Why Embracing Turtlenecks Could Make You Happier

Cozy isn’t just the latest fashion craze—it makes us happier.

January 21, 2015

In the past ten years I have lived in three cities, a bunch of dorm rooms, and more apartments than I can count. In the process, I've acquired and purged many things—clothing, furniture, boyfriends—but there's one thing I've kept with me throughout all of it: my black turtleneck. It's a rayon-spandex blend, nearly transparent, and skin-tight. When I got it, I thought it was just the right mix of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and a grainy photo of a 1950s Wellesley girl. I wore it all through freshman year of college, but it slowly dropped out of my laundry rotation; to a girl coming into her own, the turtleneck felt nerdy, conservative, and dated.

Now, in 2015, it's back in favor—only now, I find myself more likely to pair it with joggers and the biggest parka I can afford than with a collegiate plaid skirt. The turtleneck feels less like an aspirational object I hope will bestow upon me a certain cosmopolitan sophistication and more like a survival mechanism: warm against the relentless pummeling of a New York winter and a sign to the world that I am not to be fucked with, either by the weather or by anyone who wants to call my turtleneck passé.

Over ramen the other week, I was talking to Philip Wong, a designer for Hood By Air and Flandana, and he was waxing poetic on the virtues of the turtleneck, particularly as interpreted by NikeLab in their ACG 2014 collection. Après-ski meets cozy boy, that all-black pullover features an oversized funnel neck that would ostensibly cover the wearer's entire face, up to the eyes. It's freezing in New York City, and in addition to eliminating the need for a scarf, the aggressive neckline seems like a sign of sartorial maturation. At least, it feels like an evolution for Wong, who, as he speaks to me of the virtues of the turtleneck, is wearing a black pullover hoodie with the Hood By Air logo emblazoned in white letters. As sportswear and streetwear continue to merge into athleisure, the sweatshirt—which has been experiencing a surge in popularity among fashion circles, from HBA to Kanye's leather sweatpants and Beyonce's “Kale" jumper—will become tired, encouraging early adopters to expand upon the theme. The turtleneck is a natural next step from the sweatshirt; as temperatures continue to plummet into dead-of-winter 2015, it takes comfort and utility to the next level.

Of course, the turtleneck feels pretty tame compared to some of the other items inspiring the current wave of avant-garde leisurewear. Telfar's Fall 2014 collection included numerous ultra-modern takes on the snuggie, and DKNY x Opening Ceremony's Fall/Winter 2015 collection showcased a hooded, floor-grazing grey sweatshirt alongside athletic jumpsuits, starter jackets, and sweatpants. On the luxury brand side of the spectrum, Chloe's stonewashed indigo spring/summer 2015 sweatsuit and Burberry Prorsum's Men's Ready-to-Wear 2015 massive scarves demonstrate the adaptability of the trend. Bottom line: whether you go for the no-fucks chill of a Telfar snuggie or the untouchable luxury of high fashion knitwear—pounds and pounds of rare yarn draped across your shoulders—the message you're sending is that of an impenetrable coziness.

"Whether you go for the no-fucks chill of a Telfar snuggie or the untouchable luxury of high fashion knitwear, the message you're sending is that of an impenetrable coziness."

In Norwegian, they call it koselig, and in Danish, it's hygge, but in both languages it means basically the same thing: "cozy." However, its stateside proponents, which include writer Jenna Wortham—who spent time in Norway in 2013—insist that it's so much more. In "What We Can Learn From Norwegians About Surviving Winter," published on Vogue last winter, Wortham defines koselig as "inner warmth; intimacy; a home-cooked meal; candlelight; and a deep, physical feeling, which a man demonstrated to me by clutching a fist to his heart and closing his eyes." In America, where there is no single word for a grown man indicating his inner heat and tenderness with a gesture, our understanding of comfort can still seem pretty surface-level. Still, by embracing bodily comfort on the runway, maybe we are getting closer to cultivating it in other parts of society.

