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  • Words by Mr Christopher Laverty

The rollneck is the trickiest wardrobe staple to pull off, figuratively and literally. So achingly simple it begs to be accessorised, yet nothing works. Layering, jewellery, even a scarf looks out of place. No, what matters most are fabric weight and choice of outerwear. Get that right and you're Steve McQueen in Bullitt, get it wrong and you're Will Ferrell in Anchorman. Being as our continued embrace of the rollneck is based on fulfilling a lofty, though attainable semblance of the "man's man" as portrayed on screen (McQueen again), this is where we should concentrate our inspiration. Forget the catwalk, download some movies and get comfortable. You can learn everything you need from your sofa.

It is not clear where the rollneck originated. We can trace it back through history, around 600 years to the 15th century, when it was really more of a tall-collar garment. But exactly who felt that dressing inside a funnel was a good idea and when, remains a mystery. What we know is that like nearly every item of clothing still in common use; the snug rollneck was originally developed as utility wear. The corruption of the name rollneck, which is mainly UK/ French usage, probably came from France at the turn of the 20th century. During this period Parisians had several words for sweater variations alone, such as le pullover (because you pull it over your head) and le sweater (light knitwear), and they were first to embrace the value of the rollneck. While the US adopted the rather comical turtleneck moniker, Europe tends to favour the polo neck, supposedly because at one time it was worn when playing the sport of kings. Of course rollneck makes the most sense because it reflects the action of actually wearing it, which definitely means we stole the idea from the French.

Mr Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1957

Photo: Yousuf Karsh/Camera Press

The basic shape of the rollneck as we recognise it, ie, fine enough to substitute for a formal shirt, was initially popularised by impeccably turned out playwright Noël Coward during the 1920s, and 30 years later beatniks adopted the look to talk philosophy in coffee shops. Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni brought the rollneck out of counterculture and into the mainstream. On screen and off, Mastroianni wore the opposite of shapeless US Ivy League. Ivy League is not slim trousers finishing just above the ankle and college motif jumpers - that's prep. True Ivy League is comfortable flannel slacks and sack suits. While Gregory Peck was still insisting on this style in Roman Holiday (1953), just a few years later Mastroianni championed a form-fitting European shape that would stay in vogue for two decades. The rollneck became part of the new order, a rejection of the shirt and necktie wage slave. Rollneck wearers were creatives.

Nonetheless it took until 1968 for the rollneck to stroll out of cinemas and into our rotation. McQueen's deadpan detective Frank Bullitt did not invent the rollneck, but he was the originator of the screw-your-tie-shove-your-cocktail attitude we like to think the look entitles us to today. Every man stares in his mirror praying McQueen will stare back at him. McQueen sports a French navy blue rollneck, made from what was likely mid-weight cashmere. His Bullitt character was inspired by Dave Toschi, real-life detective of the zodiac killings in San Francisco. There is a subtle moment in David Fincher's film about the infamous case, Zodiac (2007), when Mark Ruffalo as Toschi wears a rollneck sweater and beltless raincoat, exactly like Bullitt. Here we have art imitating life, imitating art. However McQueen is generally remembered for teaming his rollneck with a single-breasted brown tweed jacket. This is where the actor's enviably slim physique becomes so apparent. Rollnecks do tend to work best on lighter guys as they broaden the chest and lengthen the torso, creating a desirably athletic V shape.

Sir Mick Jagger, London, C1965

Photo: Val Wilmer/ Getty Images

Another example of a movie rollneck that works is on Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class (2011), its story set predominantly in 1962. Fassbender's rollnecks were the only costumes not custom-made for the film, providing hope for us all that the right garment off the peg can achieve that requisite trim silhouette. Like McQueen, Fassbender is wiry, yet has a more imposing stature. Although the rollneck is not an item of clothing we tend to think of as intimidating, author/ adventurer Ernest Hemingway was famously photographed in a heavy fisherman's rollneck, thus typifying his no-nonsense masculine credentials. Actually his rollneck was purchased for him at a Christian Dior boutique in Paris. Clearly image is everything.

There is something innately robust about a bulky rollneck, particularly worn beneath a reefer or sherpa coat. It harks back to the garment's basic function of keeping its wearer toasty in the worst possible weather. That said the 1970s embraced this style of rollneck as pure fashion, which is maybe why gentlemen in home photographs from this era look so clammy. One screen star who flirted with both thin and chunky styles was Richard Roundtree, aka Shaft (1971). Roundtree assimilated and then individualised a tweedy veneer of white nobility way before blaxploitation became bogged down in cartoonish plaid trousers and fur coats. Shaft wore heavyweight ribs because he was pounding the streets of New York in winter. Remember though, while you can loosen a collar and tie, that rollneck is staying securely in place until home time, even more so if you forgo an undershirt.

So now we arrive at how movies can teach us not to wear the rollneck. If you can stomach it, watch Love Actually (2003) for the largest collection of nasty fat rollnecks, on men and women, ever committed to film. Proof also, if any were needed, that this is one item of clothing that never requires a logo or pattern. Ferrell as Anchorman, and our own Alan Partridge, are examples of smart casual TV personalities who look like tools because of what they exemplify - the dreaded lounge-era rollneck. You must pick your cinematic idol wisely. McQueen may be safe, but boy is he sturdy. No one has ever looked cooler keeping warm.