Recently we shared ‘How to wear Men’s Waistcoats and Odd Vests’, in which we highlighted how vests can give your existing wardrobe a new look. In today’s article we describe a garment that shares these compelling qualities – the Cardigan.
How the Cardigan Got Its Name
The Cardigan is named after Major General James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who was a British officer serving in the Crimean War. Before we get to the history of the Cardigan, let’s define what it actually is.
A Cardigan is a knitted vest or sweater that is buttoned in the front. The button front allows the Cardigan to be worn open or closed as a replacement for a jacket, which allows for a smooth transition from outdoor wear to indoor wear. It is a versatile garment that can be worn in a range of temperatures, which makes it an almost all season garment.
Characteristics of a Cardigan
- A knitted sweater
- ‘V’ neck
- Buttoned front (while zipped variants are also available, they are not considered true Cardigans)
- No buttons on the sleeve
- No lapels
- No chest pocket
- Usually has two side pockets, but these are optional
- Full sleeved – sleeveless variants are also available although strictly speaking, these are called knitted vests.
- Available in plain, textured, cable, lightweight or heavy knits (sometimes similar in style to a cricket / tennis sweater)
On the one hand, a cardigan is quite similar to a jacket but on the other hand it is distinctly different. In the following you will learn about the intricacies of the cardigan, beginning with it’s history.
History of the Cardigan
The Cardigan gets its name from Major General James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. The Earl was a British Commander in the Crimean war (modern day Ukraine). From 1853 – 1856, Great Britain and Russia were battling over the territory of the declining Ottoman Empire. As early as 1854, British soldiers wore a type of knitted woolen coat or sweater coat, which had the basic design of the modern day Cardigan.
This woolen coat gained notoriety after the Earl was ordered to lead a doomed cavalry assault across a valley against a Russian cannon emplacement on high ground. As you can imagine, the casualty count was high and this incident was eulogized by the famous poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. Legend has it that the Earl returned to his yacht for dinner after the battle.
The poem achieved cult status, and the resulting fallout was the introduction of the woolen coat to the general civilian public. This knitted wool coat was used as a template for a new type of sweater that was subsequently named Cardigan. However, the woolen coat was quite different from the modern cardigan, as it was sometimes fur lined and featured braided trims.
Though named after the Earl of Cardigan, the garment’s history dates further back. In the 17th century, British and French fishermen adopted the garment to keep warm on cold winter days at sea. The Cardigan was popular in America as well, and in 1865 the Harvard University Baseball team added the letter ‘H’ to the front of its jerseys and the ‘V’ necked letter cardigan became a prep favorite on campuses across the country.
Coco Chanel revived interest in the cardigan among women during the 1920s. A decade later, cardigans became popular in American men’s fashion as well as on the golf course; Esquire featured them regularly.
For the last few years, cardigans for men in various colors, styles and shapes have been very popular, yet it remains difficult to find cardigans in classic patterns such as bird’s eye, houndstooth, and Prince of Wales check among others.
Modern Cardigan Styles
Most men’s cardigans these days have plastic buttons whereas horn, mother of pearl, wood or leather button fronts are both classic and preferable. If your garment comes with plastic buttons, they are easily exchanged. Moreover, wooden toggle closures present a welcome alternative to those looking for something different. As mentioned earlier, zipped cardigan inspired sweaters are also available, but personally, I dislike them for their lack of classic appeal and the stubborn unwillingness of zippers to lie flat. Moreover, buttoned cardigans usually have a v-neck that allows you to show your tie or bow tie and shirt, a feature that nicely complements a classic wardrobe.
The Cardigan comes in a variety of materials these days: acrylic, wool, lambswool, cashmere, wool blends or cotton just to name a few. The type of material and thickness of the yarn depends on the time of year you wish to wear the cardigan. Generally you can find anything from super-heavy handknit cardigans to machinemade lightweight cardigans for summer evenings, making it a versatile garment.
While many modern cardigans have common flat knits, this is the perfect garment to experiment with 3 dimensional knits that add texture. While many men opt for dark beige or brown solid colored, non – patterned cardigans, I find them to be rather boring. If you want to go with a solid color, you may want to add some texture to your outfit or maybe add a dash of color on the form of contrast piping. Traditional patterns for a cardigan are Argyle, houndstooth, Aran, and stripes. Fair Isle and Nordic patterns are also a good choice for the colder months of the year.
Textures include cable knits, saxon braids or honeycombs. For an overview of different styles, click here or here. At the end of the day, it is a personal as well as stylistic choice you have to make. If you don’t want texture, look for a slightly mottled melange color such as gray or brown because it provides more depth and hence a sophisticated look.
