I knew living amid the pandemic would change me. I didn’t think it would turn me into Mr. Rogers. The men’s cardigan, however, has taken the job that used to be performed by a closetful of blazers.
After what seemed like months of not caring what I wore every day, I decided, as so many of us have, to make an effort again. Even if no one other than my wife and children would see me throughout the day. Whether I felt like it or not. And I would change at the end of the day, I decided, because it would create a sense of closure.
It wasn’t necessarily planned out at first, but over time I realized I was gravitating to at least one of the same items every day. I might be wearing a dress shirt or a T-shirt, but I always wanted one extra layer. I had a few men’s cardigan’s at the ready, but on my rare shopping trips out, I stocked up on more.
Although I didn’t go so far as to buy one in Mr. Roger’s trademark tomato red, I realized as I put one on every morning that I was performing the opening ritual of his show in reverse. Instead of buttoning up my cardigan as a sign I was ready to talk to children at their own level, I was donning it to prepare myself to face the working world.
In researching this post I realized I’m far from alone. Earlier this month an article in the Wall Street Journal (registration required) noted a slew of men’s cardigans from brands ranging from Etro to Gucci, in some cases at prices hitting the thousands.
Yet the appeal, according to the WSJ (citing no real evidence, however) stemmed from a 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged by the late Kurt Cobain, who managed to reposition the cardigan as grungewear:
“These “Mad Men”-era mohair sweaters tended to adhere to conservative motifs like argyle in quiet hues such as pistachio green and aubergine. Mr. Cobain’s sweater style—nonchalant, almost sloppy—subverted the mohair cardigan’s buttoned-up reputation.”‘Why Kurt Cobain’s ’90s Cardigan Is Trending as WFH Style,’ Wall street Journal
Not really. I actually grew up in the 90s, and I can tell you this was a more of an aberration in men’s fashion than anything that caught on.
Although men’s cardigans today are sometimes relaxed and loosely fitting, many others have been streamlined and using zippers instead of buttons. They make total sense as work from home wear, particularly in winter, when they rise to the occasion of business, not when they’re treated as one step up from a bathrobe.
Cardigans also have an interesting and colourful origin story that literally traces them back to a man of actions, not a drug-addled rock star. As The Atlantic outlined in an article five years ago, the cardigan’s creation is credited to James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, a lieutenant general in the British army.
Although he reportedly “turned tail” once he led led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava to the Russian front lines during the Crimean War, Brudenell’s real victory was in how he changed men’s style.
“The knitted waistcoat became a hot commodity during the Earl’s brief window of glory,” the Atlantic said. “As proof of the cardigan’s utilitarian staying power, it soon began to be commercially produced in factories, keeping thousands of chilly Brits warm even after they went cold on its namesake.”
Now think of the traditional function of a blazer. Suits were great when you had to meet with a client, make a presentation or appear at a formal function, but sport coats and blazers have often been far more versatile.
You can mix and match a blazer with everything from dress pants to khakis or even jeans. Same with a cardigan.
Blazers tend to have more noticeable details in terms of buttons, lapel shape and pockets. Men’s cardigans are similar, but offer even more variety — from the weight of the wool to the texture, the colours and patterns.
Then there are the big differences between blazers and men’s cardigans: no padding. More cushioning. Less worrying about wrinkling. More comfort in warmth.
Blazers are also usually pricier than the average sweater, unless you’re buying it from a vintage store.
All this could explain why men’s fashion magazines and style experts have been routinely pushing cardigans and suggesting a revival for several years now.
In November 2019, for instance — just a few months before the outbreak of COVID-19, a New York Times headline declared ‘The Men’s Cardigan Makes A Comeback,” pointing not only to the Tom Hanks biopic about Mr. Rogers but referencing everyone from Steve McQueen to Paul Michael Glaser of television’s “Starsky & Hutch.”
“In the years since, countless male celebrities have made game attempts to rescue the cardigan from Mister Rogers’s closet and make it safe for the red carpet: David Beckham, Pharrell Williams, Daniel Craig,” the Times article said, concluding, “The cardigan is as every bit as bad as you make it.”
Now that we’re getting closer to year two of the pandemic, I think it’s not really an issue of trying to make the men’s cardigan cool but recognizing that it is almost uniquely qualified for the job of making guys look decent. It makes you feel work-ready the way a blazer did without looking like you tried very hard. A perfect combo, really.
I should add that part of my defence of the cardigan may stem from some personal history. In Grade nine, I attended a Catholic school where a blue blazer was part of the uniform. The next year, however, they opened a new school closer to home where we were given the option of a navy blue cardigan (or a V-neck pullover) instead.
Almost all the guys opted for the former, in part because they could always take it off and put it on the back of their chair. The same holds true when you’re in WFH mode, but I find I keep mine on for most of the day.
