The Case for Cardigans

Grungy man wearing a cardigan
Image credit: @kjax on Unsplash

For whatever reason, cardigans were the first bits of vintage clothing I became interested in. It may have been my grandmother’s love for them that did it, covered as she always was in my childhood in layer upon layer of comfy knitwear. Looking back, I could swear that she would wear up to three or more cardigans on any given day — a real pullover power move from my nan. Or maybe it was just hoping to project a general Max Fischer-esque precociousness. ‘Wise beyond my years’ was, regretfully, the general vibe I went for in my high school and university days.

Either way, I started snapping up every cardie I could get my hands on. These included the few I managed to find in malls and high street shops, those I convinced older friends and relatives to part with on my account, and — most promisingly — the ones bought for pennies in charity shops and thrift stores. I still have a bunch of these early acquisitions, which I wear regularly. Some are hand-knit with leather buttons, others stained and moth-eaten, most feature some strange pattern or unfamiliar label.

While I’m not sure why I initially took to wearing cardigans, I am dead certain why I’ve continued to do so since. There is, as far as I’m concerned, quite simply no better item of knitwear to be found. They are comfortable, cosy, and versatile. They’re also an MVP-calibre addition to any wardrobe (more on this later), but most importantly cardigans are gloriously easygoing. You can pop them on and off as needed, anytime, anywhere, and you can do so without the danger of mucking up your hair and pulling half (or all) of your shirt off in the process. Never before has a cardigan committed the cardinal sin of exposing an unsuspecting midriff.

Richard Burton wearing a cardigan
Richard Burton rocking a cardie
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

I’m not alone in this comparative antipathy toward closed-neck sweaters. A frustration with constricting necklines in knitwear was shared by two of the most important people in the cardigan’s history.

The first is the man who gave the garment its name. The story of its progenitor, James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, is well known. Described by historian Robert Powyszynski, Sr. as ‘an arrogant and cantankerous person,’ he also had a keen interest in clothing and some very deep pockets. He once spent £10 000 (that’s in 19th-century sterling — an amount that would be the equivalent of several million today) to outfit his entire regiment with new uniforms. He also famously led the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War following a series of disastrous miscommunications. Not sharing the same fate as the ‘noble six hundred’ described in Tennyson’s poem about the doomed charge, Cardigan survived unscathed, having reached the Russian lines only to turn around and head back to safety. Before this scandalous truth came out, he received a hero’s welcome back in London and his signature garment became a hot commodity for chilly Brits everywhere. 

All pretty well-known, as I said. What’s less often mentioned is that the Earl only adopted his particular fur-trimmed and braided buttoned cardigan — a garment derived from traditional fishermen’s clothing of the 1600s — to save his hairdo from getting ruffled.

The same was true for Coco Chanel, probably the second most important figure in the history of everyone’s favourite slouchy sweater and one equally uninterested in having her coiffure disarranged. As she had done with so many pieces of menswear, Chanel turned this macho bit of militaria into a women’s wardrobe staple. She made her first ‘sweater-shirt’ herself by simply taking a pair of scissors to an old jumper. 

After Coco Chanel, the cardigan went on to enjoy a rich feminist history (which you can read more about here), but its place in male wardrobes equally shifted in the early and mid-twentieth century. 

Henri Matisse wearing a cardigan
A cardiganed Henri Matisse working on paper cut out
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

For one thing, it found a place in American youth culture of the 1940s and ’50s thanks to the letterman system. Students who reached a certain level of excellence in sports, academics, or cultural activities were awarded a chenille letter (typically their school’s initial) to be sewn onto the left breast of a heavy cardigan or letterman jacket. These became prized accessories — in fiction as in real life, since there has scarcely been an on-screen teen without one since Happy Days

The mid-century tide was changing for grownups too. In its early days, the cardigan was typically fashioned as a long and hardy working garment, essentially a sweater coat, associated with automobile drivers and other macho types. But, during the Second World War, as men’s wardrobes were first divided along the lines of work and leisure, the cardigan was deemed inappropriate for the workplace and so became a household staple instead. Generations of dads pottering about in garden sheds dutifully adopted a cardigan as their garment of choice. Where better to keep a pipe, after all, than the patch pocket of your favourite cardie?

The other place cardigans found a home was on the golf course, where its fusty domestic image got more of an edge courtesy of celebs like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Cuomo. Sinatra, who preferred his in orange, is said to have run up an annual knitwear bill of $30 000 at the store of his local course in Palm Springs — nearly enough to give the original Cardigan a run for his money.

Given their versatility, cardigans have been favourites of Steve McQueen, Her Majesty The Queen, and just about everyone in between. Steve liked a shawl neck, Fred Rogers preferred ones with zippers, and professional golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer generally went in for a baggy kind known as alpacas.

Nat King cole wearing a cardigan
Nat King Cole teaching his daughter to play the piano while wearing the ultimate dad garment
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Such variety deservedly makes cardigans ‘the workhorses of the apparel family’, as Allison Geller put it in the Atlantic:

‘So ubiquitous it’s easy to forget that they didn’t always exist. They are sold at most clothing stores in a rainbow of colors, and at democratic prices. They can be either exceedingly preppy or seductively edgy, depending on who wears it, and how: button-downed professionalism versus grungy Kurt Cobain hair flip.’

Allison Geller

Cobain’s is, indeed, a great example of just how versatile cardigans can be. His scruffy jeans and T-shirt combos showed a new generation of men that buttoned jumpers don’t only go with collared shirts and sport coats. And, as further (very literal) evidence of the value of Kurt’s cardies, one of his most famous numbers, worn to Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged gig, sold at auction for no less than $334 000.

Not bad, then, for a piece of clothing that’s so often thought of as fusty or grandfatherly. Instead, the cardigan proves endlessly versatile and (for my money, at least) absolutely essential. Which is why, as autumn begins to creep in, I’ll be settling into the woollen comforts of my own sizable collection. These might not fetch six figures on the open market, but to me they remain invaluable.

Kurt Cobain wearing a cardigan
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain wearing his signature piece of knitwear
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

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