Demure necklines that are the height of cool

From pie-crusts to pussy bows, the high-necked collar is a potent mix of modesty and assertive glamour, says Kate Finnigan

Merchant Archive duchesse satin evening coat, £1,295
Merchant Archive duchesse satin evening coat, £1,295

There’s a reason the high-necked garment appears so frequently in memorable portraiture. Call to mind Elizabeth I, be-ruffed by Nicholas Hilliard; the black swan-necked Audrey Hepburn, photographed by Yousuf Karsh; Steve Jobs in his signature Issey Miyake, photographed by Albert Watson; and Phoebe Philo, shot for Vogue Paris by David Sims, almost swallowed up by a thick-ribbed knit. Each one attests to the powerful impact and framing effect of clothing worn high around the face. 

Mother of Pearl silk Senna blouse, £350
Mother of Pearl silk Senna blouse, £350

Stiff or fluid, exaggerated or swaddling, high necks have become this winter’s practical and flattering modernising detail on shirting, knitwear, dresses and coats, in styles for both day and night – whether conjuring medieval purity at Valentino, Victoriana and Edwardiana at Alexander McQueen and Erdem, or 1970s pussy-bow chic at Gucci.   

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“The shift to higher necklines is a small styling detail that has the power to refresh our wardrobe,” says Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director of Net-a-Porter. “Traditionally, a demure neckline has been considered conservative, but it now has a certain modernity.” She singles out directional brands, such as Ellery, Acne, Magda Butrym and Loewe adopting higher necklines on blouses and dresses, “often adding cut-outs, statement sleeves or deconstructed shapes to create a counterbalancing edge [Acne Studios gingham voile asymmetric shirt with trumpet sleeves, £410].” At Chloé (dress, €3,010) and New York label Khaite (blouse, £490), which offers a polished range of staples, tie-neck pieces are clean and minimal, while Balenciaga’s pussy-bows in satin brights (£725) and hot-pink stretch lace (£1,265) are rather more flamboyant.

From left: Alberta Ferretti merino wool jumper, £810. Joseph silk Zebra Owen dress, £695
From left: Alberta Ferretti merino wool jumper, £810. Joseph silk Zebra Owen dress, £695

“High necks signal a certain power,” says Amy Powney, creative director of the London-based label Mother of Pearl. “You take a girly garment, give it a high neck and all of a sudden you’re a strong woman. Whether it’s a pie-crust collar or a silk band or tie around the neck, there are many ways to create the effect.” The pie-crust collar, sometimes pearl-encrusted, has been a regular motif on Powney’s knitwear, dresses and shirting since she fell in love with Victoriana detailing in her spring/summer 2016 collection. This season’s silk Senna top (£350), which comes in autumnal florals or bold navy/white or red/white vertical stripes, is, Powney says, “made more dramatic” by the high cut of the collar. “The high neck moves this top away from the current pyjama trend. When worn with the matching trousers [£350], the look is less nightwear and more all-out glamour.” 

From left: Chloé wool-mix and silk Swirl Guipure dress, €3,010. Khaite satin crepe blouse, £490
From left: Chloé wool-mix and silk Swirl Guipure dress, €3,010. Khaite satin crepe blouse, £490

For Louise Trotter, creative director of Joseph, high necks have always had an appeal. “I have a reputation in the studio as being monastic in my tastes,” she says, and this season she has statement high-neck styles on knitwear (chunky bubblegum-pink tunic, £995), blouses (black faux-leather poloneck blouse, £345) and ultra-feminine dresses (cinch-waisted, silk, black and white Zebra Owen dress, £695), but also on a covetable shearling aviator jacket (£1,995) that buttons across the neck. “Being buttoned-up looks assertive but also makes you feel protected. Plus, a high neck elongates one of the most attractive parts of a woman.” This winter, she has frequently found herself wearing a floral Liberty-print Joseph dress (£595) over a black or dove-grey silk poloneck (£195). “As the temperature gets cooler, I also wear a lot of high necks under collared shirts,” she says. 

Merchant Archive duchesse satin evening coat, £1,385
Merchant Archive duchesse satin evening coat, £1,385

In March this year, the Dubai- and London-based online retailer The Modist launched with a full roster of “luxury modest style”, which translates as high fashion with an emphasis on a more covered-up aesthetic – longer lengths on hems and sleeves, higher necklines. Fashion and buying director Sasha Sarokin counts among her current favourites a cropped blush-pink ribbed wool turtleneck (£405) by Rokh, styled over a long white shirt and jeans, and Alberta Ferretti’s striped sweater (£810) with bell sleeves and gold buttons at the shoulder – a statement daywear piece that can be thrown over trousers or a fluid, mid-length skirt. 

From left: Joseph shearling aviator jacket, £1,995. Saint Laurent silk crepe de Chine blouse, £850
From left: Joseph shearling aviator jacket, £1,995. Saint Laurent silk crepe de Chine blouse, £850

The Modist also stocks Merchant Archive, the London-based label designed by Sophie Merchant, whose love affair with the high neck started close to home. “My grandmother always wore neck scarves and used to say, ‘A little bit of cream under your chin will light up your face.’ And she was quite right. A high neck in ivory is great for your complexion.”

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Merchant’s clients appreciate the inherited wisdom. She has just finished a bespoke French cotton lace bridal blouse with the eyelash detail of the lace finishing high up on the neck. “It has a button at the back and we lined the body but left the sleeves. It’s nice to have that balance of the demure high neck against the sheer arms.” For Merchant Archive’s autumn/winter 2017 ready-to-wear collection, also available at Selfridges, a standout feature is the oversized necktie that comes on long duchesse-satin evening coats, either sleeveless (£1,295) or with three-quarter length sleeves (£1,385), and a duchesse-satin jumpsuit (£1,695) exclusive to Selfridges in striking shades of powder blue and rust. After looking at photographs of fading flowers by the landscape gardener Isabel Bannerman, Merchant was inspired to create the petal-like bow that folds over itself in a rather dramatic wilt. “It’s very sumptuous and modern,” she says. “The cloth is beautiful, sourced from a 200-year-old French mill we work with, and I love the idea of this one structural detail while the rest of the garment is quite minimal.”

These are statement pieces perfect for evening, when a smart silk high-necked blouse or top looks great with a slim mini- or midi-length skirt. Some of the best options come from Saint Laurent, where Anthony Vaccarello has created turtleneck blouses in both black and white crepe de Chine (£850) as well as a petrol-blue washed satin (£1,020) with ties that fall between waist and knee. Indeed, the modesty of the high neck almost allows you to turn up the glamour volume to a 1980s level of loud. In his current collection, the London-based designer Ashish has a disco-chic, sequinned, black and silver, silk-georgette turtleneck top (£1,295) that would have an altogether different effect with a V or low-cut neckline. But as it is, worn with a fluid mid-length skirt or simple black trousers, it adds up to something brilliantly now.

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