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It’s officially sweater weather, and the options are as plentiful as presidential tweets. Perhaps a well-fitted pullover for blustery city traipsing or the season’s first ice-skating? A bohemian poncho for campfire hang-outs and outdoor concerts? For sure, but the cardigan, with its adaptable, cross-gender appeal, wins for versatility. Whatever your plans are, there’s something autumnal and cozy about even the gesture of wrapping one side, then the other, snugly around your torso.
Like many good cold-weather companions, the cardigan has a storied past. A century and a half of military combat, wild college days, television and movie appearances, political activism, and rock ’n’ roll headlining. Along the way, the wardrobe staple gained a reputation as approachable and avuncular with an edgy sort of intelligence.
A bombastic British aristocrat and the Crimean War are to thank for the cardigan’s basic form and name. Wars have often contributed details of dress, perhaps especially those of the mid-to-late 19th century, when technological innovations joined with the needs of various battles to increase clothing production, distribution, and advertising. A colorful example of war’s influence on style comes from the 1859 Battle of Magenta, a particularly bloody battle of the Second Italian War of Independence. In a fanciful confluence of science and revolution, the creators of a lurid pink synthetic dye decided to name the new hue after that gruesome melee the very next year.
The same decade as magenta’s debut, the Crimean War (1853-1856) introduced several long-lasting style components, including the cardigan, as fashion historian Jonathan Walford notes. At the battle of Balaclava a year into the war, amid the high fatalities of his soldiers, the bombastic and vain seventh Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell (1797-1868), led the light brigade wearing a waist-length, close-fitting, collarless knitted jacket of Berlin wool or English worsted. Walford points out that knitting was on the rise in the 1850s, and the battle sites were unexpectedly cold. “Like the balaclava — a ski mask, basically, named for the battle — the cardigan was something civilians could knit at home to send off to soldiers.” And so the cardigan first appeared on a different kind of red carpet.
Lord Cardigan’s own career was a bit less illustrious than that of his namesake garment. To many, his military and leadership skills exemplified nothing more than the flaws in the “purchase of commission” system, by which aristocrats bought military rank. One staff officer under the command of another aristocrat who lent his name to a still-extant fashion attribute (Lord Raglan, the one-armed commander whose tailor introduced the particular jacket cut we best know today on Raglan-sleeved sweatshirts) alleged in his memoirs that Lord Cardigan survived the Battle of Balaclava only by abandoning the men fighting under him, about a sixth of whom died.
Lord Cardigan left his Russian post a little more than a year into the Crimean War, citing ill health. Back in England, he complemented already exaggerated claims of his valor with tall tales of his own. Merchants eager to capitalize on the war sold his pompous account of the charge along with pictures of his likeness. As part of his celebrity, his favored knitted waistcoat gained both fashionability and the appellation “cardigan.”
The cardigan remained popular in Europe and the U.S. throughout the rest of the 19th century, but was still rightly categorized as a jacket, tending to be short, close-fitting, and collarless. Late in the century, a short roll collar, often velvet, was sometimes added. The cardigan got a makeover in the early 20th century, crossing genders in the process. As early as 1908, Vogue borrowed the coat-style knit from menswear and promoted a cardigan-like apparel for women’s use in golfing and tennis as part of the growing craze for sportswear and knits.
Then, in the 1920s, French fashion designer Coco Chanel created the cardigan suit for women, capitalizing on a trend already well under way. Chanel softened the material to jersey, and lengthened it to be worn over a matching skirt — or jumper, as a predecessor of the twin set. By that decade’s end, the casual women’s suit was touted by the New York Times as beneficial for “sub-debutantes,” with fashion experts promising the separates style to be a “boon for a difficult age.”
Practical mix-and-match apparel secured the cardigan’s place in women’s clothing in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Great Depression and then wartime rationing limited wardrobe sizes. Practicality also determined popularity among the growing ranks of college girls, as Deirdre Clemente describes in Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style. When “sloppy joes,” large, formless sweaters, appeared in department store “college shops” in the late 1930s, they sold fast. Opting for comfort and disdaining restrictive undergarments, college women loved the wide-gauge knit cardigans or pullovers best at “about four sizes too large.”
That fad faded pretty fast, though, and the most stylish sweaters went from too big to too small. The tight, twin-set variety of cardigan swelled in popularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s, especially among teenage and collegiate girls. Sweetheart actress Lana Turner’s provocative use of sweater sets, as in the 1939 film Love Finds Andy Hardy (in which Judy Garland also sports a version short enough to be classed a bolero), upped the sex factor significantly, while retaining their casual, everyday association. Photos of “sweater girls” served WWII GIs as a uncensorable variety of pin-up.
Also in 1942, the War Production Board issued ration order L85, which specified restrictions for every item of women’s clothing. To add variety and distinction to trimmed-down fabrics, individuals and designers began to add embroidery or beading and rhinestones to simple cardigans. Pattern companies sold iron-on transfers. Such embellishments continued into the ’50s, when the style included letterman sweaters — of the sort that Penny Marshall would later sport on Laverne & Shirley.
