On a roll

Stephen Doig looks into how the roll neck sweater became a mainstay in every stylish wardrobe and why N.Peal's get it right every time.

It's rare that an item of knitwear - a category often perceived as the more 'sedate' end of the wardrobe spectrum - should evolve as something of a controversial piece of clothing. It isn't low-slung jeans or brothel creepers, after all. But the roll neck's journey has been an adventurous one, despite the connotations of upright politeness that the raised neckline would suggest. So much so, in fact, that when I once wrote about roll necks for a national newspaper, the subject was vigorously debated on a national TV panel show.
Perhaps because, unlike its quieter siblings the V-neck and the round neck pull over, the roll neck makes a statement by virtue of that oh-so-singular detail on the neckline. It gained a sort of devilish allure in the 1970s thanks to pop culture appearances. There was Roger Moore's Bond in Live And Let Die, gun holster slung over his black polo neck. Then there was the Cadbury's Milk Tray Man, a sort of 007 on a sugar high, stealthy in his sleek black polo neck. It had first become a calling card of counter culture, with the beatnik generation of the 60s adopting it as part of their brooding attire (complete with angsty haircut and pocket book of poetry).But it was its starring role alongside Bond that would be reprised decades later, with 007 wearing an evolution of the black roll neck in Spectre, created by N. Peal and designed to showcase his athletic form while still looking 'done up'. Perhaps that's part of the roll neck's appeal - the high neckline means that there's an uprightness to it, but it encourages the imagination as to what lies beneath.Marilyn Monroe certainly took advantage of that seductive duality. Founder Nat Peal, who set up the house in 1936, formed friendships with the great and the good of Hollywood, including Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, but it was Marilyn Monroe who opted for his roll necks, presumably for the sense of covered-up seduction they offered for her sex symbol silhouette. Part of the appeal of the roll neck is in its versatility, not only in how it can be worn, but in the myriad forms it comes in. There's the classical 'Bond' look, which is sleek and figure hugging, in a fine gauge of knit, or superfine cashmere for Bond women. There's the 50s-esque, cropped sleeve 'mock neck' with a shorter neckline for women that recalls retro Americana. There's the rugged cable-knit roll neck, for a Nordic fisherman feel in the depths of winter, or its flowing, oversized opposite number for women - just accessorise with a log fire.

Similarly, its strength lies in its versatility - pair a sleek, dark-hued roll neck with an evening jacket for cocktails as a contemporary alternative to starchy shirting, or don a short sleeved version with a flowing, patterned skirt for a minimalist contrast. A roll neck looks as chic in classic black, a soft pastel, or a vibrant red or royal blue - either way it conveys paired-back, considered style. Whichever interpretation suits you best, the peerlessly crafted roll necks at N. Peal - a mainstay since 1936 - are an informed go-to.

Discover the N.Peal collection of men's cashmere roll necks and women's roll neck cashmere jumpers. Stephen Doig is the men's style editor and assistant luxury editor at The Telegraph.