In Norway, koselig is so widely understood and accepted that you can see it in all parts of the culture; Wortham describes it as everything from the way that people socialize, preferring intimate gatherings at home to noisy nights in the city; to the amenities provided in bars, including fur pelts; to home decor, where, as in many parts of Europe, heated floors and towel racks are de rigueur. Cynics will surmise that this is surely the result of the desperation that can result from months of darkness and bitter cold temperatures, but those who are desperate are often the happiest—in fact, in the 2013 World Happiness Report, compiled by Columbia University's Earth Institute, Norway was ranked as the second happiest country in the world, despite its dreary weather. While this is surely due in great part to the country's progressive social policies and generally high quality of life, there's no denying that a commitment to inner warmth can contribute to existential satisfaction.

On a trip to Sweden in 2013, I discovered much of the same: long, dark nights were spent playing cards and drinking glogg—the Swedish take on mulled wine—and all dinner parties began with playful ice breakers, ensuring that all the guests felt known and welcome. As a life-long New Yorker with occasional social anxiety, I found myself distrustful of this welcoming behavior. In my home city, new people are typically greeted with trepidation, and people forget your name after multiple introductions. Of course, our intuitive protectiveness may stem from the fact that surviving in New York is simply harder than it is in the Sweden of the present, where education and health care are free and available to all. In Sweden, maybe there is less of a feeling that your city exists primarily to destroy you, with high rents, expensive restaurants, and a perpetually rough job market.

Between multiple polar vortices and record snowfall, the winter of 2013-14 was a truly brutal one in New York. It was freezing, and the Farmer's Almanac has predicted that this year will be even worse. Beyond being a general bummer for those of us who prefer to do our socializing in bathing suits proximate to bodies of water, these forecasts could be read as a harbinger for mankind-induced natural disasters. Global warming may not be a sparkling topic of conversation at social events, but it's undeniable, and although designers surely aren't tacking articles about Al Gore to their mood boards, an undercurrent of impending doom seems to be seeping into all areas of culture. What will you wear when the world ends? A giant scarf, perhaps? A Hood By Air t-shirt with a full-color photo of a mushroom cloud on it, or a pair of moonboots that would make Will Smith in I Am Legend jealous. Nobody wants to be cold when the end times come, and sweatpants are adaptable to a wide variety of climates, should the end of days be fiery. As society speeds towards its own demise, functional, comfortable clothing feels like a logical next step; like changing into running shoes when you walk home alone late at night, it's good to be prepared for a disaster.

Before normcore was turned into a trend piece about mom jeans and Dev Hynes, it was a theory created by youth trend forecasters K-Hole, in a report titled Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom. The original theory of normcore was that young people were gravitating closer to so-called "normal"—in other words unremarkable, safe, ordinary— styles as a way to create closeness and community. Rather than standing out amongst their peers, proponents of normcore try to blend in, hoping to foster a sense of sameness. As K-Hole tweeted not long after their ideas had been reported, "#Normcore finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptation leads to belonging."

In a similar way, I think comfortable fashion—like turtlenecks, sweatpants, and giant blanket garments—could be a means of letting our guard down around each other a little bit more. In the English language, words associated with feelings of warmth and relaxation—like "comfy" and "cozy"— all have sleepy, private, even lazy connotations. Comfort belongs in the home, where the people cannot enter without an invitation. By cultivating comfort more publicly, though, we're more likely to explore new ways of relating, to be a little less hesitant about making ourselves vulnerable to others. Who knows, maybe someday soon we'll even have a word for it—not just for the feeling of being warm against the harsh winter, but for the feeling of being safe, welcomed to the party even when we are strangers, together in our mutual desire not only to survive the elements, but to enjoy our lives through all four seasons.

Lead photo credit: NikeLab's ACG 2014

Why Embracing Turtlenecks Could Make You Happier