The History of the Roll Neck Sweater

SANVT Journal

Couch and Netflix all set up, room is warm and cosy, friends are about to come over. Roll neck sweater on. Casual but not too casual. Sophisticated and elegant. The roll neck sweater, also known as the turtleneck or polo neck, can be worn formally or for that stay at home vibe. All the while… pure comfort.

For such a minimalist item, the roll neck sweater has a surprisingly varied history. It might seem like just another garment, but it has an adventurous timeline. From its origins as a functional garment for fishermen and sailors to its transformation into a rebellious and feminist statement, the roll neck sweater has captivated the fashion world. 

Still, it’s fair to say that even now, it’s worn for its functionality, so it’s no surprise that it has become a wardrobe essential. We’re taking a journey through time and exploring the history of one iconic piece of clothing:

  • 5th - 19th century: utilitarian origin
  • 1920s: rise to fashion prominence
  • 1950s - 1960s: iconic & rebellious
  • 1970s - now: enduring popularity.

5th - 19th century: Utilitarian Origin

As with many statement pieces today, the roll neck sweater emerged as a practical garment. It can be traced back to mediaeval Europe, worn by knights to protect them from rashes caused by their armour. Fast forward to the early 19th century, the roll neck sweater was regularly worn by labourers, athletes, the Navy, fishermen, and sailors. 

Its high neck design offered protection from harsh weather conditions at sea, as well as insulation and warmth, making them indispensable for those working in cold climates. In the mid-19th century around 1860, they gained popularity in the sporting world. Polo players adopted them while playing and thus the term “polo neck” became well-acquainted.

1920s: Rise to Fashion Prominence

The garment continued to be popularly worn for its protective features in harsh conditions during the First World War. Then in the post-war years, it underwent a transformation. It was initially worn as a humble everyday garment, before making its way towards the sophisticated end of the spectrum. At this point, the roll neck became a statement piece, worn to reject formal attire.

A surprising mention for popularising the sweater to the masses goes to playwright Noël Coward. One evening in 1924, he was allegedly credited in a major newspaper for starting a colourful high-neck jumper trend, which he wore to replace the shirt and tie. But even Coward blithely admitted that he favoured the garment “more for comfort than for effect”.

1940s - 1970s: Iconic & Rebellious

These three decades witnessed the roll neck sweater's ascendancy to iconic status.

This was the time it began to roll into how we see the garment today. It became closely associated with beatniks and artists, symbolising rebellion and intellectualism. The beatniks, who wanted to reject social norms, played a big part in popularising the sweater. It represented a break from conventional fashion norms and appealed to those seeking a distinctive and sophisticated look. Figures like Audrey Hepburn and Steve McQueen helped solidify its place in popular culture through their on-screen appearances and singular style. The roll neck became associated with academics, film stars, philosophers, artists, and musicians. In a way, a subversive sort of thing to wear.

Audrey Hepburn wearing the iconic black turtleneck in 1956. Source: Yousuf Karsh.

On the opposite side of the coin was the feminine, sexy version of the roll neck sweater. The garment was reimagined and showed up in different styles: think skin tight, cropped, sleek. The popularity of the seductive style is thanks to certain celebrities - most notably Jayne Mansfield. 

The anti-mainstream association with the garment continued to grow, and by the 70s it gave the intelligent and independent feminist look, worn also by activists during the rising political movement. The roll neck was worn by Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis and other Black Panther members.

1980s - Present: Enduring Popularity

Although it was still around and had its bursts of popularity, the roll neck sweater went through a dip during the 80s and early 90s, representing modesty while being considered a bit basic and boring. 

But not for long! It made its righteous comeback from the mid 90s, certainly not harmed by Steve Jobs’ iconic black roll-neck look (actually more of a daily uniform) courtesy of Japanese designer Issey Miyake. 

Steve Jobs at a Keynote in 2007.

Since then, the roll-neck has been rocked by a legion of other prominent people for its cutting-edge, purposeful cool. The red carpet has rolled-out to welcome this smart sweater back.

Looking Back…

Still, despite the ups and downs, the roll-neck has been a prominent piece of clothing for hundreds of years. And since we have that historical proof, we can conclude that this versatile and comforting garment is a timeless piece - and not a trendy one. Whether functional or fashionable (or both), the roll neck sweater remains an iconic ‘must-have’ in modern wardrobes. Now, it has that same sophisticated and elegant look that it’s almost always had.

The Roll Neck Sweater at SANVT

Now that we’ve explored the history of roll neck sweaters, there’s so much more to appreciate - and we can even see this garment from a totally different light! The roll neck sweater isn’t just a garment, it represents so much more. From sailors to athletes, movie stars to philosophists, to feminists and activists. A wide variety of people have embraced this garment, and for many different reasons.

Here at SANVT, we’ve developed a remarkably soft, timeless style roll neck. Typically, the garment is made from wool, but since we pay close attention to the sustainability and ethics of our clothing we’ve designed our roll neck from 100% recycled materials. That means that we have been able to get exceptional softness, warmth and breathability, without harming nature or people.

The SANVT roll neck sweater is:

  • Made from wool (30%), viscose (30%), polyamide (35%), cashmere (5%)
  • 100% recycled materials (GRS certified)
  • Handmade in Portugal
  • Durable and timeless