When you think of a white turtleneck, you might picture a man with a thick handlebar mustache, his turtleneck layered with gold chains. Or your mom, at Christmastime, who wears one under a reindeer sweater. Or Princess Leia, or the Jetsons, or Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct.
A white turtleneck is all of these things — but it’s also so much more: It’s the most important piece in my wardrobe right now, and it’s surely one that needs to be in yours as well. It’s surprisingly subversive, both totally normal and avant-garde. It’s purity, it’s protection, it’s a refusal to give into anybody else’s demands.
When Prince called for us to get through “this thing called life,” he did so in a white turtleneck, which, of course, also had ruffles. (And is, let’s face it, easier to incorporate into a wardrobe than assless pants.) And as further proof that a white turtleneck is the only answer, he keeps coming back to it throughout the years: In the mid-’90s when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, the white turtleneck reappeared in satin; later, it came with his own likeness airbrushed on the chest.
“Sometimes I run, sometimes I hide,” Britney Spears sang at the end of the last millennium, wearing a cropped white turtleneck. She demonstrated the range of emotions she experienced as a liberated woman, even though in the end all she wanted was to hold her man tight. The question of whether women can have it all is moot. The white turtleneck makes it moot. She is demure, sure, and yet, the white turtleneck is the perfect vehicle to show off her new (alleged at the time, but come on) boob job.
Perhaps no one makes a stronger case for the white turtleneck than its patron saint, Diane Keaton, who probably has a clause in her contract that demands she wear one in every movie. Is there any scene more liberating than when she sings “You Don’t Own Me” alongside Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn in a white suit and matching turtleneck? There is not. Diane’s always been the “smart woman’s actress” in a way, both in the roles she chooses and the way she appears in everyday life, and she figured out early on that the white turtleneck is the most emblematic piece to convey that message. We would be idiots not to learn from the lessons she’s tried to teach us.
Am I crazy, maybe you are thinking, or is it the black turtleneck that is an instant passport to sophistication? Wrong. The black turtleneck is a cliché. The black turtleneck is an inspirational quote on Pinterest, a teenager with a poster of Audrey Hepburn, a college boy reading Camus at a café while wearing a beret. The black turtleneck is a Gap commercial where everyone dances in a long-forgotten style from the past. The black turtleneck desperately tried to hold on for relevance. “A BLACK TURTLENECK IS FOREVER!” someone yells. But they’re mistaken. The black turtleneck is already in the past.
And so the white turtleneck takes over. It becomes our present. It makes its way to your body and my body and the bodies of women everywhere. Phoebe Philo at Céline declares them the height of modernity and soon everyone else follows suit. A couple last season, a couple this season and a couple next season, and soon, we will not escape it. But why would we try? We will welcome the future, the future that we live in now, wearing the clothes that protect us, the clothes that we always knew we would be wearing, the clothes that look so ineffably cool.
It is the white turtleneck that will take us to the moon, to another Earth when we use up this one, or to Williamsburg for brunch. The white turtleneck will never leave us. Kanye has already outfitted Kim with one, and you know Kanye is always right. The black turtleneck is dead. Long live the white turtleneck.