Ode to the Turtleneck

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It’s one of the first places to show your age, and one of the hardest to lift, peel, de-sag. We’re talking about the neck. It is the pillar on which rests the noble head, girded by gold or precious stones. It is the home of the throat and a shelter for daubed perfume. It is an erogenous zone where noses nuzzle, lips linger and hickies bloom like obscene hothouse flowers. The neck is powerful. And clothing designed to showcase it is equally potent, perhaps none so much so as the turtleneck.

Young people wearing bulky sweaters.  (Photo by Pierre Boulat//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

 

The high-collared sweater is a staple of most people’s wardrobes, men and women alike. Its perennial popularity stems from its close-fitting, uncluttered lines, as well as its promise of warmth — an especially welcome feature for those of us about to enter a savage Canadian winter. But for the aging baby boomer, the turtleneck has emerged as one of life’s essentials, as important as ginseng and weekly colonics. And all because the turtleneck conceals.

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No wonder a senior style-setter like Kate Hepburn was never seen without it. The turtleneck flatters and rejuvenates — no knives, no pills, just a simple roll of cloth. It also sexes you up. Witness Sharon Stone who wore a sleeveless Gap pullover to the Oscars in 1996. Out of the funnel came a goddess.

 

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But it wasn’t always a shortcut to vanity. The turtleneck’s origins are on the contrary, prosaic. Historians identify 1860 as the year of the turtleneck’s quiet birth on the brackish fields of England. It was exclusively a man’s garment. Members of the shooting class wore turtlenecks to hunt. Sitting close to the body, with a tubular collar that kept the chill from the bone, the turtleneck was a discreet undergarment, stylish only by association with the gentry, who wore it strictly under wraps.

Noel Coward, the jaunty, ironic playwright and composer, himself of the manor-born, was the first to lend the turtleneck its cachet as a fashion item. Coward subversively pulled the turtle from out of its shell in the 1920s. He wore it defiantly on its own, under a jacket. No top shirt to lend it respectability. Hollywood actors Clark Gable and Robert Coleman soon adopted this roguish look, and turned the turtleneck into the epitome of glam.

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Never one to let boys have all the fun, designer Coco Chanel was determined to give her women clients the sense of freedom in clothes enjoyed by men. She threw out the bustle, streamlined the silhouette and gradually, over six decades in fashion, appropriated several items from the male wardrobe for her haute couture. Among them was the turtleneck, the new badge of androgynous chic. Chanel paired it with natty suits and decorated it with her trademark ropes of pearls. She made the turtleneck proper. But screen siren Marlene Dietrich, who adopted the turtleneck as part of her femme-fatale uniform in the 1930s, made it dangerous by pairing it with a black beret and dangling cigarette.

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With women of high style now wearing it, the turtleneck became a fashion icon. You could almost measure morality by it. What had begun as something practical had morphed into an emblem of iconoclasm. When you wore it, you exuded attitude: You were a loner, a freethinker, one who walked on the wild side.

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No wonder the existentialists of post-war Paris adopted the turtleneck as their uniform. And the colour, of course, was black. Aspiring Jean-Paul Sartres everywhere took note.

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The beats in New York took the look and made it ubiquitous in the smokey cafes and jazz bars of bohemian Greenwich Village. William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and father figure to several chemically dependant generations since his authorial debut in the 1950s, wore the black turtleneck through to the end of his days in the 1990s. It was a symbol of rebellion.

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Beatniks, or weekend hippies who wanted to flirt with the danger-beat poets like Burroughs represented, appropriated the turtleneck. And like all outre trends absorbed by the masses, they made it safe. Worse, they made it cute.

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The new darling status was personified by an ingenue named Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 film Funny Face. She paired the black turtleneck with black capris and ballet slippers. By softening the existentialist edge, she made the black turtleneck look effortlessly elegant. Coco Chanel must have been proud. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar paired it with cocktail skirts and pencil-thin trousers. Manufacturers, responding to the demand, made them fast and cheap, while high-minded designers lent them an air of luxury with costly fabrics like cashmere and silk. Rich or poor, no closet was without one. Marilyn Monroe wore hers with jeans and heels. The Beatles, meanwhile, paired theirs with long hair for their North American debut record, Meet The Beatles. The black turtleneck was sexy, cool, glamourous, proletarian — a sweater for all seasons, and reasons.

