Chanel said every woman needs a ‘little black dress’ so she’s prepared for every occasion. But Helen Barrell thinks everyone needs a ‘little black roll neck’. Read on….
Outside my window, a gelatinous rain pours and there is already ice in the air. And it’s only mid-October! Yes, ladies, it’s time to dig out your rollneck jumpers – they’re perfect for the hideous cold raininess of the season but, as importantly, they look fab and are perhaps one of the most versatile items in a mod’s wardrobe. I’m talking about black roll-necks, ubiquitously available in vast quantities in charity shops and shrift stores, high fashion chains and those treasure-trove frumpy department stores for women’s classics. Because the black rollneck is simple and sophisticated and a veritable wardrobe chameleon.
Let’s take it to a smoky Parisian basement where they play bongos, man. And there’s an iconic Beatnik Audrey Hepburn in ‘Funny Face’ wearing probably the most simple black roll-neck outfit – paired with black trousers and black loafers. Audrey didn’t have to worry about how flattering an outfit was, but for the ‘curvier’ ladies, this outfit is great: black conceals a multitude of ‘sins’. Not only that, it’s a cool-as-cool-can-get look – although so much black can hide the result of your love of chocolate ice-cream, it’s also a challenge to avoid looking like a Goth, or just plain boring. This is where the importance of details comes in – shoes have to be great (Bass Weejuns for the jazz-cat or Audrey’s other favourite shoe, a neat ballet pump, or ‘Mary Janes’), only one or two pieces of jewellery (small silver earrings, or a plain silver necklace, perhaps), immaculate hair and make-up (‘What do you think we are? Imbeciles?’ I hear you indignantly cry) – and for the fearless lady, a beret! Audrey’s most iconic look is, of course, that dress in ‘Breakfast’, but for an every-day Audreyesque look, you can’t go far wrong with the Audrey Beatnik look.
Keeping a foot on the Continent, here’s a tip from an unlikely source –Paloma Picasso, she of the crazy painter-dad. She swears by what I’d call the ‘Audrey Beatnik’ look, but she takes it a step further. She carries about with her a selection of neck-scarves and instantly transforms her appearance just by changing her scarf! A serene black and white check, quite small, for a shopping spree in a lavender market in Provence, and in the evening, when it’s cocktails at the Embassy, a trailing gold and silver number with sequins and tassels. Personally, I wouldn’t wear a scarf like that, but Paloma would. I’ve copied this idea by wearing a long pink scarf with large white polka dots on it, and the next day swapping that one for a 50’s original with the Eiffel Tower and poodles on, and it feels like a different outfit. Paloma augments the transformations rendered by a mere change of scarf with a change of earrings and make-up, yet the basic black roll-neck and black trousers endure. Paloma, we salute you. You make it seem so easy.
Roll-necks are a mod staple, and maybe even a 60’s cliché – in fact, it was seeing a photo of mod girls wearing roll-necks and suede jackets which got me into this fandango in the first place. The classic dogtooth mod look of skirt or trousers is ideal with a black roll-neck, because of its utter simplicity and unarguable sharpness, it highlights the fantastic fabric of your herringbone trousers, or your Prince of Wales check skirt. And the black roll-neck’s most famous incarnation on the mod scene – when it appears under a sleeveless dress or tunic. Black can go with everything, so let’s say for example you’ve got an outfit left over from summer consisting of black trousers and a dogtooth sleeveless tunic. It was fine going without sleeves in July, but it’ll start snowing outside today, and you get goosepimples just at the thought of it. But – tada! – there’s your black roll-neck jumper! On it goes under the tunic and your summer outfit has been transformed, Avenger-style, into an ensemble to keep away chilblains (well, we’re all getting older). The next day, you’re in a dress-mood, and there’s your dark purple sleeveless shift dress. You wear it out to clubs, but the dress-mood must be satiated! And so the trusty black roll-neck coughs from your chest-of-drawers. ‘Ahem!’ it says, and – badabing! – you’re skipping down the street in a new outfit, all thanks to your dear, darling, roll-necks!
But what if you’re planning on slumping against a cocktail bar in a faux-snakeskin miniskirt? (I’ve done it…). Snakeskin looks fab in shoes and handbags, but how to wear it without looking trampy? Rely on sophisticated knitwear to come to your rescue: a black roll-neck with a fake snakeskin miniskirt transforms you from potential barmaid to mysterious Secret Agent! “That’s not an olive, baby, it’s a microphone.” Instant Lounge Lizard Lady.
Yet the black roll-neck isn’t reserved only for the smart and sophisticated. Those scraggy-headed guitar-twangling louts from Liverpool made the black roll-neck seem as rebellious as pierced genitals seem now (well, that’s not rebellious, just painful!). And so for garage boys and girls, the roll-neck is a staple as much as it is for suede-jacketed scooter-riders. I have garage days and freakbeat moments, and at those times, I need to wear bright purple! Purple is, according to some hippy I once knew, the colour of my aura, but what bothers me more is that it’s a bold and bright colour which suits me far more than orange does. So I drag out my purple Farrah trousers, thread my belt with big silver buckle through the loops and – you’ve guessed it – fling on a black roll-neck. Which is exactly what I’d do if I was wearing my purple Babzotica miniskirt.
And so I stand in the kitchen, watching a washing machine containing only black roll-neck jumpers sob through its cycle. Hurry up! I’m in a dress-mood and I’ve got an invitation for cocktails at the Embassy!
[Published 15 October 2002]
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