It’s fair to say an overwhelming amount of Americans associate the classic cardigan sweater with one sincere, friendly, and amiable man: Mr. Rogers. His signature television show running from 1963 to 2001 titled Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, began with an iconic opening segment featuring the soft-spoken man removing a blazer in favor of a warm zip-up cardigan.
Those that don’t think about Mr. Rogers when they think of the cardigan might think of an equally lovable (but for an entirely different reason) person: The Dude. Portrayed by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, El Duderino dons a patterned shawl-collar cardigan for some of the film’s most memorable scenes.
In both cases the cardigan complements the character it represents perfectly – a testament to the garment’s versatility. So for our fourth edition of Back to School we take a look back on the classic piece of outerwear. Take a look below for the full story.
During the 17th century, local fishermen and outdoor workers in France and the British Isles needed a sweater to protect them from the fickle weather they were constantly up against along the coast and at sea. Wool was the material of choice due its insular nature but a new shape had to be designed to meet the needs of the fishermen. Local clothiers got to work and soon created a sweater featuring a frontal opening allowing the wearer to button up when cold or leave open when warm.
The name “cardigan,” however, was not used until almost 200 years later when James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Although the Russians came out on top, the bravery of Lord Cardigan and his men were immortalized just 6 weeks later in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s unlikely Brudenell ever wore what we now refer to as a cardigan during the war, but the waistcoat him and other British officers wore led to the term cardigan being used to refer to garments of a similar nature with open fronts. As if to honor the brave British general, the word cardigan was first used in a knitting context in 1868, the year Lord Cardigan was put to rest.
Mostly handmade up to this point, cardigans, like most clothing, underwent a significant development once the Industrial Revolution took off. Soon, would-be-consumers didn’t have to shell out their life savings for some mumbling Irish clothier to hand-knit a heavy cardigan sweater. Instead, cardigans of varying thickness were manufactured for various climates and occasions. With the price of clothing down, the sweater made its way through different strata and even crossed the ocean before reaching the backs of the Ivy league’s trendsetters.
With the emergence of varsity lettering in the late 19th and early 20th century, cardigans became an inseparable part of campus life. Team captains proudly displayed their initial achievement on the left while additional merits took the form of stripes along the arm on cardigans from brands like Dehen 1920. By the time the next generation occupied the classrooms of Harvard and Yale, both students and faculty could be spotted sporting the versatile sweater. A button-up shirt and tie beneath a contrasting cardigan became commonplace and soon the open-front sweater cozied up to its latest association: top-tier academia.
The cardigan’s popularity continued on the other side of the ocean but wool quickly became scarce with the onset of World War II. In a decision that seems completely at odds with modern economic solutions, the British War Ministry encouraged people to knit new clothing by unpicking old clothing in a booklet titled “Make Do and Mend.” Possibly as a result of the wool shortage, cardigans produced in Britain during this period were tight and short while they were available in a variety of sizes just across the pond.
Of course now the cardigan can be found almost anywhere in the world constructed from a number of different materials. V-necks, shawl collars, and cable knits are only a small sample of the options available in our advanced capitalist society. Even double breasted cardigans like this one from Lanvin are available for the sartorially, if not experimentally, inclined. What’s next for the cardigan is yet to be seen but with almost 400 years of history, chances are it’s not going anywhere.