Tough Stuff: Rebel Knits

Elisa Anniss explains why when it comes to looking cool, a turtleneck does the trick.

The Fifties and Sixties were a time of shaking up the sartorial status quo with sloppy joes, turtlenecks, heavy fisherman’s jumpers, or that other humble garment appropriated from the French – the Breton jersey. You only have to look at James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, or Elvis Presley, posing and thrusting in stripes in Jailhouse Rock, to get the picture.

Marlon Brando, one of Presley’s peers, may well have been known for appearing leather-clad in The Wild One, and embodying the essence of brooding masculinity in A Streetcar Named Desire, as his muscles bulged through his T-shirt. And yet, when he wasn’t depicting rebellious youth on behalf of Hollywood, he too wore a jumper. Take the portrait of him reclining on a sofa in a marl crew-neck, alongside his dog. Then there’s the work of Sid Avery, whose reputation was built on seizing the private moments of Hollywood stars, and whose 1953 photo captured Brando deep in thought, cradling bongo drums, snug in a woolly.

Sound cosy? Hardly. Back then, knitwear was considered more the mark of rebellion. When it really took off in the Fifties, knits were huge among young people, who’d turned their backs on tailoring – the shirts, ties, suits and, to some extent, dresses worn by their parents. Knitwear ushered in a relaxed look, releasing wearers from formality, and jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets were part of the same package.

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, referred to by Lewis MacAdams in his 2001 book Birth Of Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde, were all part of the beat generation. Before they made lounging cool, convention deemed it slovenly and unacceptable for men to dress sans shirts and ties. As a result, towards the end of the Fifties and late into the Sixties, nothing spelled hipster or counter-culture quite like a turtleneck.

Key members of the beat movement gather around a table at a restaurant in New York, late 1950s.
Key members of the beat movement gather around a table at a restaurant in New York, late 1950s.

And it wasn’t just men. Audrey Hepburn’s all-black Capri-pants-and-turtleneck ensemble worn in the 1957 movie Funny Face certainly facilitated a much hipper image than her buttoned-up role in Sabrina a couple of years earlier. ‘There were women in the Fifties and Sixties who still wouldn’t have considered wearing trousers. Even wearing all-black would have been considered outrageous, as is was still deemed the colour of mourning,’ says London-based costume designer Lisa Duncan.

Brigitte Bardot on the beach at North Berwick in September 1966
Brigitte Bardot on the beach at North Berwick in September 1966 during the filming of Two Weeks In September

Back then, trends hung around for a matter of years rather than months. So, when Steve McQueen appeared as a turtleneck-wearing tough guy in Bullitt, the 1968 action thriller, he was still au courant, as was Michael Caine, who starred in The Italian Job wearing the same style the following year.

…And God Created Woman star Bridget Bardot became the consummate poster girl for pullovers, with a penchant for crew-necks and cardigans. For, as much as she loved bikinis, she also helped make the twin-set cool. Bardot was also a fan of the boyfriend jumper – another key knitwear trend of the time.

It was Marilyn Monroe’s magic red sweater, roomy enough to stretch right over her knees, that helped transform her from Norma Jeane into a star. Jeanne Moreau running across a bridge with her two lovers in the 1962 film Jules et Jim – an image featured in Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave, a photo tome to be published later this year showcasing the work of the French cinema photographer – is yet another example of how oversized jumpers were having their moment.

‘Shapes were definitely baggier,’ concludes Duncan. ‘Jumpers didn’t come in skin-tight sizes and you have to remember that if they did feature in Hollywood films of the time, then it was probably because they’d been carefully pulled and pinned!’ It’s interesting to see that some of the strongest styles in knits from back then endure to this day.

Elisa Anniss writes about fashion and lifestyle for The Financial Times’ How to Spend It


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