Have you ever noticed that some chefs—particularly famous, television chefs—pop their collars? Why are they doing that? Is this a stylistic choice or based in practicality?
There are a few main offenders in this: Julia Collin Davison of America’s Test Kitchen and the iconic Ina Garten, whose upturned collar has reinforced her status as a WASP queen. Giada De Laurentiis also tends to pop her collar which seems like more of a fluke than anything else since she is much different in style and substance from Collin Davison and Garten.
And what is that difference? A preppy, New England quality.
Their collar popping, while cute and assumedly functional, look to be the result of fancy, preppy ways associated with rich white women who Summer in pearls and find themselves in the kitchen only as a casual formality of gender instead of obligation. These are people who cook not out of necessity but because of a cultural acknowledgment of Americana domesticity evolved from housekeeper to homeowner. There’s a sense that these popped collared chefs are at the top of the food chain, looking down over a series of people who do the real work.
This can be supported in looking at others who pop, a term technically referred to as the “upturned” collar. People like Collins Davison and Garten came of age around the late mid-century along with contemporaries like Wendie Malick and Diane Sawyer, two other people known for their popped collars. They too have a preppy ways and means about them.
For context, let’s look to Wikipedia to explain what the popped collar means. In short: it’s a calling card for the rich.
In 1980, Lisa Birnbach published The Official Preppy Handbook, in which she extolled the “virtues of the upturned collar”. According to Ms. Birnbach, rather than being a sports innovation, the upturned collar on a tennis shirt was simply a signal that the wearer is a “preppy”. Despite this obviously tongue-in-cheek characterization, Ms. Birnbach did correctly identify that one was more likely to view an upturned collar on the beaches of Nantucket than one would in middle America.
While dudes popping the collar risk fratty indulgence, it’s all based in preps a certain age—specifically women—popping a collar to conjure someone like a Kennedy. It’s a marker of the “true prep,” a class of people who are often imitated but infrequently experienced firsthand. This is why someone like Ina is so beloved: they are a voyeuristic window into both the upper class and economically unavailable.
But let’s zoom further into this since collars in the kitchen are a subject that are semi-frequently discussed although not explicitly. First, let’s examine similar culinary icons who also lean preppy: Julia Child and Martha Stewart. They too are known for similar collared shirts—but without a pop. The style of up collars has been noted on shows like Top Chef, where queer contestants like Arnold Myint sported the style as fashionable flair. Still: what utility outside of fashion and preppy conjuring does a kitchen popped collar have?
It might serve a similar purpose to the collar of a chef’s jacket which is constantly upturned in a Mandarin finish. This might also represent the evolution of the neckerchief, a culinary item worn under the jacket to keep cooks cool (and for style). The blog Chef Works explains the significance of the accessory—
It may seem like adding more pieces of fabric to your uniform when you’re in a steamy environment seems counterintuitive, but the neckerchief actually helps keep you cool.
Tied around your neck, it protects your skin from sweat, and it keeps sweat from dripping, which you definitely don’t want in the food. It can also be untied and used to wipe your brow. In an air-conditioned kitchen, a neckerchief may not be necessary, but in some high-end establishments, it may be required simply because it looks professional and completes the uniform.
It might be that these popped collar chefs are keeping cool while adding a stylish means to prevent sweat from dripping into dishes. Might that be it?
Honestly? Who the fuck knows. Little has been said on the history or reasoning of some details (like the collar) on a chef’s coat and, with culinary figures like Collins Davison and Garten’s lifestyles aligning so closely with their food, it’s easy and difficult to understand the overlap of where the profession and personal begins and ends.
While we may never be given a solid answer, I do have a theory found in Garten’s style since she frequently wears scarves that imitate neckerchiefs with a popped collar: it’s a more casual, devolved chef’s coat and neckerchief, that replaces the outerwear with a shirt and the neckwear with a scarf. The result is something more light and carefree, sophisticated and personalized. It’s less of a business and more of a lifestyle. In effect, it’s a flourish on the common: it’s a means for the pampered chef to honor a field while keeping a distance.