A Brief History of the Cardigan

On any given day I open my closet and pull out a garment, understandably without any thought as to its history or what I might be communicating about myself. Clothing’s most basic purpose is one of practicality, but it’s also a means of communicating personal and societal values, identifying individuals belonging to a particular group, and a means of telling the observer something about an organization or workplace. Every piece of clothing you own has a rich history. During the early 20th century, certain types of clothing were restricted to persons of a particular rank, social and economic status. Today, there are other influences affecting what we wear, including economics, politics, entertainment personalities, trends, and the environment in which we live. Which brings me to the topic of this post – the cardigan. The knit cardigan has an interesting and sometimes radical past.

Beginnings

The cardigan’s namesake is coined after the Earl of Cardigan, James Brudenell, a British Major General who liked to wear a wooly waistcoat (vest) as an extra layer of warmth under his uniform. He was a man more interested in how he looked and presented himself, rather than known for his acumen as a General.

During the early part of the 20th century, the cardigan became associated with sports. Around 1913, Polo players started wearing knit “coats”, allowing the wearer freedom of movement. Golfers also began replacing part of their costume with cardigans. The cardigan was seen as casual or informal attire, leading to the notion of correct dress for work or formal occasions and specific clothing for sporting activities. The cardigan developed a kind of anti-elite aesthetic; it was okay to wear one regardless of education or status.

The Influential Coco Chanel

At this time knits also become associated with the preeminent 20th century designer, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She is considered one of the first designers to adopt jersey knit fabric into women’s wear, a fabric that was typically used to make men’s underwear. Chanel is often given credit for being the first designer to interest women in knit pullover sweaters and cardigans. Chanel preferred a button-up, and opened up the pullover so it wouldn’t mess up the hair. To this day the Chanel style cardigan and knit jacket is a staple of its collections.

Chanel ad Elle Dec/Jan 2020

1950s and 60s

Queen Elizabeth II is often shown in her signature cardigan worn with a blouse and skirt for informal occasions, such as sport shooting and her off-duty style. 

Through to the late 1950s, pattern instructions for hand knit cardigans and jackets were readily available to the home knitter. Mister Rogers, the children’s television personality was introduced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rogers favoured the red cardigan, projecting a calm, soft-spoken, fatherly figure.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbouurhood

Western fashion during the 1960s and early 70s saw the evolvement of street fashion, and hand knits played a role because they were inexpensive to make. A unisex cardigan style that stood out at this time, was made in colourful alpaca and wool blended yarn. It was all the rage with students, and you were “cool” if you owned one.

1990s and Beyond

“Inconspicuous consumption” was a prevalent norm among the youth in the 1960s, characterized by worn out “anything”, much like the grunge movement of the 1990s. The attitude conveyed was “deal with it or leave me alone”. No “celebrity” epitomized this look more than Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. He wore a ratty cardigan, with cigarette burns, stains and all, worn with battered jeans for an MTV Unplugged gig in 1993; making it one of the most famous cardigans. It sold at auction in 2019 for $334,000 US; the most expensive sweater ever sold at auction. This infamous olive green cardigan was made in a yarn mix of acrylic, mohair and lycra fibers (no wonder it wore out!). 

This déclassé aesthetic appealed to a particular subculture, while others didn’t like the meaning behind the subversive messaging. It was also around this time, that “celebrity” culture took a firm hold, having greater influence over our clothing choices. Clothing became less about a political or anti-establishment statement, and more about wearing something endorsed by a famous person.

Political reasons for wearing a cardigan appeared during 2007 in the UK, regarding a dispute about the nurse’s uniform. Nurses began wearing cardigans over their uniforms. The public became upset about the adoption of a casual cardigan, feeling that this might be associated with a carrier of disease. I can remember a time in Canada, when I noticed health workers donning this casual look over the uniform. Although I didn’t equate the meaning to disease, I did feel that the look wasn’t professional, and also felt that it was difficult to determine what a worker’s job was, as nurses, unit clerks, and other personnel began dressing similarly. This interesting event further verifies that clothing carries meaning beyond its primary function.

Today the cardigan is a ubiquitous garment for men, women, and children. And recently celebrities have created a frenzy around this garment, most notably Harry Styles, a fashion forward pop star donning a patchwork cardigan designed by Jonathan Anderson. Anderson shares his pattern instructions online for knitters to copy the cardigan design. The Victoria and Albert Museum acquired the original cardigan worn by Styles for its permanent collection.

Another music celebrity, Taylor Swift made the atypical decision to sell a cardigan alongside traditional promotional merchandise for the album Folklore (containing the single recording “Cardigan”). The limited edition cardigan sells for approximately $49 US, and is made out of 50% acrylic and 50% polyester. I don’t know about you, but it bothers me that she’s selling a cheap, poor quality item. I think someone with the influence and money that she has, could have shown that she’s a more responsible citizen concerned about climate change, by possibly supporting a community of hand knitters, or making the garment in a more sustainable way. Seems to me she’s simply supporting fast fashion. 

The cardigan was initially introduced to provide a most basic need, an extra layer of warmth. Overtime it communicated personal and societal values within the context of a time period, and now is so commonplace that it may rarely be revolutionary, and only possibly so through the use of colour, textile innovation, graphics, or celebrity endorsement.