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Issue #05: Layer up with Cardigans

Joe Wasserman
United States
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I don't think he would like that.
"A single action or event is interesting, not because it is explainable, but because it is true." - Goethe
Cardigans--sweaters with buttons down the front--are one of my favorite layering pieces for a few reasons, not least of which is their versatility. They can be worn in a broad range of settings, as well as over (and under) many different other items. I also really like that they button in front, since I don't particularly like pulling on sweaters over my head, though that's just a personal thing.

Lo and behold, a cardigan! from J.Crew (source)

They are most commonly made out of cotton or wool (or cashmere), but sometimes include synthetic fibers or linen blends. Some are knit in various patterns. The specifics of the fibers and the density of the knit should be determined mostly by the temperature you're going to encounter. Wool is great for the cold, cotton and linen blends are great for warmer weather. Wool is also good in the rain (if you don't mind smelling a bit like a wet sheep), because it will dry quickly and can absorb a lot of water without losing its warmth.

If in doubt, charcoal gray (that's pretty dark, but not black) is a good color for a first cardigan, particularly for one that will be worn primarily as an outermost layer. Mid gray or navy are good for seconds. I tend to like textural fabrics, so I lean toward cardigans that are heathered or marled. But smooth cardigans look good, too!

The Casual Outerwear Cardigan

When worn as an outermost layer, cardigans are relatively casual. But they definitely dress up a casual outfit more than other layering pieces like hooded sweaters (hoodies). I'd say outerwear cardigans can be worn anywhere on the formality spectrum from the most casual (e.g. at the beach) to casual business casual (e.g. to a job interview in Portland, OR, which is a very casual city).

Cardigans as outerwear can be worn over a t-shirt or button-down shirt (with or without a tie). The latter is a particular favorite of mine. I think ties look a bit silly dangling off of a shirt with nothing over them, so throwing on a cardigan is a great way to pull everything together. Cardigans also have the added advantage of obscuring a shirt that mushrooms out at the waist.

As outerwear, intricate chunky knits are not only acceptable, but encouraged. Here are some examples:

from Thom Browne (source)

Brown herringbone shawl collar cardigan from Rugby (source)

Notice the patterned knit and shawl collar. Wearing a cardigan under your cardigan is not recommended, unless you're him. (source)

The More Formal Layering Cardigan

In more formal or business situations, cardigans can be worn as a layer under a sportcoat or a suit jacket. Since I don't have any firsthand experience with conservative business dress, I'm hesitant to say that a cardigan is appropriate for a conservative business wear setting, but certainly anything just shy or less conservative. They are a great alternative to a waistcoat, though when worn under a sportcoat or suit jacket, it's important that the angle of the neck of the cardigan is such that it shows above the lapel of the jacket. Otherwise, it's a wasted layer!

As a layering piece, thinner, plainer, finer knits generally work better. Here are some examples:



from J.Crew (source)

Fit and Style

Like a shirt, the body of a cardigan should follow the shape of your body through the chest and midsection without constricting. A lot of extra loose fabric makes the boundaries of a body look indefinite and amorphous. Many cardigans have somewhat of a stretch to them because of their knit, so can be worn more form-fitting than a shirt of jacket. As long as you are comfortable with that appearance, of course. But a cardigan that looks like it was forced to stretch around you isn't a good look.

I personally think cardigans look best when they end about 1/4"-1/2" (more for French cuffs, but I think it might be weird to wear a cardigan over a French cuff shirt) shy of the end of your shirt cuffs. This is helped by the often somewhat elastic cuffs cardigans have. As for sleeve width, it should be about the same as your shirts: skimming your shirted arm, and neither squeezing nor billowing.

I think cardigans look best when they end a little below the waistline of your pants. Certainly not above, potentially a bit further below (though you begin to risk looking like the cardigan is too large for you). Definitely higher than where a sportcoat or suit jacket would end.

The angle of a cardigan's collar can vary from closing quite high toward the neck (shallow) or quite low toward the waist (deep). As mentioned above, if you're wearing the cardigan under a jacket, the collar should be shallow enough that it shows above jacket's lapel.

Another important aspect of the collar is the amount of space visible between your neck and shoulders while wearing the cardigan. Too much detracts from the geometry of an outfit, and will draw attention to the area around your neck in a weird way.

While most cardigans have a flat collar, rounded shawl collars have come back into favor. Because of the extra volume of the shawl collar, they don't work very well under sportcoats or suit jackets, but they do work very well as an outermost layer.

A chunky knit shawl collar from Inverallan. (source)

Other Details: buttons, pockets, and patches
The bottom button: don't button it! It's not designed to be buttoned, and it will usually make you look excessively prim. The top button? It depends. Basically the more buttons you have buttoned, the stiffer and more formal your overall appearance, but it's also related to the angle and type of collar and stiffness of the knit. If worn as a layer under a jacket, it's more likely that buttoning the top button will look appropriate.

Some cardigans have pockets on the front, others don't. Sans pockets is a cleaner look, since there's less fabric around the midsection. But pockets can also add some visual interest.

Elbow patches are a relatively common detail on cardigans. I like them! But I'm also kind of into the English/Ivy League professorial look. It's your call.

Where to Buy a Cardigan

On the lower end, Gap or Old Navy have reasonable cardigans. But cheaper cardigans (and sweaters in general) tend to distort more easily and more quickly. They also start to pill more rapidly (that's when they get those little fuzz balls all over them). Distortion can be somewhat corrected by reshaping a sweater while it's drying flat, and pilling can be removed with a sweater comb. If you just want to try out a cardigan to see if you like the look, it's not as big a deal. Otherwise, I'd recommend saving a little for a higher-quality cardigan.

Lands' End Canvas also has some decent basic options.

J.Crew has a good selection of both wool (including cashmere) and cotton--as well as blends thereof. But when they're not on sale, they're somewhat pricey for their quality. J.Crew Factory has some nice-looking basic cardigans at a somewhat lower price point (and somewhat lower quality in terms of material and construction).

Rugby has a few nice options (not the ones with a giant "R" patch on them! gulp), too.

Howard Yount has a small selection of wool cardigans that are of exceptional quality for the price. For example, the placket has interior grosgrain trim, which means it won't get distorted as easily from repeated buttoning and unbuttoning. In my experience, they are not actually cut as "slim" as the website purports--the small, for example, is cut for a 38 chest, not 36.

Unis made my favorite cotton cardigan, but they unfortunately don't have any in their current line! Hopefully they'll add some soon.

Inventory has a couple of fantastically beautiful Inverallan Aran shawl collar cardigans from Ireland. But they're also quite costly.
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