From military pomposity to grunge couture - why we love cardigans

The cardigan has been passed between many different cultures and sub-cultures during the years, each weaving into the cardigan's fabric their own aesthetic quirks and preferences. But as with most fashions, the cardigan has swung into and out of stylish favour countless times, with each subsequent group of adopters borrowing design elements from their predecessors and tweaking them in their own unique way. 

Steve McQueen shot by William Claxton

We can look back at the many incarnations of the cardigan and see the upside in all of them, from the Ivy League preppy standard of the early 20th century, to the grungy, angst-ridden styles of the early 90s, each very different but each very cool in their own distinct way. There's the leather-buttoned shawl collar style that Steve McQueen worn when photographer William Claxton documented his road trip up the Californian coast to Carmel. Then there's the grungy olive green number that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain wore when performing a live set for MTV’s Unplugged in late 1993. It sold in auction in 2015 for $140,800, then again in 2019 for $334,000 - not a bad return for a cardigan constructed from “a blend of acrylic, mohair and Lycra with five-button closure (one button missing), with two exterior pockets, a burn hole and discolouration near left pocket and discolouration on right pocket.” (It has also never been washed.)

This season at Oliver Spencer, we've adopted a little something of many different cardigan aesthetics to create a number of contemporary styles that fuse comfort with classic style in a discernibly modern way. Our zip-through styles are the biggest deviation from the button-down, traditional style. We've kept them chunky for use throughout the winter as outerwear in their own right, or equally as a cosy knit to hunker down at home in.

ZIP THROUGH CARDIGAN FOYLE MIDNIGHT MULTI

ZIP THROUGH CARDIGAN
FOYLE MIDNIGHT MULTI

ZIP THROUGH CARDIGAN HENHAM RUST MULTI

ZIP THROUGH CARDIGAN
HENHAM RUST MULTI

ZIP THROUGH CARDIGAN HENHAM NAVY/BLUE

ZIP THROUGH CARDIGAN
HENHAM NAVY/BLUE

Our Tilson cardigan is woven in a lighter gauge wool, making for easier layering. It takes it cue from a vintage Ivy League aesthetic thanks to the classic fold-down collar. We’ve woven it in extra fine wool too for a sumptuously soft handle. Our Britten cardigan is much closer to the traditional style thanks to the button-down fastening. With a sartorially inspired herringbone weave, it is an excellent addition to a winter wardrobe. Perfect with any of our trouser styles or denim, or even lounging around the house in.

TILSON CARDIGAN CAREW SAND

TILSON CARDIGAN
CAREW SAND

TILSON CARDIGAN CAREW MIDNIGHT

TILSON CARDIGAN
CAREW MIDNIGHT

Finally, our Rundell style is the most casual of the collection, cut in a jersey fabric in more of a shirt style than a classic knit. Channelling late 70s preppy style, it's a mid-weight soft-ribbed cotton jersey ideal for layering looks. The fabric is lightweight but offers plenty of warmth. Wear it under tailoring or over shirting with fishtail trousers for a casual Ivy League look.

 

RUNDELL JERSEY CARDIGAN RYCROFT GREY

RUNDELL JERSEY CARDIGAN
RYCROFT GREY

RUNDELL JERSEY CARDIGAN RYCROFT NAVY

RUNDELL JERSEY CARDIGAN
RYCROFT NAVY

RUNDELL JERSEY CARDIGAN FRESTON GREY

RUNDELL JERSEY CARDIGAN
FRESTON GREY

The History of the Cardigan

As with a great deal of modern menswear, the genesis of much of it comes from a military heritage, and the cardigan is no different. History points at one man, a pompous, egotistical, and arrogant piece of work by the name of James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan. A lieutenant general in the British army, he was purported to be wealthy, seductive man overly concerned with his public image. Some evidence suggests he spent £10,000 a year outfitting his regiment in new uniforms. But about that ego - in 1854, at the ripe age of 57, Cardigan led the imfamous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. It was a monumental disaster, but one that anyone with an ounce of self-awareness would have swerved in the first place. 

Cardigan, like many others stationed in the cold vestiges of Crimea, wore a knitted, wool waistcoat into battle. By some stroke of luck, he managed to ride out as far Russian enemy lines before realising he had massively underestimated the task at hand, and abruptly reversed course. He returned to London ahead of his troops and, before the truth of his back-pedalling was revealed, he enjoyed a hero’s welcome. While his stint of fame didn't last too long, the popularity of his knitted cardigan skyrocketed, quickly becoming a utilitarian staple in the wardrobes of the rich and poor alike. 

It wasn't until the 1920s that the cardigan became popular once again, with Ivy League types incorporating it into their wardrobes right through to the 1950s, when it reached peak-preppiness. At the same time, Coco Chanel was instilling her own cropped twin-set version into the hearts, minds and closets of women all over the world. 

Today, you can find all manner of cardigan styles to suit your personal taste. It's a brilliant garment, especially in the winter when you are moving form cold outdoor climates into warm indoor ones, where a quick button-up/down can help you acclimatise that much quicker. Style-wise, the chunkier versions make for great outerwear pieces on days when the rain relents, whereas the fine knits are perfect for layering over a shirt and under a jacket. 

Want to up your cardigan game? Click here to shop all of Oliver Spencer's AW20 knitwear.

 

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