Sweater Girls: When A Formerly Sexist Trend Is Transformed By Time

The sweater is the fashion world's version of oatmeal. It's hearty and good for you, and able to be dressed up (or down) into whatever style you like. But sexy? Meh — the common interpretation of women who wear sweaters might be everything but. But that hasn't always been the case. Tight, body-hugging knits were a fashion trend during the Golden Age of Hollywood, popping up in the wardrobe departments of many film sets to be worn by women, for the pleasure of men. It was during that time that the term “The Sweater Girl” was coined, and used in reference to ’50s bombshells like Lana Turner, Jane Russell, and Marilyn Monroe, who accentuated their hourglass figures by famously wearing bullet-shaped bras underneath their body-hugging knits.

But through these women and their outfits truly defined a time, the legacy of the Sweater Girl has endured, changed directions, dropped its sexist past, and has ultimately been used to describe those insouciant, self-possessed women who chose comfort over appearing cultivated, and are 1,000% more alluring because of it.

For every girl-next-door pinup, there was a bad-girl gang on the silver screen wearing tight sweaters accessorized with switchblades. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were television teen queens rocking oversize knits in wild, colorful patterns. These days, what defines a Sweater Girl has evolved, and we are now witness to a mishmash of all of the above, from designers who embrace minimalist chic to a performer with a particular Coogi obsession. Today. we pay tribute to 30 Sweater Girls who embraced knitwear like a form of fashion religion.
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Photo: John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images.
1. The Beginning of “Sweater Girl”: Lana Turner in They Won't Forget
In 1937, then-15-year-old Turner was cast in the thriller They Won't Forget, and made her mark in a brief, albeit memorable scene, in which she strolled through a busy street wearing a formfitting sweater and a long pencil skirt. And, in accordance with the trend of the time, she was given a nickname: “The Sweater Girl” (for example, Clara Bow was “The It Girl,” and Dorothy Lamour was known as “The Sarong Queen”). Apparently, Turner hated her nickname throughout her career.
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Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.
2. Judy Garland
During a star-studded 1944 recording session for the Armed Forces Radio Network, Bob Hope introduced Garland as “that lovely Sweater Girl.” Hope and Garland performed a quick bit where Judy asked Bob why men are so crazy about sweater girls. Bob responded that he doesn’t know: “That's one mystery I'd like to unravel.” All together now: blech.
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Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Getty Images.
3. Marilyn Monroe
Before she became famous as Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jeane Baker was photographed wearing a red cardigan backward and buttoned up the back — a trend for teenage girls in the ’50s. She referred to it as her “magic sweater.” In a 1955 photo shoot with celebrity photographer Milton H. Greene, Monroe posed in a different red sweater — but this time, she didn’t wear anything on the bottom.
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Photo: Ralph Crane/Getty Images.
4. Jane Russell
Marilyn Monroe’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star was also known as one of the Sweater Girls of the big screen. Her debut film,The Outlaw, faced threats of being pulled after censors voiced concern about the way her ample cleavage was depicted in revealing blouses.
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Photo: NBC/Getty Images.
5. Jayne Mansfield
In order to create a perfect hourglass silhouette, Mansfield would wear a cone or bullet bra underneath her tight sweaters, which she tucked into her skirts.
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6. The Violent Years
Ed Wood’s 1956 exploitation film is about a gang of juvenile-delinquent teenage girls in tight sweaters led by a young hood named Paula Parkins. The rebellious adolescents would later ditch their sweaters for men’s clothing, burglarize gas stations, and terrorize couples in love, because — obviously.
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7. Teenage Gang Debs
Another sleazy girl-gang exploitation film, this 1966 flick is about a young lass from Manhattan who moves to Brooklyn and joins a neighborhood clique called the Rebels. Tight sweaters and switchblade fights abound.
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Photo: Michael Webb/Getty Images.
8. Brigitte Bardot
The French New Wave actress was constantly seen wearing sweaters, from the iconic bullet-bra look to buttoned-up cardigans and loose silhouettes. She was also the inspiration for the Bardot neckline, of course.
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Photo: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images.
9. Francine Gottfried
Gottfried was an unknown office clerk who gained brief notoriety after mobs of men began to watch her walk to work for two weeks in September 1968 (and yes — that's exactly as creepy as it sounds). The press nicknamed her the “Wall Street Sweater Girl,” and her commute drew crowds of 10,000. Police had to help escort Gottfried, who was obviously annoyed with all attention and had begun taking a different route to work. “What are they doing this for? I think they’re all mental cases. I'm just an ordinary girl,” she said.
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Photo: ABC/Getty Images.
10. Velma from Scooby-Doo
Sweater Girls aren’t just real people. Velma Dinkley, the nerdy, bespectacled character from Scooby-Doo, was famous for her head-to-toe orange-hued outfit, which consisted of a turtleneck sweater and a matching skirt.
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11. Jennifer Beals in Flashdance
The famous “Maniac” dance number is rarely replicated without Beals’ signature look as Alex Owens in 1983’s Flashdance: an off-the-shoulder, oversize raglan gray sweatshirt worn with red heels.
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12. Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas
