The Turtleneck as a Base Layer

If you thought that we were done with that 80’s douche look, you were wrong. We’re going all in, baby!

That’s still vintage, right?

There’s something interesting about the prep/ivy look of the 1970’s and 80s that I like.  Like I said before in the tied-sweater article, it’s a bit subversive since most people assume guys who wear it are stuffy, conservative types (where as I and most of my friends are from it).  It’s also a specific look, similar to doing 1950’s workwear or 1930’s suiting, and that appeals to Spencer and me since we basically call our style a form of cosplay.

In general, we aren’t talking about the pastel OCBDs and bermuda shorts but more so the casual, almost slouchy/rugged approach to prep. The vibrant red parkas and shetland sweaters with worn in chinos and loafers kind of deal, not the overly used Brooks #1 repp tie.  It’s an easier approach to classic menswear that isn’t formal.

While I haven’t done the tied sweater in a while, I have been dabbling in some 1970/80s prep a bit with some color choices (like my red barn coat and red cable knit sweater).  I thought that would be it for me,  since I’m not a fan of Rugby shirts, but I began to get enamored by the Turtleneck as a Base Layer. I thought I was going crazy.

Now you guys already know that I love the turtle/rollneck for it’s minimal and utilitarian properties.  Some guys like it for it’s elegant properties, but I never liked leaning into that vibe too much (though I have worn it with suits).  My issue with it being worn under a button up is that it brings an ascot to mind, because it covers the neck in a similar fashion.  It looks “closed up”, despite simply being a warmer undershirt that comes up to your neck.

It doesn’t help that influencers tend to lean into the formal look when wearing it. It’s rather minimalistic and just not my cup of tea. I mean, I like looking rakish but this is a bit too much for me.  I won’t deny that Aleks Cvetkovic looks immaculate doing it, but that’s mainly because he leans hard into the disco 1970’s vibes which makes it more interesting in my eyes.  But that’s a far cry from the prep look.

Enter the Preps

Fortunately, Chase (from Drake’s NYC) came to the rescue.   After Dick Carroll and Ben Levy, following Chase has been a big push for prep/ivy attire, albiet more casual. I came across the above picture on his tumblr and was in love immediately.  Here, it doesn’t look as refined as Brian Sacawa wearing a wide lapel DB.  It’s probably because it goes back to the true vintage examples I showed you, of guys shetland sweaters and practical outerwear.

I was wondering how the hell he doesn’t sweat buckets wearing that, but the turtleneck is actually 100% cotton, which makes it exactly like a simple tee shirt.  Learning this was mind-blowing, as all my turtlenecks are wool, which prevents them from being worn too often, even if they are merino.  “Maximum wearability” is how I typically approach my purchases and you guys know that my sweaters are almost always cotton for the same reason; it lets me wear them on mild days or own their own as a “long sleeve tee”.

Having a turtleneck in cotton also means that layering on top of it wouldn’t be uncomfortable at all.  I could finally explore that prep look, while staying warm (but not to warm).

Chase wearing his cream turtleneck under a rugby shirt and barbour.

Drake’s NYC Manager, Matthew Woodruff.

The double layering of a turtleneck seems counter intuitive, but it’s all rooted in the utilitarianism.  You’re keeping your neck warm after all. Thinking of it like a typical base layer instead of a full sweater allows you to make “normal” outfits around it. You can put a crewneck over it for extra warmth or pair it with a rugby if you really want those sporty vibes.  It reminds me of my grandma to be honest, but thats why I like it.

Going the slouchy, warm route rather than rakish is the key to pulling it off, at least for me.  But you guys knew that already.

Doing it this way doesn’t look as refined as a chalkstripe suit or a navy DB blazer.  It’s  subversive and slightly confrontational to those who don’t like the look.  I even get hipster vibes, to which I’m not opposed.  To me, it feels more student-oriented than rich-oriented, which is what I always strive too look like.

