Breathing New Life Into An Old Favorite: The Cardigan

Coco Chanel will be forever revered for her relaxed easy approach to fashion, and her love affair with all things military and mannish. When she introduced the iconic cardigan jacket in 1925 she put it on the fashion map, but it is actually named after James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan. The lieutenant general in the British army was known to be arrogant and cantankerous but also, wealthy and stylish. At the age of 57 in 1854, he successfully led the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, and he survived without as much as a scratch. When he returned to London, he enjoyed a hero’s welcome and reception by Queen Victoria at Windsor. His signature knotted waistcoat became a ‘hot commodity’ as a result of his brief moment in the sun and versions were soon commercially produced in factories.

Life Magazine celebrated the versatility and practicality of the “fashionable new cardigan” with a feature, “Cardigans: Old Sweater Gets New Uses”, February 21, 1949. It emphasized the fact that that regardless of whether it was “tailored to be short and tight”, “bolero style”, or “fancied up”, the garment was “practical for the lady who needs to skip from the ski slopes to the luncheon to the opera”.

By the late 1950s, women (particularly American women) were ready for something versatile, modern and unconstructed (ban the corsets!), and the cardigan found itself in the forefront of fashion. In the 1990s, it was given a hipper, edgier image when it became the uniform of choice of the Riot grrrls underground feminist punk movement which originated in Washington State (the young women were fond of wearing them over their thrift-store dresses).

Michelle Obama and President Obama with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip

It’s virtually impossible to think of Michelle Obama without immediately thinking of the cardigan (it became a go to staple in her wardrobe). Who could forget the time, back in 2009, when the then First Lady wore a relatively simple black Azzedine Alaia cardigan to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace (paired with a simple strand of pearls), prompting Oscar de la Renta to proclaim, “You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater!” So associated with cardigans is this style setter, that her wax likenesses are dressed in them at the Madame Tussauds Museums in both Washington, D.C., and in London.

Of course, one very powerful fashion figure (who just happens to be the subject of continuous rumors and finds herself much in the news as of late) has been known to ward off the ‘Wintour’ chill with a cardigan thrown over her shoulders, while dressed in one of her sleeveless sheath dresses.

Cardigans are readily available at all price prints and in seemingly endless iterations, from the classic and minimal to the insanely fanciful. They are also soft, comfortable, and have a sense of ease which you don’t have with a structured blazer; though some admittedly have the authority of a tailored jacket, but without the bulk, as exemplified by the following 13 examples I selected. While cardigans are generally perfect for layering, for this column I wanted to focus on the ones that are so sensational you definitely won’t want to hide them beneath anything else.

Christopher Kane black mohair and wool blend pom-pom cardigan, $995 More info/purchase

Azzedine Alaia cropped knitted cardigan in fire engine red, $1060. More info/purchase

Christian Dior open work viscose cardigan, $486.99. More info/purchase

1970’s black and white op-art chevron striped maxi cardigan, $1600. More info/purchase

Jacquemus “Tordu” asymmetrical lightweight knit ribbed cardigan, $525. More info/purchase

Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons twisted checkered faux front cardigan, $475. More info/purchase

Rare John Galliano for Christian Dior lips and pansy print cotton cardigan, $1275. More info/purchase

Rare 1970’s Yves Saint Laurent “Fourrures” cardigan with oversized black Mongolian lamb collar, $1450. More info/purchase

Alanui fringed jacquard-knit cashmere cardigan, $3235.  Red, blue and cream.  Made in Italy. More info/purchase

Dirk Bikkembergs 90’s black wool cardigan with an attached silver toned hardware tie clip, $350.  More info/purchase

Zara animal print cardigan, $35.90. More info/purchase

Late 20th century Chanel black knit cutaway cardigan with tails, inspired by a chic morning coat, $1275. More info/purchase

Thom Browne reverse opening cardigan jacket with crystal skeleton embroidery, $22,500. More info/purchase

Leave it to Thom to create the most sensational of them all but regardless of which you chose, it’s obviously time for a high ‘card’ diet!

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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