Behind the Turtleneck

10.06.11

Steve Jobs's Timeless Geek Chic

The late Apple CEO was committed to his uniform of faded, relaxed-fit jeans and black mock turtleneck. In both his attire and his company, Jobs proved simplicity is powerful and elegant, says Robin Givhan.

Women have long struggled with a confusing abundance of fashion choices, but mostly they’ve been able to use that bounty to their advantage. The most skillful have managed to assemble a personal signature—a particular frock or embellishment with which they’re instantly associated and that accurately reflects some characteristic of their public persona. Think, for instance, of Anna Wintour and the shrewd protectiveness of her Chanel sunglasses or Madeleine Albright and her quietly political brooches.

Men, by contrast, have relied on the anonymous power suit. It is a universal form of public camouflage—blandly appropriate and never distracting. So pervasive is the reliance on the business suit that men who shun it often are defined by the sheer audacity of their refusal rather than by their chosen alternative—be it Dockers and a T-shirt, or the generic rock-star costume of tight jeans and a dandified shirt.

This reality makes the sartorial distinction of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, all the more astounding. He made the kind of personal style statement that eludes most men. His clothes—neither disconcertingly flashy, nor self-consciously dowdy—came to be uniquely associated with him, indicative of the streamlined ease of his technical wizardry, but wholly accessible, uncomplicated and welcoming.

Jobs was supremely committed to his chosen uniform: faded, relaxed-fit jeans and a black mock turtleneck. Over the course of three decades, there was little variation in this modest fashion mantra. While he might occasionally have worn a black button-down shirt rather than his beloved turtleneck, or he might have gotten a little fancy with a pair of leather lace-ups instead of sneakers, mostly Jobs held firm to a look that became both recognizable and reassuring.

Even as he became wealthier and more powerful, Jobs never appeared to have upgraded his uniform. The mock turtleneck never took on a noticeably luxurious sheen or an especially precise fit—as if a Gap pullover had been exchanged for one from Hermes. One can’t even give Jobs the moniker: “sneaker-head.” There’s little that was rarified and hip about his gray New Balance sneakers, unless one counts the patriotic thrill of buying from a company that prominently markets itself as the only major athletic shoe brand that’s made in America. (Yet even that is shaky braggadocio, as there’s been some debate about whether that’s wholly accurate based on FTC standards.)

But no matter. Jobs’s uniform was the closest thing to geek chic that anyone had ever come. His wasn’t a fashion-world interpretation of nerdy style, which would inevitably have involved atrociously expensive eyewear and some achingly self-conscious mix of Thom Browne, Band of Outsiders, and the spoils of a vintage store or a back-alley dumpster dive. Jobs’s clothes were the real nerdy deal.

His attire was unquestionably efficient and banal, yet with just the tiniest hint of Steve McQueen cool in that mod black turtleneck. It stood in marked contrast to the technological world he created, one renowned for its elegance and graceful sophistication. Perhaps that was a good thing. Jobs was the self-defined literate geek so that his customers didn’t have to be.

As the technically illiterate masses embraced his iPods and iPhones, iMacs and iPads, they did so confident that the supergeeks in Cupertino had figured out all the details. The lure of Apple for the common man was that he didn’t have to know anything about hard-drives and Pentium processors to enjoy the benefits of them. Straight from the box. Plug it in. Maaa-gic.

His attire was unquestionably efficient and banal, yet with just the tiniest hint of Steve McQueen cool.

There was reassurance built into Jobs’ reliable, smart-guy attire with its whiff of easy nonchalance. He didn’t come across as the buttoned-up businessman who was interested only in the bottom-line—even though he was. He didn’t reek of hipster attitude, the kind of intimidating insider bravura that leaves outsiders unnerved. But he wasn’t so aggressively dorky that he overwhelmed the room with his awkwardness.

His style was that of the super smart guy who tutors you through calculus with his brain power, but ultimately makes you love math because of his simple charm. In both his attire and his company, Jobs proved that simplicity is both powerful and elegant.