Dick Carroll even did a comic for Put This On on this very phenomenon, which I think explains it quite well.  Leaning into the look is definitely key, but I also think that pairing it with traditionally “rugged” pieces (coats, jackets, tweeds, other sweaters) instead of fancy-formal stuff is really the way to go.   Just look at these inspirations- as I’ve become conscious of it’s use as a base layer, I’ve been noticing it (and loving it) way more!

A field jacket makes it look less stuffy!

Expert move with turtleneck under a sweater vest.

Definitely utilitarian when worn under a heavy wool sportshirt.

Ryan absolutely killing it in a very 1970’s-esque outfit that isn’t preppy.

A reader of the blog wearing a kickass outfit with a rugby and beanie! 

Robert Spangle in a rugged variation, shot by my friend Charles at the Anthology.

This look was technically done by women for a while as well, though thanks to oversized shirts and a play with proportions, it didn’t really have the same connotations as menswear.  I wouldn’t even call it preppy or ivy, since it doesn’t always have those khaki-loafer roots.  It’s just women’s wear and I dig it.

After putting all of this together, I decided to try it for myself.

My Turn

I’m probably going to get a few questions about my turtlenecks at this point, so I’ll address them here. At first, I only had merino wool turtlenecks (as seen in this article) from Banana Republic. They aren’t as fine as the ones you can get at Uniqlo , but that was fine at the time since I wanted these to be  “standalone” (I don’t do the shirt inside turtleneck thing). However, these aren’t really practical since they get hot easily for a guy in LA and I eventually graduated to the 100% Cotton ones from Uniqlo, which I highly recommend. At the time of publishing, they’re on sale and are running low on sizes/colors.

Anyway, I knew that when I was going to do it myself, I wasn’t going to go for the rich, rakish vibe that is common when doing the turtleneck base layer.  Taking cues from Chase, Tony Sylvester, and more of the “rugged ivy”, I decided to keep it slouchy, not fancy.

First Try

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So the first time doing the look was during Spencer’s Friendsgiving.  As I noted in the article itself, it’s not really a menswear event which gives me the opportunity to try out something “weird” without any repercussions.

This one is straight influenced by Chase’s cable knit outfit, just without the OCBD midlayer, making it also close to Matt Woodruff’s one.  The navy turtleneck is merino wool from my days at Banana Republic, which got hot very quickly; luckily the cable knit is all cotton, otherwise I’d be in literal hell.

Despite all this, I liked the aesthetic!  The contrast between the two (both in color and texture) was interesting, making it look almost European (or 1970’s prep) in my eyes. While a sportcoat wouldn’t work with this, something more casual like a chore coat or a field jacket would be perfect.  Overall, I was sold on the look and wanted to do more.

Under a Shirt

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One of the reasons I was hesitant on wearing the turtleneck underneath a button-up was because I felt like I didn’t have any good shirts. For example, I only have a handful of legitimate OCBDs (some are actually end-on-end cotton) since my best oxfords have spearpoints.  I do have gabardine sportshirts, but while it looked good on Dick Carroll’s illustration, I imagined that the turtleneck combined with the flat, pointed collar would be way too disco (or Howard Wolowtiz) for me.  Once I button-down collar workshirt (thrifted for $10), I knew it was perfect for this look.

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The saturated color along with the workwear details (flapped twin breast pockets) make for a more interesting choice than the oxfords I have in my closet.  The fit is loose but I just tucked in the excess fabric into the high rise selvedge denim. It actually didn’t look as bad as I thought, though it’s definitely still Howard Wolowitz.  Leaning into the workwear vibes slightly with denim (rather than chinos or trousers) helps make the turtlneck look feel casual and separates it from the refined examples from Dan Trepanier and Brian Sacawa.

If you know me, I like wearing jackets not just for the #pocketfisting but because I like adding even more interest to an outfit.  This grey-blue plaid tweed was chosen because it contrasts against the solid colorblocking of the outfit; I felt that a solid navy or brown sportcoat would have muddled the colors.

I may return to this aesthetic in the future.

