Love it or loathe it, the cardigan is back
Monday 09 January 2012
Last year may have been the year of the jumper after Sarah Lund's Faroese woolly pullie had everyone in the UK in raptures – whether they watched The Killing or not.
But in reality the Gudrun & Gudrun sweater favoured by the Danish detective is stiflingly warm, not to mention itchy, and though it may cut the mustard attending a Copenhagen crime scene, it is far too warm for any weather Britain currently has to offer.
Imagine, though, that you could somehow break free from the itchy strangulation of a tight circle of oiled wool circumnavigating your clavicles. Imagine, if you will, a button. And not just one but a whole row of buttons, lined up in a serried rank down your front, just waiting to relieve you from the intense, claustrophobic heat of a jumper.
The cardigan may never make the most outré of fashion statements – its detractors will callously call to mind a litany of ostensibly naff cardie wearers from Pauline Fowler to the Tory twinset and pearls brigade.
But the cardigan wearer is strong enough to withstand these attempts at belittlement. For slipping one's arms into sleeves of softly spun wool and securing the buttons – be they tiny mother of pearl discs or chunky plastic – is a comforting experience akin to a hug. Plus, any soul worth their fashion salt knows that to decry all cardigans is far too hasty a step – for this is a varied beast.
The tribes of cardigan wearers are many. Do you have an almost threadbare, sloppy knit slung over the back of your office chair for when facilities set the air conditioning to blast directly down your neck? Or perhaps you managed to find a piece of single-ply cashmere indulgence in the sales that you reserve for occasions when you want to feel "proper", or to add a prim touch to mannish trousers. Wearing a dress that swishes from the waist? Cardigan. Want to hide your bingo wings but not your bust? Cardigan. Fancy a long walk on a cold day without feeling like you're traversing the Amazon after 10 minutes? Cardigan.
A cardigan can be thrown on over almost anything without smothering the impact of what lies beneath, and the flexibility it offers is paramount to its appeal. The cardigan resonates in these straitened times – especially thanks to its inbuilt "climate control" functionality. Don't turn up the heating, pull on a cardigan instead. Feeling a bit rosy cheeked? Pop a few buttons.
A chunky jumper can truncate you – turning an ample bust into a bosomy shelf, creating sausage rolls of squeezed flesh that barely exist when that woolly layer is peeled off.
Extolling the practical virtues of the addition of a few buttons though can dismiss the obvious designer love for cardigans. Peter Jensen, that Danish executor of quirky cool, is a great proponent of the cardie. At Miu Miu – and when dressing herself – Mrs Prada repeatedly returns to the style staple, and it probably hasn't escaped your notice that Chanel's famous boucle jacket – a garment with one of the highest currencies in the world – is really, at heart, a cardigan. Albeit not one Pauline Fowler would ever have worn.
And finally, who could forget one of the most famous cardigan wearers of all time – Kurt Cobain? His grungy aesthetic inspired the copycat wearing of sloppy cardies all over the globe, and as we're in the middle of a Nineties revival, now is the perfect time to get caught up in the trend.
As with leggings and pointy shoes before it, the cardigan is a brilliant example of how a retro trend cycle goes bad, eats itself and then defecates on the very fashionability from which it was birthed. Seriously. In recent years, the eminence of hipster culture, "geek chic" and a love of all things nostalgic and a bit shonky has seen the cardigan elevated from pensioners' practical wear to cosy cool, spawning not only prissy, "ladylike" drape-fronted wraps, but also the vile neologism "coatigan", for those who prefer their cardies capacious and dressing-gown-like.
Suddenly, the cool kids were clad in sturdy, cable-knit, charity-shop versions that had more history and personality in their threads than existed in the ectomorphic frames they concealed; suddenly the cardigan was more than a wardrobe basic, it was now a fashion statement, hauled out from the nerd hall of fame alongside NHS specs and parkas.
Cardigans with skinny jeans; cardigans belted over tea-dresses; cardigans for festivals, cardigans as formal wear, cardigans with hoods on, with popped collars, with epaulettes. There wasn't an occasion or extraneous trim that you couldn't throw at the resilient front-buttoning garb that it couldn't absorb into its being and remit.
But there are few such stylised items that survive this sort of process, and the cardigan was not strong enough in the first instance. What is it but a halfway house between coat and jumper? What function does it serve that a sweater or a jacket could not? They're too cold to go outside in, but are hardly the type of indoor item likely to be ripped off in the throes of passion. What are those buttons for exactly?
The cardigan is essentially the masculine equivalent of a housecoat, which survived the age of austerity simply because men never throw anything out. And, as with so many so-called classics, women assimilated them into their own wardrobes too. But that doesn't make them right.
You will never look streamlined in a cardigan; you will always be just a little bit lumpy. The lumpier the cardigan the more intellectually aspirational you will appear, and the further into the "grandad from the Werther's Originals adverts" territory you will stray. You may start finding Woodbines and parts of Hornby train sets in the pockets. You will certainly feel a little under the weather and will probably want to stay in bed all day long.
No, the cardigan only really makes sense in a culture of twinsets, which were originally of course an answer to the modern perplexities of central heating. We highly evolved creatures are so finely attuned to homeostasis these days that we don't even need layers – and if we do, they come in the form of chic, fine-gauge knits, gilets, a blazer, a big scarf even. There is simply no need for cardigans in an age of air-conditioning – I don't argue that practicalities should be a primary fashionable concern, but it isn't like you can praise a cardigan for its aesthetic appeal either.
But the most deleteriously cool-killing aspect of latter-day cardie-wearing must be the regularity with which they are now seen on the backs of the worst sort of self-styled, try-hard, bad boy. The X Factor's self-immolating hairy mascot Frankie Cocozza is one prime example; Olly Murs another. The end result? Slim-fitting, fastidiously fastened cardigans are as much at home in Wetherspoons as a pile of sick these days.
I can only exhort you to banish yours forever.
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