A litany of factors play into why we wear the clothes we wear, from trends to affordability to our own personal style. But beyond just relaying our aesthetic preferences to the world, do our fashion choices really paint a picture of who we are as people? A fashion statement must be saying something, after all. And with pumpkin spice season now definitively upon us and sweater weather settling in, we’re breaking out a beloved classic: the turtleneck.
It might feel like a simple staple of your fall wardrobe, but a particular set of style devotees would say that tapping into the meaning behind your turtleneck choice can be enlightening. Dawnn Karen has built a career around the notion that there’s a lot to be gleaned from how we decide to outfit ourselves. She’s the author of Dress Your Best Life, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and a pioneer in the field of Fashion Psychology. In fact, she owns the trademark-slash-patent on the phrase.
“Your clothing is speaking before you do and it goes beyond first impressions,” Karen explains to ESSENCE. “Things you’ve experienced from childhood to the present day, from peak when you’re feeling great to your lowest, can all come out in your clothing: the shapes, the fabrics, the colors. It’s the costume you put on your body to go out into the everyday world.”
The field of study explores the phenomenon in all directions – how manner of dress reveals information about the wearer, how it impacts the wearer, and the influence on those perceiving them. Karen believes that clothing choice can speak volumes to our personal psychology and also that an awareness of the connection between our wardrobes and our inner selves can be harnessed to our advantage. She coined the term “dopamine dressing,” which made the rounds on TikTok this summer, to detail the effects of opting for certain textures, colors, and silhouettes on improving the wearer’s mood.
As we unpack our favorite turtlenecks from storage, Karen sat down with ESSENCE to share some potential insights behind a wearer’s preferred style of the autumn essential.
The Basic Black Turtleneck
Think: Steve Jobs (or, alternatively, Elizabeth Holmes, in what appeared to many who followed her saga as a somewhat direct effort at emulating Jobs’ signature drip.) According to Karen, this tracks: “This person doesn’t want to be inundated with what to wear,” she says. “They want a more uniform approach. This person wants to maintain their emotional equilibrium and will more than likely wear that same turtleneck the next day or the following week because they don’t want the fluctuations of, ‘What do I wear today?’”
Karen interprets the simple black turtleneck as a garment for one who wants to be taken seriously, someone for whom fashion feels a bit trivial, and so they reach for the simple, unimpeachable choice. “They want to focus on their productivity as opposed to their creativity and what to wear that particular day.” Even the most basic attempt at revealing nothing with your style choice, inevitably reveals something.
The Decadent Cashmere Turtleneck
The kind of person who typically builds their fall fit around a cashmere sweater makes Karen think of a luxurious, self-possessed individual. “This person joins the conversation when warranted,” she muses. “They don’t believe in overextension, filling other peoples’ cups before they fill their own. They’re all about, ‘if it doesn’t work for me, I’m not doing it.’”
The Sleeveless Turtleneck
“This is someone who lives life on the edge,” Karen says of the shoulder-baring turtleneck fan. The fact that they’d rather not be held back by sleeves aligns with her assessment of the sleeveless wearer’s personality. “They’re an extroverted type, or they’d like to bring out some of their extroversion. This person is not confined to rules: they’re creative, whimsical, and eclectic. Sometimes they’re misunderstood.” The chill of autumn could never dictate the fashion choices of a spirit so free.
The Chunky Cable Knit Turtleneck
Karen begins this interpretation with a disclaimer: “I have to preface — this is all happening below awareness, in the unconscious mind. When somebody is wearing this kind of cable knit, this person is in need of some socializing.” So, a person donning a fisherman-type sweater may be seeking some coziness (which makes sense given the isolation of life at sea). It’s a sartorial security blanket. “I know it sounds really cheesy but these people actually need some type of affection and maybe in their current lives they’re not getting it or not getting it as much or they need it at the time, or they wake up wanting it that particular day, the cable knit would be the one. This would be somebody who’s really affectionate or has a need for affection.”
The mockneck is in the same look family as a turtleneck, but what does an inclination toward this sort of cuff variation indicate about someone? “This is a diplomatic person,” Karen explains. “They can see both sides of the coin.”
“They’re free, undisturbed,” Karen says of the cowlneck obsessives. A preference for the looser take on the classic style may suggest an openness about the wearer. “These people have inviting personalities. They’re pretty future-oriented types who leave the past in the past and are focusing on the good in life. Optimistic and open.”
The Turtleneck Dress
Karen thinks of the turtleneck dress wearer as someone who has struck an even balance between their masculine and feminine sides. “This person is feminine, yet not hyperfeminine,” she says. “There’s this YouTube craze on femininity — this woman is not that. They have a good balance, yin and yang. They can hold space for both and be just as powerful.” She encourages those interested in gearing themselves toward a different attitude through clothes to be intentional with their dressing; for example, she recommends a turtleneck dress for anyone looking to level up and channel their inner top dog. “This person would probably be an alpha female. In order for you to be a boss, you do have to have both sides balanced, some masculinity and femininity.”
The Classic Ribbed Turtleneck
Wearers who go for the standard, sleek ribbed style read as self-assured people who tend to have a rigid, binary outlook, in Karen’s eyes. “They’re an either-or sort of person,” she says, describing a somewhat Type A personality. “Hell bent on, ‘I know who I am, this is what I’m about.’ Or if they don’t know that, they’re trying to get there. That’s what the ribbed turtleneck would say, psychologically speaking.”
Those who favor the layered look may be structuring their outfit around a subconscious desire for protection, like fashion as armor, according to Karen. A tendency to reach for a thin turtleneck styled under a blazer or a vest could indicate a “fear of something that’s emerging or being activated.” When one is harboring fears or anxieties they’re not able to express and may not even be aware of, she believes they’ll find their way into the wearer’s wardrobe. “They can pop back up through how you present yourself, your attire. The clothing serves as a type of protection.”
Bold Colors & Prints vs. Muted Neutrals
Different styles and silhouettes aren’t the only qualities that weigh into Karen’s assessments. People who typically go for the neutrals and earth tones absent of prints, she finds, are more likely to have introverted tendencies. And what would an affinity for a more daring color or print indicate? “These people are bubbly, extroverted types,” she says. “They’re dramatic, big — this person is usually me.”