The Cardigan: Knitwear's Unsung Hero

Although once favoured by Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, the cardigan has had a hard time shaking its fusty associations. Here, The Rake makes a case for this practical garment.

Taking a break from a recording session at Capitol Recording Studios, 1964 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

There’s no pipe and it’s impossible to know if he’s wearing slippers. But he is reclined in an armchair. And, most damning of all, he is wearing a cardigan. The other guy was barely seen without his pipe, and he’s in a cardigan too, from Slazenger. Welcome to the old folk’s home? Not exactly. The former is Frank Sinatra, on the cover of Nice ‘n’ Easy. The latter is his mentor Bing Crosby, in a 1977 TV Christmas special with David Bowie. Both were style leaders in their day. So were fellow crooners Andy Williams and Perry Como, who made the cardigan something of a signature when hosting his TV shows through the late 1950s. Just what was it about barstool singers and cardigans?

And yet, over the following half century, this timeless piece of knitwear has fallen from grace, associated more with men in their twilight years than those in the fashion spotlight. It’s a very particular fall from grace too, since it’s specifically about one kind of cardigan. Not the heavy, perhaps cable knit style with a shawl collar and rough leather buttons, which, perversely, is most typically associated with the macho likes of Steve McQueen, Miles Davis or the late Burt Reynolds. Not even the sporty, letterman style cardigan worn as a uniform by students on ‘Happy Days’-era campuses and jazz cool prepsters. But their thinner, weedier, more professorial, collarless cousin, with maybe polished mother of pearl buttons and dainty patch pockets.


January 2022


Also read