Hail to the knit wits: Grandpa's cardigan is back

Re-imagined as a light, versatile jacket, the cardigan has been adopted by a generation that has never even heard of Val Doonican

When, a little over 30 years ago, David Bowie turned up on Bing Crosby's Christmas special to perform "The Little Drummer Boy", the matching of the Thin White Duke with the don of crooners was more than an unlikely musical pairing: it was a sartorial stand-off. Bowie stood tall in a sharp, royal-blue suit with open-neck shirt. Crosby wore a cardigan. It was the garment that said it all: establishment, uninterested in fashion, cosy, unthreatening and aged. As Crosby said of himself on the show, he was "one of the older fellas".

The cardigan, perhaps more than any other element in the male wardrobe, has long been tainted by stereotype: teamed with the proverbial pipe and slippers, it is the garment worn at that time of life when, soon, you won't be needing clothes at all. It has been the epitome of comfort during times when comfort has been regarded as antithetical to the very idea of fashionable youth.

But a certain ease has not been the only quality hidden under the shadow of cliché: the cardigan is, of all styles of knitwear, the most versatile, be it dressed down with jeans and a T-shirt or up under a jacket with shirt and tie – the cardigan, indeed, can be thought of as being simply a very soft jacket; it is a useful layer for intemperate climates, which is perhaps why it is a British invention; it is convenient in a world in which heating, air-conditioning and increasedcar travel means the stiff suit feels increasingly burdensome; and it has pockets, for keys and mobile. Or your pipe.

"When you really look at a cardigan it's actually a great item," enthuses Derrick Campbell, managing director of Lyle & Scott, which has put cardigans on many a trend-setting band in recent months. "Its fuddy-duddy image has clouded just how great a good cardigan can be. All that detail, from the cut to the button-holes, can get knitwear aficionados like me rather excited."

So no wonder fashion has at last put aside frivolity in favour of good sense and embraced the cardigan again. From Armani to Gucci, Alexander McQueen to Prada, designers have pushed the cardigan to the fore this season and the thin white dukes of our day, from the Kaiser Chiefs to Franz Ferdinand, David Beckham to Jude Law and Daniel Craig, have been spotted in one, sans slippers (in public at least). And the not-so-thin white dukes too: Gary Barlow, for instance.

"Suddenly, grandpa's cardie looks quite cool now. The return of the cardigan is one of those instances when a seemingly retro item can just suddenly become right again," says Clare Waight Keller, creative director at knitwear company Pringle, which now finds that the cardigan is repeatedly among its top-selling styles, "and that surprises me every season..."

The cardigan has had its moments on the backs of style icons before: The Cure's frontman Robert Smith, The Smiths' Morrissey and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, god of grunge, all sported a cardigan, but did so precisely as an expression of their outsider status. The new fans of the cardigan may come to appreciate its many benefits, but see it – oh, how fickle fashion is – essentially as a trend item.

Arguably, time has come to its rescue: as Paul Sheldon, buying director for Burton, which has gone cardie-mad this season, points out, many younger customers don't have the references that might dissuade them from adopting it. They don't know who Perry Como or Val Doonican are.

"The whole idea of what is cool and uncool in menswear has blurred and the cardigan is benefiting," suggests Dawn Stubbs, creative director of John Smedley, Britain's oldest knitwear manufacturer. "And once you start wearing a cardigan, it becomes the kind of item you really won't give up too easily, whether it's fashionable or not."

For the moment, it certainly is. Indeed, today's cardigan is a new breed: not made of fuzzy wool, nor chunky à la David Starsky, but lightweight, in fine gauge wools and cottons and with a more slimming, tailored cut, not to mention a wide variety of trims, patterns and colours.

The options have probably not been as varied since James Thomas Brudenell, a British military commander during the Crimean War and the seventh Earl of Cardigan, lent his title to a sweater-type, button-up garment worn by his troops against the cold weather – one which soon found its way into civilian life.

Perhaps a further reinvention of the cardigan will ensure that, this time, it stays there. Carlo Brandelli, the creative director of Savile Row tailors Kilgour and the British Fashion Awards' Menswear Designer of the Year in 2005, reckons he has devised the first truly modernist cardigan: stripped of extraneous detail, pocketless and with a low, one-button fastening, this is the go-anywhere layer men may have been waiting for.

"The cardigan never had that old mannish image for me in the first place," says Brandelli, perhaps betraying his Italian roots – Italian men have always had a finer appreciation of the cardigan. "For me, the cardigan is simply a great utility item."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

    £16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

    Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created