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Its standing as a democratic item of clothing continues. On the catwalks of Europe, in the shopping malls of the globalized world, the black turtleneck rules. It is poised for winter but just as ready for spring, where designers like Miuccia Prada are forecasting its return paired with smart pretty skirts and strappy sandals. This is doubtless good news for boomers. If you’ve got to girdle your neck anyway, how comforting to know that it is in service of high style.

Rock of Rocks: Canadian Author Mines The Big One

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Having written a book on the Hope diamond, Toronto author Marian Fowler can assure you that the rock is not cursed.

The stone of stones has brought her the promise of a Hollywood screenplay and, at $350,000, the biggest advance of her seven-book career — “So, no, I’m not big on the curse.”

The malevolent side of the gem unearthed in India some time between 40,000 BC and 1660 AD is as famous as its beauty, Fowler says in her book,  Hope, Adventures of a Diamond (Random House Canada): “Some of its owners suffered astonishingly bad luck: one died a very slow, horribly painful death; another, quite literally, lost his head; a third lost a young son to a car accident, a daughter to suicide and a husband to an insane asylum.”

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Known as “the Blue Diamond of the French Crown,” the diamond was whisked to England after a farcical jewel heist during the Revolution. Resurfacing in 1812, it was coveted by British aristocrat Henry Philip Hope, who gave it its name.

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Washington hostess Evalyn Walsh McLean later wore it, as did her dog. But it was jeweller Harry Winston, who purchased the diamond from her estate in 1949, who propelled it to celebrity status.

A master of public relations, Winston urged his press agents to create an air of mystique around the Star of the East. He thought the tales of death and destruction complete bunk, but he loved the buzz.

Fowler, who graduated from the University of Toronto’s PhD program in 1952, did her dissertation on courtship conventions in Jane Austen. Her 1989 book, Blenheim: Biography of a Palace, was a precursor to this one: “It was a biography in which the house was the main character and so I felt having cut on my teeth on a house, I could take a new challenge and take on a cold and tiny inanimate object.”

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In a Gilded Cage, a book published in 1993 about American heiresses who married English lords, was nominated for a Governor-General’s Award.
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The Way She Looks Tonight: Five Women of Style, published in 1996, profiled Marlene Dietrich, Jacqueline Kennedy, Empress Eugenie of France, actress Elinor Glyn and Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, to illustrate her observation that apparel, “however old or dowdy or nondescript, always, to borrow fashion jargon, makes a statement.” Clothes, she concluded, “give a visual aspect to consciousness itself.”

In Hope, Fowler broadens the thematic focus of that last book to include jewellery, which she believes also mirrors the character and social role of the wearer. “The bigger the rock, the bigger the bank account,” she observes.

“A diamond’s allure is that it costs so much, and because of that it is a significant symbol of how much money a person has. People who buy big jewels want them to be outward signs their wealth. It’s vulgar, vulgar, vulgar.”

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Fowler collects vintage costume jewellery herself. At home, she has piles of rhinestones and big Forties pins: “It’s all fake.”

Right now, she is wearing a faux Hope diamond brooch she found in the gift shop of the Smithsonian Institution, where the real diamond sparkles on display.

“I had written half the book before I went to see it,” she confesses. “I was afraid that I’d be disappointed. I had built a picture of it in my imagination after having been with it for so long. I was afraid I would see only a small piece of coloured glass.”

But instead she was mesmerized. “It truly was magical. It hypnotized me. I am a big nature buff. I have a special relationship with trees and birds, and maybe to me such an incredible piece of the natural world represents the raw energy of creation.”

Despite having fallen in love with the subject of her book, Fowler has no plans to buy a real diamond. “I like to spend my extra money on travelling.”

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But once she did have one. Married for 23 years to a medical doctor, she got rid of the piece of marital glitter after the divorce.

“It was a diamond ring from Birks and I went back for a full refund.”

So what does that say about her?

“I needed the cash.”