We take a look at the highs of the often opinion splitting cardigan

There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground when it comes to the classic mid-layer. Some associate the cardigan with their grandparents, others with top heavy gym buffs, neither demographic often featuring in top tens of timeless, iconic style. After a few individual members of the Essential Journal team found themselves discussing the buttoned knit recently with friends and readers, we thought we’d take a look at where it came from, where it has been and where it is yet to go.

As with most garments, the opinion dividing cardigan finds its roots in battle. It seems the name became popular after James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, in the mid 19th century whilst charging the light brigade in the Crimean War, dressed his troops in knitted long sleeve shirts, buttoned down front and centre. Synonymous with flickering footage of factory workers and football goers of the very early 1900s, the cardigan was as much a wardrobe staple as the flat cap. Jump forward 20-or-so years to the roaring ‘20s and it finds itself in the more glamorous surroundings of New York and London’s cabaret bars, from then on seemingly fluttering in and out of fashion every couple of decades. Increasingly popularised in the 1950s by the modernists and ivy leaguers, and again in the 70s, this time by the mod revival, it was these subcultures that set a unique style and aesthetic that fashion designers still try to emulate today.

But it hasn’t all been vespas and jazz cafes. In the grunge-ridden and stoner-mellowed 90s, the cardi’ graced the shoulders of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – oversized in green mohair, worn during their infamous MTV unplugged gig in 1993 – and the Dude’s Westerley Pendleton cardi’ worn by actor (and cover star of issue 38) Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998). 

As much as the iconic subcultures of generations past have created peaks and troughs in its popularity, ‘Made in England’ manufacturers have maintained a consistent supply, untouched by trend. John Smedley is just one example of a label that has for many decades perfected the classic shaped cardigan, giving us a season-spanning item with a much needed general sense of wearability. High end fashion houses such as Italian stallion Gucci, have incorporated the cardigan into recent seasonal lookbooks, placing the piece firmly in the spotlight of showcasing the cardigans relationship with big name fashion powerhouses. When it comes to the pros and cons of investing in the perfectly constructed knit, warmth takes the majority of the pro vote. However, it is often overlooked in adding subtle style and nuance to an outfit – please see ‘Universal Works’. It should come as no surprise, however 20 years since its last peak, the cardi’ has gotten into the hands of the ‘Millenial’. Creative entrepreneurs such as Blondey McCoy and Tyler the Creator, to name but two, have recently adopted the knit and begun telling the grand old story of the button down in their own words. The influence that streetwear has today within youth culture in a global sense, seemingly opens the cardigan up to a new, fresh faced audience. New-York based just-stick-a-red-label-on-it streetwear giants Supreme, have styled the mohair cardigan in various autumn/winter campaigns of late, peaking the interest of skaters and streetwear-snobs alike. A cool switch of millenial aesthetic again, if you ask me. This current wave of streetwear has the power to place the cardigan back at the top of the fashion mountain, making it a ‘rarity’ for the first time since its creation. 

So perhaps it’s not just grandparents and bulked-up-bros. Though, what’s not to say your Nan and Grandad met whilst doing the Tamoure to Wilson Pickett? After all, Tyler the Creator will be a pensioner one day. EJ         


Words by Reece FEENEY