As the cardigan can be worn almost throughout the year a lot of thought needs to be given to the color one chooses. Certain colors are suitable for certain seasons and therefore one needs to be sure at what time of the year one intends to wear a cardigan before settling on something. Browns, greys, beiges or dark greens are often seen during fall/winter season, while red, light blue, light green and white are more geared towards summer. As always, the choice is yours.
Cardigans come in a variety of knits which influences the warmth of the cardigan. Indoor or layering cardigans have a thin knit; medium knits are suitable for indoor/outdoor and larger cable knits are suitable for the cold. Again one needs to be clear as to which knit is suitable for the purpose one has in mind.
Fit of a Cardigan
Just like with a jacket, the fit of a cardigan is of the utmost importance. Fortunately, it is a flexible garment that adapts to the shape of your body. Ideally, the cardigan should fit in the shoulders, taper from down through the chest to the abdomen and then widen slightly around the waist. You will find that cardigans come in various lengths but they should always be long enough to cover your belt or waistband because otherwise you will look like you borrowed it from your younger brother.
Just like with regular jackets, pay attention to the size of the armholes. If they are too tight, you will feel uncomfortable and if they are too large, not only will it look baggy but you will quickly become annoyed at the need to pull the sweater back down over your belt.
The cardigan is a casual garment that adds a lot of versatility to your outfits. For example, you can substitute your sportcoat with a cardigan in addition to regular sweaters. Skip a t-shirt underneath and opt instead for a dress shirt and tie underneath. It is a perfect garment to wear on casual occasions yet still helps you exercise your tie collection. Because of its casual character, knit ties are an ideal companion for cardigans.
When you replace a blazer or sportcoat, opt for a thick knit cardigan because thin ones often look too flimsy on their own. You can keep the rest of your wardrobe the same as if you are wearing your sports coat or you can add another layer with a vest. While I would not recommend substituting a jacket with a cardigan in traditional work environments, a cardigan can be a godsend if a regular sportcoat would be considered too formal for work because the formality of a cardigan is somewhere between a sweater and a blazer.
Lately, cardigans with the silhouette of a traditional sportcoat or blazer have become more popular. They combine the flexible nature of a cardigan with the more structured look of a traditional jacket.
Just like the blazer cardigans, double breasted cardigans are more widely available now. While the double layer of knit keeps you warmer, it is likely to be more a whim of fashion rather than a long term style trend. Some men like to wear the cardigan underneath a jacket. Basically it will look just like you are wearing a knit vest with the exception of the visible sleeves.
If you want to wear a cardigan in the manner, always opt for a thin knit because otherwise you will be constricted, especially in the arms and shoulder areas. A thin cardigan can also be a great option to soften up an otherwise more formal outfit: just think of a thin light gray cardigan, worn with a white shirt, burgundy tie and navy pinstripe suit. Traditionally, the pin stripe suit is too formal for knitwear but if you wear it with confidence, it can look very dapper indeed.
Just like shirts, the correct sleeve length is important. If you wear just a cardigan, it looks best not to show any shirt cuff. On the other hand, if you wear a thin cardigan underneath a blazer it may look nice to show some cardigan and shirt cuff.
A thinner knit cardigan can replace your waistcoat. This of course is applicable mostly to odd waistcoats. While I would not recommend this for your three piece suit, I am sure there are people out there who could pull this off. If you are one of them, this could really add a dash to your style. Once again, you can retain the rest of the elements of the ‘original’ look. Follow the same rules for the waistcoat when it comes to buttoning the buttons of your cardigan.
If you just want to substitute a sweater, you can pair the cardigan particularly well chinos and denim.
Where to Buy Cardigans?
Over 99% of cardigans today come off the rack and because knit garments are more flexible than tailored garments, the fit can be excellent. However, most clothing companies manufacture and sell cardigans, including Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers etc. Basically, you can find cardigans in any price range and often times, the price depends on the quality and weight of the yarn used. A heavy knit cashmere cardigan is going to set you back several hundred dollars, though it can be worthwhile investment, whereas a thin cotton or wool blend cardigan can be had for around $100 or less.
Yarns are generally more expensive the higher the ply. Knitwear is often advertised as two ply, which means that two threads have been spun into one yarn. This helps to equalize the variations in fiber thickness and creates a stronger yarn. While 2 ply is good for cotton, great wool or cashmere fabrics are usually 3-ply, 4-ply, 6-ply and the most expensive heavy knits even 8-ply. As always, true quality has its price but a high price does not automatically warrant a high quality cardigan.
About a year ago, I was contacted by Fox Hunt Menswear from England, a little company that produces OTR knitwear but also bespoke options. So if you want something truly unique, you may ask your grandmother or go with a company like Fox Hunt to acquire a cardigan after your very own taste. If you do so, you need to be able to present pictures of details you want, otherwise you may end up with something you did not really order.
This article was a collaborative effort of Vikram Nanjappa and Sven Raphael Schneider.