How polonecks became power players

The high-neck sweater has evolved from layering staple into a statement in its own right, says Maria Fitzpatrick

Succession’s Shiv Roy is the new champion of polonecks
Succession’s Shiv Roy is the new champion of polonecks | Image: HBO Sky Atlantic

For such an unassuming garment, the poloneck has had a heck of a ride in the past century. More remarkable still, given the roll call of poets and philosophers, artists, intellectual icons and Left Bank bohemians who have made it their sartorial totem, is that “doing a Steve Jobs” is the pop-culture reference that stuck. But lately it’s come up against a worthy challenger in the shape of Succession. “Doing a Shiv Roy”, anyone?

Givenchy viscose turtleneck, €790
Givenchy viscose turtleneck, €790

It may not be a level playing field: Jobs carved out his signature look all for himself – with a little help from Issey Miyake – while Shiv, played by the actress Sarah Snook in the compelling tragicomedy about the ruthless power struggle at the top of a family business empire, has all the dramatic advantage of a clever script, plentiful plot twists and a wardrobe department’s careful characterisation to play off. But there’s no denying that the fictional(ish) media mogul’s daughter – made-over for her ascension to a seat at the big table with luxurious pieces by The Row, Stella McCartney, Armani and MaxMara – has given women’s polonecks a shot in the arm, taking them from “basics” to ballsy with a flick of that angular bob.

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Should we be giving polonecks a promotion? The collections certainly seem to think so, with brands from Gucci to Givenchy creating power-hungry designs that practically demand it.

Loewe cashmere sweater, £1,350
Loewe cashmere sweater, £1,350

Succession’s costume designer, industry veteran Michelle Matland, who has worked on productions from The Talented Mr Ripley to The Girl on the Train, didn’t see the craze coming – or at least not from her. “I couldn’t be more shocked,” she says of the interest that has developed around the characters’ wardrobes, and Shiv’s in particular. “It’s not Sex and the City; the clothes for this show were meant to be entirely secondary, almost incidental. The characters are designed and driven by their history, their motivations, their foibles rather than their wardrobes, and we made an effort not to identify the clothing by label or make statements about fashion. It wasn’t about ‘placing’ designers in there, rather about putting the characters in the clothes they would choose for themselves. But because the budget of the Roy family is endless, we had a lot of leverage,” she laughs.

Bottega Veneta wool dress, £2,095
Bottega Veneta wool dress, £2,095

Shiv’s stealth-luxe rollnecks were originally included as a foil for the tailored separates and suiting. But then they started to tell a story of their own. “This is a tasteful woman who has found her individuality,” says Matland. “She has to establish herself as equal to her brothers, but at the same time set herself apart from them. Turtlenecks with high-waisted pants is an extremely classic look for generations of women making their way in a man’s world, but for her to wear it in a mainstream business context… that made it armour. We found we could enhance Sarah’s hourglass figure, her essential femininity, with these body-clinging turtleneck knits without it being in your face. It’s very sexy, very strong, but she shows no flesh, so she doesn’t diminish herself in any way. It’s the anti-plunging neckline of our time.”

Wolford Colorado bodysuit, £160, from net‑a‑porter.com
Wolford Colorado bodysuit, £160, from net‑a‑porter.com

Polonecks will play a key role in Net-a-Porter’s new “wardrobe wellness” edit, launching in January, which is about extending the life and relevance of pieces around the seasons. Elizabeth von der Goltz, the retailer’s global buying director, who wears one “almost every single day”, believes the power poloneck’s moment has long been on the cards. “Raf [Simons] started some of this at Calvin Klein, with those bold-coloured turtlenecks, and it has been building since. It’s partly to do with the elevation in power dressing – the suit coming back and being worn with real conviction, with a sharper shoulder, and women looking for the right partner for it,” she says. “We’re seeing endless variations in knit, jersey, cotton plissé and silk appearing… and it’s evolving all the time. We’re getting dressier ‘evening turtlenecks’ – and more sleeveless styles, extending their wearability.”

Victoria Beckham sheer poloneck, £695
Victoria Beckham sheer poloneck, £695

As the spring runways make a big nod to the ’90s, American sportswear and layering, the polo is powering ahead. Wolford’s fitted rollnecks are flying high, with the Colorado bodysuit shifting in the thousands this year. Von der Goltz also recommends Bottega Veneta, for superfine knit rollnecks “in great seasonal colours”; Victoria Beckham “obviously”; and The Row – a languid sleeveless silk-organza version, the Mora, has been one of this season’s bestsellers.

Christopher Kane Multi Chain turtleneck, £995
Christopher Kane Multi Chain turtleneck, £995

The Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hearst wears her turtleneck like a uniform – and sells more of them than pretty much any other piece of clothing. “I wear it with a leather skirt, and my husband calls it my spy look. It makes you feel secure at any age – and makes you look ready for action,” says Hearst, speaking to me on hands-free while doing the school run, somewhat underlining her point. She has sensed a real upshift in demand. “In New York, I can really feel the transition from women wanting to dress like they could be the boss to dressing as the woman who has already arrived,” she says. “I’m always thinking about armour; if this is the boss, what does she need? I get really fired up thinking about that.”

Gucci silk-blend rollneck, £670, from matchesfashion.com
Gucci silk-blend rollneck, £670, from matchesfashion.com

Of course, high necks have history as a status symbol: think Elizabethan England, where the size of one’s ruff spoke volumes. But there’s more to it than a decorative ego boost. The earliest turtlenecks were worn, long before polo players got a look in, by knights to stop their chainmail chafing – and there are echoes today. “A turtleneck is a shield, in a sense,” says von der Goltz. “Emphasising one of the most vulnerable parts of my body by covering it makes me feel stronger and bolder.”

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It’s a twist on this, in one episode of Succession, that turns the plain poloneck into a scene stealer. Shiv is wearing a sharply tailored, padded-shouldered sleeveless coat over her jumper. Then, minus the coat, she nonchalantly works the room until the angle shifts, revealing that her back is completely bare.

“It was a game,” says Matland. “It’s so classic at the front, you think you know what you’re looking at, but something is hidden.” No prizes for guessing at the symbolism of that one. The design in question was a wool and cashmere Betty turtleneck dress by Gabriela Hearst that formed part of her 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize-winning collection. “I’ll have to think about revisiting that piece,” Hearst says. “It has a real sense of the modern woman – she’s strong but unafraid to show her sensuality.”

Many of the new high-impact polonecks are using cutaways for an element of difference. Loewe has a chunky cashmere mock turtleneck in cream, with faux-pearl embellishments crowning the throat – and an open back; and Louis Vuitton has taken a scalpel to the shoulders of its new cashmere, wool and silk turtleneck, in black or rose, creating a dramatic draping effect on the sleeves that segues right into one of spring’s biggest trends. Jacquemus has a soft-blue sleeveless cutaway-front knit rollneck for spring, and Bottega Veneta takes the game further, slashing away the breastplate of turtleneck jumpers and dresses, so that only the neck appears to be under a high collar – a collar that can be flipped back, giving the pieces an optional open neckline.

Gucci, meanwhile, weaves subtle lamé accents through its slender red-and-blue silk-blend mélange rib knit, for a hint of glamour, while Christopher Kane’s black Resort rollneck has an unexpected edge – literally: lifting the arms reveals chain-like fringing under the sleeves.

Ultimately, the poloneck still stands for a rejection of the norms – especially prescribed formality. “If you’re comfortable, you’re relaxed,” says Hearst, “and that means you’re more confident.” Job done. 

Succession will return to Sky Atlantic and Now TV in 2020.

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