A cardigan sweater opens at the front, like a coat or jacket, and closes with buttons or a zipper rather than being pulled over the head as a jersey-style sweater is. Cardigans vary from the cheerful and sophisticated jackets favored by Michelle Obama to the gray and homely sweater Mr. Rogers stowed in his entry closet. Cardigan sportswear is emblematic of a casual lifestyle and unpretentious modernity. A form of meticulous single-strand handwork for socks or caps dates thousands of years, but items as large as full legging woolen stockings were not produced until the 1500s, when blacksmiths had new materials to make thin knitting needles. Knitting spread through Europe, but as late as the 1700s, knit items were typically small: socks, caps or mittens. The cardigan sweater is truly modern apparel.
The 7th Earl of Cardigan
Major General James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, was a British officer serving in the Crimea (modern-day Ukraine) in 1854, when the United Kingdom and Russia were battling over the territory of the declining Ottoman Empire. He was ordered to lead a doomed cavalry assault across a valley against a Russian cannon emplacement on high ground. The resultant casualty count was eulogized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” After the battle, the earl returned to his yacht and had dinner.
Throughout the Crimean campaign, Brudenell and his officers wore a type of “sweater coat” that is now known as the “cardigan.” The earl’s cardigans were trimmed with fur and braids.
BMOC (Big Man on Campus)
The letter sweater swarmed onto the playing field at Harvard in 1865, when the baseball team first added an “H” to the front of its jerseys. By 1900, the V-necked “letter” cardigan was pushing stuffy Edwardian fashion off campus.
In Masculinity and Men's Lifestyle Magazines, Bill Osgerby noted that the commercial advertising images created by companies such as Arrow shirts (founded 1905) and Campus Leisure-Wear (founded 1922) moved the new Ivy League image into the mainstream. The look was “smart-but-casual,” and the essential components were loafers, letter sweaters, chino slacks, starched white shirts with button-down collars and cardigans.
Coco and Cardigan
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel’s suits for women were soft, collarless cardigan jackets of loosely woven fabric, trimmed at the neck and front and worn like a sweater with matching skirts. Chanel added weight to the hem of the jacket with metal chain to control the jacket’s fullness.
Chanel's cardigans were lined with soft fabric that came to the edge of the neck and front without facings, so that the jacket could be worn without being closed at the front. The cardigans featured pockets and a casual urbane attitude that was the beginning of sportswear for women.
Poodle and Cardigan
A thin woolen cardigan sweater worn with a matching sleeveless pullover and whimsical mid-calf length “poodle skirt” was, and still is, an icon of the 1950s. The pastel cardigan was soft and “feminine,” a badge that the hardships of the second world war had been pushed into the past.
The onset of electric kitchen appliances and packaged foods had liberated women from household chores. Lapdogs, particularly miniature poodles, were a new fad. The quintessential “poodle” cardigan was unlined, with only rows of satin ribbon backing tiny buttons and button holes that were not intended to be closed. In the absence of buttons, the neckline tied and sometimes had large puffy balls of fur hanging at the ends of the ties. Many cardigans worn with poodle skirts were adorned with images of poodles on the left shoulder.
Sweater Coat of the 1990s
Beginning in mid-century, as fireplaces and gas space heaters were replaced by forced-air central heating, heavy indoor clothing became unnecessary. Heated automobiles and heated public transit made the bundling-up season shorter. By the 1990s, women’s calf-length or full-length sweater coats of machine washable knits were worn with pants by a new generation of working wives and mothers for whom casual was a practical matter. The new cardigan coat was unstructured and traveled easily without wrinkling, unlike the woolen blazers and cotton or linen suit coats it had replaced.