The ’50s was the decade of the cardigan. Fitted cardigans fanned out beyond high school halls and college dorms. Twin sets still clung to Playtex torpedo bras, but variety, the consumer buzz word of the times, prevailed. The rising star of the genre for both sexes was a hip-length, V-neck, buttoned garment, similar to the sort Lacoste sold to women as the “boyfriend” cardigan by the 1980s, and that retro-obsessed stores like Anthropologie exaggerate today with extra-loose gauges and super-slouchy sleeves. In the decade of “going steady” and “getting pinned,” many girls coveted the bestowal of a “real,” sports-team letter-sweater from her steady catch, a fad that helped establish the coy kind of cross-dressing best known as “the boyfriend look.”
Not all such cross-dressing played by normative sexual rules, according to historians Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis in their book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. Wearing men’s cardigans became a central part of some lesbians’ styles in the 1950s. “Butch” fashion, like nearly all sartorial preferences of the day, reflected the growing popularity of television, in this case “the Perry Como look.” In 1955, the renowned singer and television personality moved networks from CBS to NBC. There, Como started a very successful run on The Perry Como Show, where a rotating cadre of cardigans paired perfectly with his cozy, fireside crooning.
A looser-fit, often wool-knit version suited both men and women in the Ivy League crowd in postwar years. Academic examples abounded. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Oxford-educated British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan took to wearing a baggy cardigan as part of his country gentleman’s persona, and a well-worn cardigan became international shorthand for English comfort and unflappable intellect. Though hardly unflappable, Rex Harrison wore a suave beige, leather-buttoned cardigan as professor of phonetics Henry Higgins while singing, “Never let a woman in your life!” in the popular film My Fair Lady, parading the sweater around his mansion’s lush and bountiful library.
A few years later, in the biggest moment in popular cardigan history, on February 19th, 1968, the first episode of Fred Rogers’ famed television show aired on national television. Original broadcasts of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (or Misterogers’ Neighborhood in earlier editions) ran from 1968 to 1976, and then from 1979 to 2001. Each episode begins with Mr. Rogers’ personal coming-home ritual of trading dress shoes and suit jacket for sneakers and one of an impressive array of zippered cardigans, all while singing the very familiar “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Through Rogers, as well as Como and Harrison, the comparative formality with which celebrities in the postwar decades wore cardigans — often atop white dress shirts and ties — affected and reflected the transition to more casual dress for all Americans.
The welcoming warmth millions of Americans came to associate with the show affirmed the association between a cozy cardigan and relatability. The sweater, like Mister Rogers’ pleasingly generic neighborhood, had an “honest,” “familiar” feel to it: “simple and classic,” according to Mary Rawson, writer and producer for WQED Pittsburgh, the television station for which Rogers originally produced. Perhaps the most classic cardigan of his collection, a bright red one, zippered as he preferred, is kept at the Smithsonian Institute’s Nation Museum of American History.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood took a brief break in the late 1970s, but the hard-working cardigan stayed in the limelight. On February 2nd, 1977, the newly elected American president, Jimmy Carter, sported the same cardigan-over-a-tie style on a national broadcast about the energy crisis. Following in the tradition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era practice of broadcasting via radio fireside chats to the nation, President Carter took to the television to keep in touch with the nation’s people. Carter’s cardigan was a sartorial manifestation of the president’s entreaty to Americans to turn down the thermostat, indicating that he, too, would bundle up to keep warm in the coming cold months. Time magazine predicted the sweater would become “the most memorable symbol of an Administration that promises to make steady use of symbolism.”
Like Fred Rogers’ bright red number, Carter’s tan wool cardigan (or at least a reproduction) now has glass-enclosed status, at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.
Now for one last famous cardigan, this one far more ratty than natty — the one Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain performed in on set for MTV’s Unplugged in late 1993, only a few months before his suicide. The olive green sweater sold in auction in 2015 for $140,800. According to the auction house Julien’s Live, the cardi is “a blend of acrylic, mohair and Lycra with five-button closure (one button missing), with two exterior pockets, a burn hole and discoloration near left pocket and discoloration on right pocket, size medium.”
I argue (in the final chapter of From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies) that Cobain’s grunge apparel, this cardigan very much included, was not merely what designer Jean-Paul Gaultier dismissed it as: “the way we dress when we have no money.” When Cobain chose that cardigan, along with other elements of his Unplugged attire and the musical set itself, he relied on the iconography of already-canonical performers of different types. The cardigan, with its established symbolism of approachability and intellect, added a layer of import to Cobain’s ultra-casual ensemble (no neckties there), and drove home the fact that his performance on MTV was a bid to go beyond novelty and niche, and to join the ranks of the classic.