The return of the cardigan
Finally, fashion is taking your mother’s advice and wrapping up warm. Only this time, it’s Prada
It was nothing special. Just your bog-standard school cardie. Not even cashmere (as if!) – just good old 100% M&S lambswool. But I loved that cardie: the holes that ran along the cuffs, the warmth it gave; but more than that, I loved the comfort. It didn’t need its mandatory school name tag. Its scent – one part Persil to two parts home – ensured I’d know that cardie anywhere.
In the pantheon of Great Cardies I Have Known And Loved, the one that took me through fifth and sixth form is right up there. This season, though, some new candidates will be joining it on its plinth because, after several seasons of the jumper reigning supreme, the humble cardigan is back again. And then some.
Funny how I wrote ‘humble’ there. Why are cardigans viewed as humble? Is it because they’re so often shrugged on for convenience, in lieu of a dressing gown? Is it because your dad wore one in his later years, and you used to tease him for looking ancient? Is it because they are the opposite of sex? Librarians wear cardies. Geography teachers wear cardies. Morrissey wore cardies. Your mum was always telling you to take-a-bloody-cardie (the swearing is mine, not hers) incase-it-gets-cold-later. It is entirely thanks to our mothers, perhaps, that cardigans have these sensible, slightly dreary connotations. Cardigans were never the stars, but the support act; a woolly afterthought to stop us feeling cold.
But not this season. Oh, no. Finally, the cardigan has been given the star billing that it deserves. On the catwalk, there were so many iterations that even the most cardie-averse person will find it difficult to resist. Traditionalists will love the chunky Fair Isle ones at Loewe. Modernists will love the bright, true hues at Christopher Kane. Fans of the Seventies will gravitate towards the skinny-rib, zigzag-patterned ones at Missoni. Lovers of the Twenties will swoon for the long-line ones at Gucci (a cardie was the first look at Gucci – that’s how much Alessandro Michele is behind the trend).
In fact, Ida Petersson, Browns’ buying director, attributes the cardigan trend in large part to Michele. ‘He has been pushing the category ever since his first collection for Gucci, so I’m not surprised to see it catch on. With so many Nineties and early Noughties references around, it feels like a natural progression.’ So assured is Browns of the cardigan’s popularity that it has doubled last year’s buy. ‘Demand is sky high for Gucci cardigans – our customers can’t get enough.’ Petersson also singles out Isabel Marant’s oversized cardies, Azzedine Alaïa’s neat little cropped ones and R13’s grunge-inspired versions as this season’s stars, adding: ‘But the pièce de résistance has to be the full-on logo-mania cardigan from Balenciaga.’
In truth, I prefer Balenciaga’s oversized grey ribbed one, the hem of which hangs off, according to the Net-A-Porter website, ‘to mimic the effect of being caught and ripped in a car door’. It reminds me of my beloved frayed school cardie, though, at £1,170, it’s considerably more expensive. Still, it neatly illustrates the point that whether your tastes run to the ragged or the rich, there’s a cardie for everyone this autumn. ‘We have 45 different options for AW17,’ laughs Petersson. ‘There’s definitely going to be a cardigan for everyone.’
But how best to wear them? After the simplicity of a jumper (which you shrug on and forget about), even the sleekest, simplest cardigan can afflict the wearer with an acute case of option paralysis. For a start, there are buttons to contend with. Open or closed? Half-open, or does that
look a bit weird? The to-button-or-not-to-button question is particularly vexatious for those who aren’t flat-chested: button up and you look like Matron, leave wide open and all you see is a pair of breasts. As someone who has always envied the prim, neat way that cardigans sit on the body of a less curvaceous woman (not to mention every man), my best advice would be to buy a size up. Grunge is back in fashion: just channel Hole-era Courtney Love.
Lydia King, Selfridges’ director of womenswear, says: ‘I love them worn over a dress with cowboy boots – relaxed, effortless, but with a modern edge. They work equally well layered over a distressed tee, or worn with great jeans and a killer heel. Consider the cardigan as an alternative to a jacket: a hard-working piece that can be worn with almost anything. They really come into their own in tricky, trans-seasonal situations when it’s too warm for a coat, or you’re faced with Arctic air-con but are wearing something too good to cover with a jumper. A cardigan is a bit like a jumper, but with added benefits.’
As for how to avoid looking frumpy, King counsels wearing a cardigan as a point of contrast. ‘If you choose a baggier fit, team it with something form-fitting. A neat, preppy classic always looks good with old vintage denims, while a ladylike, close-cut round neck is best worn over a slinky, bias-cut dress, super-wide trousers or a voluminous skirt.’ Then again, maybe looking frumpy is the point. While the grunge-era cardie and the statement cardie are undoubtedly having A Moment, so, too, are the less-stylised iterations. Much has been written about the dadcore movement (which shows no signs of abating, given that Balenciaga’s recent menswear show namechecked ‘young dads in the park at weekends’), but the menocore movement has cardigans as a central tenet, too. Named in tribute to relaxed, post-menopausal dressing (don’t shoot me – I didn’t coin the term), menocore also champions the mumsy, no-bells-and-whistles version of the cardigan as a wardrobe essential. Think Diane Keaton in And So It Goes (or in Annie Hall, or, well, anything), though you could equally think of Winona Ryder in Mermaids – surely the frumpiest cardie ever committed to film.
Prada’s cardigans weren’t frumpy, yet there was something of the homespun about them, even if they came bejewelled with beads. In fluffy mohair and in vibrant primary shades, there was also a fierceness: they provided warmth, but they also gave protection. It makes no sense, of course, that a cardigan should feel more cocooning than a jumper does – technically, a jumper offers more protection, not less – but such is Prada’s way with a hidden subtext that these cardies seemed like armour, particularly when worn, twinset-style, over a jumper. Miuccia has long been a fan of the cardigan, of course, but this season’s versions seemed to be particularly persuasive. Immediately, I wanted one. Jane McFarland, fashion director of The Sunday Times’ Style magazine, also found herself lusting after one for the first time in ages. ‘I did have a coordinating twinset from Benetton in the Nineties, but the less said about that, the better,’ she laughs. ‘Thanks to Mrs Prada’s sophisticated take, I’m reconsidering what I’d thought of as an anti-fashion cover-up.’ As for how she’ll style it, McFarland says she’ll tuck her cardi into high-waisted Margaret Howell jeans, with a slightly oversized blazer.
Partly, the cardigan has resurfaced again because fashion is cyclical, and after so many seasons of jumpers, we all needed a refresh. And partly, it’s back because the Nineties are: those unfamiliar with the shaggy green cardie Kurt Cobain wore during his MTV Unplugged appearances in 1993 should Google it, for a more iconic cardie never lived (which is possibly why, two years ago, it was sold at auction for £93,000). But there’s more to it. Here in politically challenging 2017, we want a very specific kind of woollen – a flexible one, without ego, that will work around us, both literally and figuratively. The right cardigan feels like a hug; and Lord knows we all need one of those from time to time. That cardigans are humble? That’s nothing to apologise for. If only more things were. Humble is underrated.
‘The right cardi feels like a hug. Lord knows we all need one ’