Of all the clothing styles we derive from warfare, you wouldn’t think the soft knit cardigan would be one of them. But when James Thomas Brudenell, a British army officer and the 7th Earl of Cardigan, wanted a sweater he could slip on and off without disarranging his hair, a new classic was born. Button-front sweaters have their roots in the Crimean War, in which Brudenell fought, but today they’re associated with cozy firesides, pipe smoking, and grandfatherly attire.
That’s not to say they have to be stodgy. Steve McQueen gave shawl collar styles a macho appeal when he used them as part of his off-duty uniform. Hip Parisian youths on the Rive Gauche wore them in the ‘50s and ‘60s while discussing jazz, philosophy, and New Wave films. And Kurt Cobain inspired millions of grunge fans in the ‘90s to raid their local thrift stores for vintage pieces.
I like Scott & Charters and The Armoury for the kind of chunky, shawl collar knit you can wear with almost anything – jeans, chinos, wool trousers, etc. They pair well with casual shoes, such as loafers or suede chukkas, and either an oxford-cloth button-down or a chambray shirt. Scott & Charters is a looser, longer fit with a collar that drapes like a heavy roll of dough. The Armoury’s version is trimmer and shorter, with a wider lapel that sits closer to the body (see above).
For something less conservative, I love RRL’s cardigans. They have two types: hand-knits and machine-knits. The first, as you’d guess, comes in a lower gauge – which means the knit is chunkier and heavier, with looser packed stitching than their machine-made counterparts. I think the handknits are the nicer of the two, although they’re also a bit more expensive. On the upside, they wear more like outerwear than knitwear, allowing you to substitute these for a light coat in the fall.
My only gripe is the price. The cardigans are made in China, albeit to high standards, and can cost anywhere from $600 to $1,200. Even with all the work involved for the handknits, you would think the price should be much lower. Handknit Arans can be had for about $200 and authentic cowichans for a little more. Both come with a bit more provenance than RRL’s cardigans, even if they don’t sport the same Southwestern patterns. Some designers, such as Frank Leder, also have nice handknits that don’t break the $600 mark.
That said, if you’re patient, you can find RRL’s cardigans floating around eBay for about $500 or so. If you’re willing to pay retail, however, there are some great designs this season at Mr. Porter, Stag Provisions, and Ralph Lauren’s online store. I actually picked up this (machine-knit) zip-front cardigan a couple of weeks ago and have been wearing it with faded jeans, heavy boots, and vintage-cut t-shirts (mine are from Barns, although Levis Vintage Clothing and Lady White Co. are also great for this sort of thing). You do have to go all-in with an RRL-esque sort of look to make these cardigans work, but who doesn’t have raw jeans and heavy boots in their closet at this point?
Pictured below: some of RRL’s handknits in the past, mixed in with some machine-knits, because they’re all great.