Not Into a Bikini? Try Katharine Hepburn’s Layered Summer Style

I WOULDN’T say that the ’80s movie “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn as a patrician, graying couple, has aged particularly well. Its sentimental depiction of lakeside living, its sepia-crusted cinematography and its Muzak score feel like relics of a different time. But what doesn’t feel like a relic is the wardrobe Ms. Hepburn wears to portray the nearly-70-year-old Ethel Thayer. In almost every scene, she offers some version of one distinctive look: a turtleneck layered under a button-up shirt.

“I look like an old character,” says Ethel in the film when gazing at herself in her cabin’s mirror. And she does, in the sense that she has more personality and assurance than, perhaps, conventional sex appeal. There she goes, spotting a loon in a black turtleneck under a green military-ish safari shirt. And fluffing pillows in a white turtleneck under an oversize Levi’s denim shirt. Then she’s boating across the lake in a navy-blue turtleneck with a striped oxford shirt on top. It’s no accident that this elegant, modest look feels suddenly right for a pandemic spring when we want to be outdoors but aren’t doing anything overly exciting.

I started layering a snug black Uniqlo Heattech turtleneck underneath my own Levi’s denim shirt, or a pale-blue button-up, as a way to punch up my Zoom wardrobe without resorting to the widely touted puffed sleeves and statement earrings that felt too ornamental for my plain tastes. I was thinking of “On Golden Pond,” and also the Row, the New York label designed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen that has repeatedly sent this type of layered look down the runway over the past few years. Svetlana Wehrle, 54, an HR manager in Zurich who often replicates Ms. Hepburn’s androgynous looks, agrees that turtlenecks are perfect for videoconferencing: “It’s like a frame to the face.”

These are subtle, inward-facing times we’re experiencing. I can change my whole mood by switching from lemon to lime LaCroix seltzer. So intentionally adding one extra layer—it simply feels good. Brian Molloy, a New York City stylist who has worked with the Row and Hermès, said he’s “kind of addicted” to styling turtlenecks under shirts. “Just a shirt can feel kind of normal or corporate but then you have a turtleneck under it and it adds this whole other level of warmth and protection,” he said. “It’s a nod to luxury, an extra layer that enhances the look.”

That kind of coziness is not everyone’s favorite outdoor style. I’ve seen a lot of athletic crop tops around recently. But if you’re hiking in the early-morning mist, or scared, like me, of ticks, then dressing in layers makes a lot of sense. Adding a jacket provides one more opportunity for graphic juxtaposition. Mr. Molloy proposed, “You could do a red turtleneck under a blue shirt under a beige jacket.” It’s stark but not boring.

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