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.

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.

The fall is all the more painful since it is the latter style that is not only the original cardigan, but which has the most rakish credentials. Many will have heard that it was James Thomas Brudenell, British Army Officer and the Earl of Cardigan – as well as being the man to lead the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade – who devised the button-through sweater that took his title. Yet fewer will appreciate that the soft, braided and sometimes fur-trimmed number – which became something of a fad among the Victorian well-to-do – was made the way it was less to keep him warm in Crimea, but to allow him to put it on without messing up his hair.


    January 2020


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