Turtlenecks have been praised as one of the more figure flattering shirts by Frank Hoffmann and William Bailey’s book “Fashion & Merchandising Fads,” as they can emphasize the face and elongate the torso. A versatile top, turtlenecks can be worn for business under a blazer or dress shirt or more casually over a pair of jeans. Dressier versions of the top use more luxurious threads and complicated knitted patterns, while sportier versions use high-performance materials.
Traditionally the turtleneck is made from jersey -- a single-gauge knit fabric that is stretchy enough to allow the garment to be pulled over the head.The material can be made from many fibers, from fine silk to chunky wool, though one of the most common for the top is cotton. Contemporary turtlenecks that hit the runway come in many pattern and styles, including ribbed, lace, butterfly and the popular cable. Additionally, high-end labels often twist and turn the pattern of the knit, combining it with novelty yarns, leather and furs to achieve the appropriate fashion-forward look.
Originally a staple in 1920s menswear, the classic turtleneck has naval roots, as it was worn as part of the naval uniform and also by longshoremen. Traditionally, the garment is a close fitting knit top with a tall collar that comes up, and sometimes surpasses, the chin. This collar can be folded or scrunched down. The top became unisex in the late 1950s to early 1960s, as it was commonly associated with the beatnik movement. Since then, it has been worn for both fashion and winter sports, as athletic varieties use performance knits that wick the sweat away from the body.
Another turtleneck style with men’s wear roots is the mock neck, similar in style to the classic turtleneck but with a shorter collar. The appeal of this shirt is that it has the look of the classic turtleneck without the bulk around the neck that results from folding the long neck part down. With a sleeker silhouette, the garment usually fits closer to the neck and body, making it perfect for fine gauge knits. Due to its snug fit, the mock turtleneck is also popular for winter performance apparel.
In dressmaking terms, a cowl is an extra piece of fabric that drapes across the front or back neckline, falling across the chest or down the middle of the back. Combining the look with a turtleneck produces a softer version of the top that has a wider, funnel shaped collar. Because the cowl drapes away from the neck, it can exposed more of the neck than other turtleneck styles do. Thus, it is one of the more feminine of the silhouettes, and it can be taken easily from day to evening wear according to Brigitte Nioche in the book “Dress to Impress: How to Look & Feel Your Best Every Day.”