The cardigan, once the preserve of Dot Cotton, the queen and grannies the world over, is officially on trend. I’m loath to use that term (wear whatever you want, however you want!) but the button-up knit is inescapable. I can’t walk down the street without spotting someone wearing an artfully shrugged-off-the-shoulder number from & Other Stories, and I can barely scroll through Instagram without seeing a cropped, pastel-hued, puff-sleeved iteration from Rouje on some Parisian babe.
It all started with Katie Holmes. In September of last year, the actress gave Instagram a coronary when she was photographed wearing New York label Khaite’s Scarlet cardigan and Eda bralette, looking impossibly chic in a minimalist get-up of blue jeans, open-toed mules, sunglasses and not much else. The set, priced at just over £2,000, sold out within 24 hours of the photo going viral, and in the following months a legion of copycats littered the high street (Zara successfully produced its own duo, a wool-blend cardi and crop top set, priced at £42).
While Holmes’ nonchalant outing (surely that's the secret of every covetable look – appearing to have made no effort) was certainly the catalyst for the trend’s boom, the cardigan has been making a comeback for some time. Look to the catwalks of AW19’s fashion month: designers across the board offered cardigan styles of all cuts and colours. Erdem gave us ladylike button-ups adorned with brooches, Chanel leaned heavily into the après-ski Fair Isle vibe, and Hedi Slimane layered dark navy cardis over ruffled blouses in his ‘70s-inspired collection.
At SS20 there were cardigans galore but, rather than the more traditional school uniform colour palette we’re used to seeing – greys, camels, burgundies – designers leaned into fresh springtime hues, with Adeam giving us ice cream shades styled off-the-shoulder. Meanwhile knits were altogether less chunky, coming in fine ribbed styles at Fendi, Tibi and Tory Burch. On the high street, & Other Stories has led the pack with its balloon sleeves, novelty buttons and Instagrammable shades, while Jeanne Damas' label Rouje’s Nona cardigan provided the blueprint for the pervasive cropped style.
There is a plethora of styles available, and everyone and their mother seems to be wearing one, but, dear reader, I am not a Parisian babe and truth be told, I’m sceptical. It seems that the cardigan is geared towards a certain body type, and anyone above a 32B cup size is doomed to look more like Mrs Doubtfire than a model in a Bottega Veneta campaign. While I’d love to artfully tuck a buttoned-up duck egg blue cardi into a pair of jeans, or don an oversized speckled oatmeal number with matching knitted bra, I will undoubtedly veer more towards a rejected member of ‘00s indie band The Wombats (oh how my indie youth was defined by skinny boys in longline cardigans) than any of the chic women I follow on Instagram.
Don’t get me wrong, ASOS has a divine lilac cable knit cardi and bralette co-ord that I’ve seen plenty of plus-size babes wearing on Instagram, so the issue isn’t about size inclusivity per se. For me, it’s all about brushing off the cardigan's dowdy image, which mainly centres on chest size (by the same logic, this theory also applies to blouses and anything else with a high neck), and focusing instead on the styling.
"The return of the cardigan plays into the nostalgic look back to the ‘90s that we saw at a lot of key shows for AW19 and SS20," Libby Page, senior market editor at Net-A-Porter explains. "It was handled with a real ease and nonchalance. There was a lot of unstructured knitwear, and the cardigan is a low-key but chic way to achieve the look. That image of Katie Holmes was so understated but it really resonated and the trend exploded overnight."
If Khaite’s minimalism isn’t for you, what about shopping vintage and teaming a cropped cardi with a ‘50s circle skirt and a pair of Grenson loafers? Or leaning into the grandpa style adopted by Kurt Cobain and his famous oversized cardigans? Pair with slacks, a slogan tee and loose denim, and you’re onto a winner. London Fashion Week favourite Ashley Williams threw up my favourite iterations for this vibe: a bubblegum pink number emblazoned with black cats, and an acid green and Parma Violet purple argyle patterned one. It’s a crying shame that Morrissey has spouted such hateful ideas of late; in his days in The Smiths, he was the soft boy cardigan pin-up, all romantic shirts under longline knits (swinging bunch of gladioli optional).
Lydia King, fashion director at Harrods, tells me that the trick is understanding the cardigan's versatility. "They’re easy to dress up or down, with jeans or even draped over the shoulders over evening wear, and can be used as a softer alternative to the blazer when working a tailored look. The secret to avoiding a mature look is to layer the cardigan over an unexpected piece: opt for a T-shirt instead of a blouse." For a perfectly executed example of this, look to Marc Jacobs' 1993 grunge collection for Perry Ellis, in which Helena Christensen donned a simple black cropped cardigan over a scoop-neck plaid maxi dress, with stomping boots and silver jewellery. Perhaps the magic formula is to avoid layering anything high and bulky underneath.
It looks like I’ll have to put my reservations aside as the cardigan is going nowhere. Net-A-Porter has seen a 22% increase in sales of cardigans in 2020 compared to last year, and as the weather warms up and the days get longer, they’ll stick around, only in shorter, finer, more spring-friendly iterations. Libby’s tip for the coming season? "We’re forecasting the return of the twinset, in line with the ‘90s trend; very Liz Hurley." I might not be brave enough to try the cardi and skirt twinset just yet, but I’ll overcome my preconceptions and try a Seattle-style grunge aesthetic and get back to you. Maybe the cardi isn’t so scary after all.