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."

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