Rage Against The Cowl Neck

by Jo Nolan
Originally Published: 

I hate to break this to everyone. Not only have the clothing racks been cleared of summer attire (it’s still July, people), but also it appears that the cowl neck is back. I know. I know. You’re just as discouraged as I am that this atrocious neckline is rearing its ugly head again. A few years back, the cowl seemed to be making a comeback, but it was sporadic and short-lived, for which I was very grateful. The cowl vexed me in my teens, and I thought we said our final goodbyes many years ago. But now, there seems to be a new glut of cowls. A cowl conspiracy, if you will.

Now, I know that not all cowls are alike, and I shouldn’t lump them all in the same cowl category. Designers and retailers would have us think that there’s a cowl out there for every girl. The wide, bunchy cowl of the bulky knit is not the same as the softer cowl of the finer knits that drapes more casually. But I’ve never met a cowl that I liked. I just haven’t. Never.

As fashion-minded adult females, we need to unite and push back against the cowl industry and remove this fashion atrocity once and for all from our fashion consciousness. I mean, seriously, who thought women of all ages, sizes and shapes would look good in a cowl? Did Calvin or Ralph call up their respective staffs one day and say, “Hey, cowls look great on Benedictine monks, whaddya think?”

My aversion to cowl necks took hold in adolescence, that place where a young girl blossoming into womanhood is experimenting and deciding who she is, who she wants to be and how she wants the world to see her. An adolescent girl tries on different identities, ideologies and personalities to see which ones she likes and which ones she’ll kick off and leave on the closet floor. I just happened to decide back then, quickly and definitively, that I didn’t want the world to see me in a cowl neck, anywhere near a cowl neck, not even remotely involved with a cowl neck. When friends would ask me my opinion of how they looked after shimmying their way into their Jordaches while getting ready for the football game that night, I’d promptly stuff a Hydrox in my mouth and feign the inability to speak in order to get out of even looking like a cowl neck sympathizer.

You have to understand, I was small chested in high school (still am, for that matter), and cowl necks were all the rage. In 1983, every rack I looked through at a Foxmoor, Jordan Marsh or Lerner howled, “Cowl!” I just didn’t get it. I didn’t see the attraction. There were cowl neck shirts, dresses and sweaters with cowl necks, and oh, yes, mostly cowl neck sweaters, pastel and angora ones, no less. (Don’t get me started on angora!) When I tried on one of those beastly things, the cowl never draped correctly. And besides, when I looked down, I wanted to be able to see my toes. Are you with me?

Mostly, I felt suffocated by the cowl and by other turtlenecks, for that matter, which back then for some reason zipped up at the back of the neck, further restricting my attempts at breathing or swallowing comfortably. You know the ones I’m talking about, the ones with the snaps in the crotch? Oh, yeah! Now you remember. I felt trapped, and the lack of selection in all the stores was conspiring against me and forcing me into wearing the cowl. While going topless would have been incredibly freeing, I was, and am, far too concerned with what other people think about me, and I’m pretty sure showing my tiny breasts to the world would have been social suicide. There was no online respite to shop at back then, no Zappos or Shopbop to branch out of the cookie-cutter mall clothing accessible to the masses. I was stuck in cowl necks.

My own mother, a known cowl neck collaborator, plotted against my attempts to boycott the cowl. She looked pretty good in a cowl, so I think she concluded that her daughter (aka, the spitting image of her) would look good in them too. She bought me cowl neck sweaters all the time, and I think I vaguely recall a time or two when she had to use unnecessary force to get me to put one on to go out for a fancy dinner at The Hilltop.

It’s not like I don’t think cowl necks look good on other people; I do. My mom certainly did. Loni Anderson looked great in a cowl neck. I’m pretty sure I remember Valerie Bertinelli looking hot in her cowl neck sweaters on One Day at a Time. But maybe that’s just what it comes down to: A woman has to have the Playboy breasts of Anderson or the long, wavy brunette locks of Bertinelli (as well as stylists perfecting the perfect cowl drape for them) in order to pull off a cowl correctly. How many of us fit in those categories?

I must confess that in times of self-doubt and recrimination, I think, maybe I’m being unfair to the cowl. Maybe it’s me who does the injustice to the cowl neck rather than the other way around? I mean, I do seem to lack the finesse that one needs to figure out the intricacies of the extra fabric bunched up right at my nonexistent chest. Maybe I’m the fashion faux pas? Oh, don’t be absurd, I refuse to take this as a personal flaw.

Look, I realize there are plenty of other necklines out there, other necklines that I get along with famously. In fact, I seem to do just fine in a halter or a strapless number. I’m not as neckline-restricted as I was 30 years ago. Access to necklines that aren’t cowls is vast and wide nowadays—or, at least, I thought so. The plethora of cowls in my local clothing stores tells me that there’s something insidious afoot in the fashion industry. I mean, really, there wasn’t one sweater that wasn’t a cowl at Marshalls the other day. Is New Hampshire the stockpile of cowls, or is this blight more widespread?

This doesn’t have to happen, ladies. Together we can put a stop to this. I can’t go back to the way it was. I mean, pretty soon all the other women at work will be wearing cowls. My eighth graders will be sporting the latest cowls from Forever 21, thinking that this is the trend of the decade. God, my mother might even go up in her attic and pull out her old cowls tucked away in mothballs.

It’s really too much to bear.

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