high neck tops became socially acceptable for the original dapper and preppy folk and their elders they became a way of showing that people could still look smart and formal without so many frills, it was the difference between old and new. Additionally since layering is important to looking preppy (think tank tops and sweater sets) the high neck top fits right in and they can substitute for scarves if not too cold or sit underneath them if necessary.
Underwear and sportswear as overwear – I remember seeing an awards show either in the late eighties or early nineties where I was surprised to see actresses wearing slips as dresses and that marked the end for many in the modern Western world to petticoats, dress slips and underwear layers in general for everyday purposes. That renaissance had already come and gone for high neck tops by then but the extent to which they would push the boundaries of underwear to overwear hadn’t stalled.
Where hemlines apparently mark a pattern in economic prosperity (shorter being for highs in prosperity and longer for lows) thankfully we don’t have to wait until we feel financially broke or flushed to change the length of our tops. The traditional high neck top is approximately hip length but can be shorter or longer. The ascension of the cropped/’crop top’ (also seen as a training bra) in the 80’s alongside the development and obsession with gym wear pushed high neck tops to a whole new level. They again went from the sports and under/shapewear domain to being fashionable attire (akin to leggings…) So rather than being a type of functional wear it became fashionable to bear ones midriff, a trend we saw make a comeback last year, but not always to bear one’s neck and perhaps not arms either. Before the fusion of jazz, house/trance and hip hop dance styles into modern street dance it was typical, or an unspoken convention of many dancers to wear Black pants (loose or fitted) with cropped high neck Black tops (also of course associated with ballet), dance sneakers and sometimes a hat and/or gloves to look cool, be comfortable and highlight the edgy/blocky nature of their moves. That cool coverage whilst showing the figure appealed to many in the public and so many ‘fashionistas’ bought into cropped high neck tops as overwear.
The reverse is also true for length where high neck tops can be longer than hip length, sometimes much longer and can border on being a dress.
Note – I’ve used the term ‘overwear’ rather than ‘outerwear’ because the latter pertains to top layers such as jackets and coats.
TIPS FOR WEARING
HELPFUL FOR –
1) Covering double necks or multiple chins,
2) Covering anything in the neck area such as scars
3) High neck tops create a distinct cut off point/line between the upper body and the face hence highlighting the face shape which is complimentary for those with transitional or mixed facial types. For example those who have a face shape that’s in between being square and rectangular or a mix of two very different shapes such as rounded and heart shaped, a high neck top provides definition.
NOT HELPFUL FOR –
1) On the flipside of no: 3 above, people with distinctly angular faces or very prominent cheek bones may find that high neck tops make them look gaunt, particularly if wearing one a dark colour.
2) People who are sensitive to coverage on their necks.
As you can see from the collage below I’ve worn high neck tops in a multitude of outfits and styles so they are very versatile but that said there are a few double edged points that it’s best to bear in mind. Fabric choice is important, as depending on that and their fit high neck tops can make you appear thinner or bigger. Some will hold you in at places such as the waist, gut and upper arms but some will enhance those places so pay attention to the nature of the fabric (how tight fitting or stretchy) and the sizing when you buy. The same applies to textures such as ribbed or wide braided. To adjust this effect:
1) Buy the next size up to help overall and/or tuck it under trousers/skirts.
If you can’t or really don’t want to tuck it in, belts can help.
2) For the waist – if you have an hourglass figure or normally slim waist a wide belt can help.
3) For the gut – a low slung/loosely worn hip style belt can help.
4) For slender people in particular – either shorter or longer than hip length high neck tops are complimentary and…
5) On longer length versions a slim width belt worn between the natural waist and hips can widen the look of the body a bit and cuts the top into two parts which are fairly wide helping the overall illusion.
6) High neck tops with long sleeves can be worn with accessories such as statement necklaces and cuffs to give them a dressy look or bracelets and rings for a ‘boho’ look.
7) High necks in thinner fabrics with the neck folded once and that stay in shape without falling can give the impression of a longer neck.
8) Thicker fabrics and fabrics that fall in waves (unless sewed at the sides in ruched style) can give the impression of a wider neck.