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 pastel-hued, puff-sleeved iteration from Rouje on some Parisian babe.
It all started with Katie Holmes. Way back in 2019, 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 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 were 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 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.
Fast forward to AW21 and the cardigan took on a whole new meaning. Throughout the haze of lockdowns, the garment became a key symbol of comfort and familiarity, putting the desire for cosy knits at an all-time high. During Prada's digital runway, the pieces were heavy and oversized, taking inspiration from the menswear collection with heritage prints and navy hues. Missoni similarly put luxe comfort front and centre of their collection, with a range of multicoloured long line cardigans with cuffed sleeves and slouchy pockets.
Now heading into the colder months, everyone and their mother seems to be sporting a cardi, 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, 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 shabby cardigans) than any of the chic women I follow on Instagram.
Don’t get me wrong, ASOS has a divine khaki rib 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.
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. 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. While I might not be brave enough to try the cardi and skirt twinset just yet, 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.