How To Make The Men’s Cardigan Work For You
If you’ve made it this far it’s probably because you’ve been thinking about getting a cardigan or two but aren’t sure what will look and feel right. Here’s my advice:
1. Know what a men’s cardigan will do to your silhouette
If you’re thick around the middle, the cardigan won’t hide it (despite what you may have read or heard elsewhere) unless you get something that’s long enough to go past your belt. Look for something a little thicker that won’t sag over your belly or a spare tire around your waist.
2. Consider what you’ve got to put underneath the cardigan
Be realistic. Right now putting on a dress shirt is as close as most of us get to power dressing. In a tighter-fitting cardigan, it can be challenging to get the cuffs of your shirt to fit right underneath the cardigan and you may feel almost overdressed if you’re buttoning up a cardigan over a buttoned-up shirt. A zippered one feels neater and cleaner in these cases.
If you’re wearing a T-shirt, on the other hand, a cardigan with larger buttons will feel dresser, and if it’s a little thicker it can become a great piece of insulation under a leather jacket when the weather’s not super cold.
3. Raise your lapel, raise your game
A lot of men’s cardigans have shawl collars or rounded collars, which is probably one of the reasons they’re so often associated with lounging in a den and smoking cigars. I’ve started to notice a lot more, especially zippered ones, where the collar is raised and, worn open, feels more deliberate and dressy, the way a blazer does.
I’ve also found one or two cardigans that have something almost again to a classic turned-down collar like a dress shirt, which also echoes the style and cut of something you’d wear for professional purposes.
4. Let the cardigan’s ying play to your dress shirt or T-shirt’s yang
More adventurous guys may disagree with me on this, but I prefer to alternate patterns and tones with each layer. In other words, if I’m wearing a cardigan with a bold pattern like argyle or a stipe, I feel better wearing a solid-coloured shirt underneath.
Or vice-versa: a hint of strong pattern or a pop of bright colour peeking out from an otherwise solid-toned or monochrome cardigan can feel sophisticated without being too in-your face about it.
5. The cardigan deserves pants that are ready for work, too
This may be extreme, but I tend to only wear jeans with a cardigan (and then only a loose, chunky one) on the weekends. It’s true that people won’t be looking at your legs on a Zoom call, but a nice pair of dress pants or chinos gets you closer to that sensation of being a CEO, at least within the confines or your living room.
Will Men’s Cardigans Outlive COVID-19?
With vaccines slowly being distributed here in Canada and elsewhere, there’s at least some hope we’ll be able to return to offices again (assuming employers don’t want to save real estate costs by keeping us remote), and that we’ll be able to attend conferences and events at some point.
It’s hard to say whether the cardigan will continue to work as a menswear staple with quite the same Zeigeist that it has right now. I know I’ll probably be eager to wear blazers and even full suit if the occasion depends it — even if I’m one of the only men in the room to do so.
My hope, though, is that guys who try the cardigan to dress up now will see it as viable alternative to the hoodie. This was a trend I was already noticing within startup circles, where founders past a certain age obviously didn’t feel they could “keep it real” the way the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world try to do.
For cooler months (which, in Canada at least, represent most months of the year) it would be great if men’s cardigans became more of an acceptance garment to bridge the gap between formality and Casual Friday. In fact, I think the sleekest and best-designed cardigans finally give me a sense of what “smart casual” might mean.
If you want a simple, affordable but incredibly good-looking way to experiment with this trend, I’d suggest checking out Amazon Essentials Men’s Full-Zip Polar Fleece Jacket. It’s usually less than fifty bucks and offered in an incredibly wide array of colours and styles. It’s zipped, high collared and machine washable.
On the other hand, you could also invest in a luxury fabric, like cashmere, to make a cardigan seem like more of a work-related purchase. The Manual recently did a roundup of cashmere men’s cardigans, but I tend to go with a slightly sportier option, like the Layover Cardigan from Kit and Ace.
As we make our way towards Spring, meanwhile, expect a ton of brands to begin putting men’s cardigans on deep discount. Check Nordstom Rack and The Bay’s clearance. Unlike choosing a blazer, no one’s going to care. I’ve gotten a number of the cardigans I wear most often at Winners.
The worst-case scenario? A post-pandemic world will look a lot like the one that came to a grinding halt, and a lot of the wardrobe staples you lived in from one to the next continue to be your favourites.
But now, instead of having nothing to feel relaxed and comfortable in during the evenings or on the weekends other than a baggy sweatshirt, you’ll have a collection of cardigans that let you seamlessly transition from the workday to fun time. In other words, you’ll get to adopt the Mr. Rogers routine as he originally performed it. You’ll just look a whole lot better doing it.