Flippin' Out

What does the collar on a summer shirt signify? Interpretations go neck and neck.

Collars are up this summer. This is significant, because it's among the few fashion statements that has primarily evil implications. Not a single humanitarian act has ever been committed by someone with a fully upturned collar. No one pops a collar to go volunteer at the women's shelter or pitch in at the soup kitchen. That said, upturned collars can be a cool and intriguing look. There are several theories to explain the resurgence of the style. It could be part of a more general 1980s preppie revival, but this '80s "revival" has been going on in some form or other since 1990. Though there is something to the revival theory—many who couldn't wear their collars up then because of social pressures or the landscape of their confidence at the time, are able to embrace the fashion now. This pattern is similar to the one followed by current devotees of black heavy-metal T-shirts—people who would've gotten whipped for wearing Iron Maiden shirts in 1985 are wearing them now with brio and impunity.

Practically, an upturned collar can protect the neck from sunburn or a slight chill, but fashion is only partly based on practicality. It's more about art and communication—the body as canvas, sending carefully crafted messages. If all we wanted to do was screen the sun, we'd wear moon suits. Or sunscreen.

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Jack-a-nape!
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Pop life

The style's current popularity is likely related to Bush's re-election. Bush 41 was more of a collar-up guy than Bush 43, but the embellishment is a nod of acceptance to the family dynasty, a look that had its last heyday during Reagan. It may also be a reaction to amorphous war (cold, on terror)—a subconscious display of defense (protecting the neck) and stealthy aggression (collar as cape). Of course the fashion that peaked during Clinton's tenure was grunge. Sloppily fitting, slouchy, even stained—could it have been any other way?

Whatever one's politics, we could all use a little moneyed leisure. And while actual moneyed leisure takes a lot of money, and leisure time, its ideals—based on a casual, sporting attitude toward life—can be evoked for free, with an easily performed alteration to a shirt you already have.

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Greetings from great neck
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It doubles as a sundial

The cost is what people might think of you. There is a lot of animosity toward upturned collars. "Tool" is what the look suggests to many. It doesn't deserve this much vituperation (though it does deserve some—that tension is part of the look's appeal). Most of our ideas about the embellishment come from movies, where the look serves as shorthand for aristocratic bully (early James Spader, the heavies in 1984's Up the Creek). I've even taken to doing outreach work to soften the harsh image of the upturned collar—flipping mine way up and doing good deeds around the city: helping people carry strollers up stairs, offering seats, giving money to anyone who asks for it. It's heavy lifting changing the connotations of fashions, but I do what I can.

The debate about collars is especially fierce among the college crowd. There are a lot of passionate college paper editorials weighing in on the look, and even a number of university groups dedicated to hating upturned collars. I can't remember exactly what I debated in college, but I like to think it was of more consequence than collar positioning. Save the fluff for adulthood. And this animosity from college students doesn't make sense: If anyone can get away with turned-up collars, they can. It's one of those things that are far easier to pull off during college than afterward—like smoking, bisexuality, and a messiah complex.

What detractors react negatively to is the perceived intentionality of the high collar—that it demonstrates the wearer is trying too hard. (Though one adherent says intentionality is what softens the look: No one who cares about personal fashion could be too bad.) A Queens woman who makes a partial living selling vintage clothes on eBay is turned off by the trend because she imagines a moment when the wearer stood in front of the mirror, yanked up his collar, then winked and cocked an imaginary gun at himself.

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Garden variety
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Pop life

Building on this interpretation, many support the look only when it is (or at least appears) unintentional. "If I roll out of bed, throw on my shirt and the collar's up, I'm hip. If it's down, I'm still hip," is how one F.I.T. dropout described the attitude. This reading recurs among the fashionable. An actress describes this Buddhist angle: "It happens by accident, then you just take to it." Let the collar itself decide. It is those who force the issue who are in error. But just as there is no such thing as a truly self-made person, a collar never acts independently. It is pushed and pulled by a network of social forces and self-image.

Its meanings aren't simple. The look can signal conservative or gay, modern gentry or deconstruction worker. Or nothing. It frames the face in a way that is flattering but essentially vampiric. The look isn't confined to one demographic; it seems to be as prevalent in Chinatown and pizza parlors as it is in Madison Square Park or the No. 6 train as it moves through the Upper East Side.

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