There is a haunting scene in 1984’s Paris, Texas in which Kinski unknowingly speaks to her estranged husband through a one-way mirror at a peepshow booth. Her look, which consisted of a fuzzy pink sweater with matching lipstick, made the scene even more striking.
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Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
15. Denise Huxtable in The Cosby Show
Denise (Lisa Bonet) was the Huxtable middle sister whose unique hairstyles and quirky fashion sense helped her stand out in a big family. She rocked a ton of sweaters throughout the show (as well as in its college-themed spinoff, A Different World), including a bright blue number that had moons and stars all over it.
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Photo: Getty Images.
16. Liv Tyler in Empire Records
Tyler’s record-store work outfit consisted of a fuzzy, cropped baby blue sweater and a plaid skirt — a look replicated by fans of the film for years to come.
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Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images.
17. Alicia Silverstone in Clueless
Clueless was brimming with sweaters, from cropped sweater vests to collared jumpers — a look that’s still being copied today, especially with those riding the ’90s resurgence.
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Photo: NBC/Getty Images.
18. Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell
When not in a cheerleading uniform or crop tops, Zack Morris’ true love (played by Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) rocked brightly colored, oversize knits. She also took a cue from Flashdance and cut out the neck of her Bayside High sweatshirt, letting it gently slip down one of her shoulders.
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Photo: Fred Duval/Getty Images.
19. Courtney Love
Love wore tattered, moth-eaten cardigans over her babydoll dresses, sometimes stealing Kurt Cobain’s sweaters for herself. After his death, she was also photographed wearing one of his signature cardigans.
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13. Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink
Andie, Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink, may have been poor and an outcast, but that didn’t stop her from having one of the most iconic looks of the era. In a scene where she flirts with rich boy Blaine, she wears a vintage baby blue, sequined cardigan.
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20. Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls
The Plastics liked to wear pink on Wednesdays, which included rosy-hued cardigans and sweaters over miniskirts.
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Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images.
21. Sofia Coppola
The director is constantly seen in gray cashmere sweaters, even on the red carpet. Notoriously casual with her dress, Coppola's flats-and-sweater M.O. has been attempted (less gracefully) by other low-key celebs.
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Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images.
14. Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club
The film’s somber goth icon wore an oversize black sweater before she received an impromptu makeover from Molly Ringwald’s character.
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Photo: Donna Ward/Getty Images.
22. Zooey Deschanel
Sweaters and cardigans are a constant fixture in the twee queen’s wardrobe. Her New Girl character dons knits in various colors and patterns, from argyle to striped designs.
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Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images.
23. Erin Wasson
The model has managed to take thrift-store slouchy sweaters with purposeful holes and runs, and turn them into a It item. She even designed a version for RVCA featuring a pattern of cutouts.
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Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images.
24. Rumi Neely
The blogger-turned-fashion designer led the charge of turning oversize sweaters into a fashion blogger staple, including one Alexander Wang pieces that hung off one shoulder. Always worn with ripped tights and platform booties, this look pretty much defined the late 2000s.
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Photo: David Krieger/Bauer-Griffin.
25. The Olsens
The award-winning fashion designers kicked off the boho chic (or hobo chic) trend back in the early aughts. Mary-Kate and Ashley are the queens of oversize sweaters, sporting pieces in mostly black or neutral hues, and always, always, in the most high-end textiles.
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Photo: Courtesy of Céline.
26. Nü Woman/Phoebe Philo
Nü Woman, the style philosophy that allows every clothing item to pair perfectly with other wardrobe items, may be a nightmare to those who embrace the gaudy and outlandish in their sartorial adventures. Philo nails Nü Woman’s minimalistic approach: The Céline creative director is a lifelong aficionado of the cashmere sweater, coupling hers with slouchy trousers.
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Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
27. Olivia Pope in Scandal
In the television drama Scandal, political crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) rarely wears anything other than power suits and sleek workwear, but when she’s not sporting those pieces, she can be seen in her loungewear, which usually consists of a slouchy sweater and silk pants.
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Photo: Josiah Kamau/Getty Images.
28. Gwyneth Paltrow
Goop and ridiculously expensive cashmere sweaters go hand in hand like gluten-free quinoa bread and a $200 bottle of EVOO.
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Photo: Michel Dufour/Getty Images.
29. Olivia Palermo
One of the stylish socialite’s go-to-looks is an oversize knit with a huge turtleneck and skinny black pants. Palermo loves sweaters so much, she even incorporated one into her wedding-day outfit. Carolina Herrera designed a perfect matrimonial look for her that included a cream cashmere sweater over a tulle skirt.
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Photo: Courtesy of Beats Musics.
30. FKA Twigs
The singer-songwriter has a collection of colorful Coogi pullovers that would make any sweater lover envious.