Under a Sweater (Again)

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I was able to actually get the Uniqlo cotton turtleneck during my SF trip so I could wear it  during my trip to Seattle.  It isn’t going to be available in LA, which is why ordering it in SF (and online) was the only way I could get it.  Immediately, I could feel that this was incredibly superior to my merino ones since it’s more comfortable to wear both for weather and against my skin.  I was excited to give it a try on my trip to the PNW, since it was about 20 degrees colder than LA.

Even though a turtleneck under a shirt is more “ivy”, I think I really prefer wearing one under a crewneck sweater.  Simply put, it makes the crew neck more interesting!  Yes, I still like popping out my collar points a la Tintin, but sometimes it feels a little too boring to me, almost “dad like”. The turtleneck under this fair isle sweater is, like I keep saying, more subversive/confrontational, since it goes against how most people wear the one (with the added bonus of making the sweater more comfortable to wear). Just think of it like my use of a bucket hat: utilitarian, hipster, and because I like it.

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Again, the key was wearing it with more rugged items rather than leaning on the rakish connotations.  This means knit cap, heavy wool sweater, field jacket, and boots, though it looks good sans jacket.  Looking back, this might be one of my favorite outfits of all time.

Under a Sweater Vest

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Lastly, here is my take with it under a sweater vest, inspired directly by Ryan’s outfit.  Moving away from the overt prep aesthetics, the more vibrant fair isle and contrasting white turtleneck, has a more individual/peacock aspect (which was absent from the previous outfit, which was largely subtle).  It looks a little bit like a 70s/80s Nordic skier with some psychologist and grandma vibes thrown in for good measure.  You have to thank Dick Carroll for this one, though I’m not sure if he even intended for this to be a legitimate look.   Either way, I like it.

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While all of these are in semi-new directions for me, I think that this one might be my favorite.  It’s probably the most “hipster” of the bunch, which works considering I live in LA where this style tends to abound.  I like to think all the pieces work together because it goes against the entire rakish idea of using a turtleneck as a base layer. Instead of keeping everything slick, I’m wearing separates, leaning into the casual browns, and opting for a slouchy jacket fit.

Underneath a workshirt for brunch.

Tweed jackets, white turtlenecks, brown trousers, and suede shoes.

Under an OCBD and a sweater vest, both with an M-43.

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Spencer got inspired by turtlenecks in general and started his own spin on using it as a base layer.  Wearing it under a shawl cardigan seems odd, but its perfectly in line when I wear mine under a crewneck sweater; it even evokes the tried-and-true way of wearing it with a sportcoat.

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This one is inspired by Dick Carroll’s illustration of wearing a turtleneck under an odd vest, though it has more of a Bryceland’s spin thanks to the fedora.

Conclusion

I really never thought that I would do something like this. For a long time, I felt that 1920s-1940s was going to be my era, with a couple of modern twists to make it more versatile; clearly I was wrong.  In this style journey, I constantly see new sources of inspiration which lead me to incorporate new things into my closet or to even discover a new way of approaching something, as we see in this very article.

With that said, I don’t think I’m going to lean too hard into the preppy look, even though it’s what got me to try it to begin with. The idea of looking like an 70s-80s prep school antagonist is a fun one, but it just doesn’t appeal to me as much.  I basically like the inclusion of the turtleneck as a point of interest, contrasting with the layer over it, whether it be an OCBD, workshirt, or another sweater.  Keeping it rugged, tonal, and slightly minimalistic is the key for me to wear it with confidence, rather than trying to pair it with vibrant striped rugby shirts or Nantucket Red chinos.  Basically, it’s still distinct from how our friends at Drake’s wear their Turtleneck Base Layer.

Overall, it’s just something different and subversive.  Spencer recalls his coworkers not digging the look at all whereas I’ve had a few critical instagram messages when I was first trying it out.  I can hide behind calling it a “prep throwback” all I want, but at the end of the day it’s just a new style move that I dig.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll see the appeal and try it out for yourself! These examples are just the ways that I feel comfortable doing it in my own way and I hope it gives you some inspiration on applying it to your own style.

Just remember, if you’re in LA, you won’t be able to layer for much longer.  Put stuff over your turtlenecks!

Always a pleasure,

Ethan W.

@ethanmwong 

Street x Sprezza 

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