Its associations are rich, crossing the boundaries between the American beats and the French avant-garde and the cool cats of the British scene in the 1950s and 1960s.
Favoured by many of the more interesting university and art school types, the unassuming polo-neck brought a whiff of left-bank intellectualism and existential cafe life in Soho and Fitzrovia to the streets of the suburbs.
However, the polo-neck had to be handled with care, and its messages could be confusing.
The long, baggy, ‘sloppy joe’ style sweater spoke of trad jazz, pints of beer and the Aldermarston marches organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1950s.
The tighter, skinnier model referenced an edgier allegiance to the scarier writers of the beat era and the Modern Jazz Quartet, or MJQ as we quickly learnt to say, desperately listening for the beat we could dance to (OK, OK, it just took some of us a bit of time).
It was also a tough style to carry off. The high neck drew attention to the face, which worked well if you had small features and good bone structure (sigh).
The women whose polo-necked images have become part of our cultural history, such as Juliette Greco and Françoise Hardy, were stunning poster girls for the style, combining looks, talent and a particular way with a chanson, and in Greco’s case, immersion in political and philosophical matters.
In some cases, the intellectual weight of the black polo-neck didn’t quite carry through.
The Beatles create a moody look on the cover of the 1963 album With The Beatles, their unsmiling faces gazing at us from the surrounding blackness.
But hey — it’s The Beatles, practically fresh from the Cavern Club and it’s their second album, and the songs are great, a lovely mix of R and B and Motown covers, but they don’t project the literary awareness, the bedsit and coffee bar vibe which the cover suggests.
The intellectual ambiguity of the black polo-neck is enchantingly portrayed in the 1957 film Funny Face, in which Audrey Hepburn plays a mousy, bespectacled, philosophy-loving beatnik assistant in a Greenwich Village bookstore who is ‘spotted’ and whisked off to Paris to be transformed into a top model, presented as combining both intellect and beauty.
It’s great fun, and the fashion world and pseudo-intellectualism get some enjoyable stick along the way, but the lasting image is of the untransformed Hepburn in her skinny trousers, flats, and black polo-neck, before she is ‘rescued’ from her bohemian life of books and, OK, rather dodgy ideas.
The black polo-neck as a symbol of style and intellect — step right up, Joan Didion.
Since the 1960s, through her novels, magazine pieces and essays, Didion has explored the nuances and complexities of contemporary life through the prism of her own feelings and experiences.
A literary heavyweight, this month, at 80 years old, she has become the face of major fashion house, Celine, pictured wearing what the fashion press have described as a black ribbed sweater, a turtle-neck, a polo-neck.
Whatever the subtleties of design, in essence it must be a black polo-neck, reinstated as the thinking (in this case, woman’s) choice of expressive garment, to be accessorised with a bag containing at least one book and a personal notebook (see On Keeping A Notebook, in Didion’s collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem). Good cheekbones, sadly, not so easily acquired…