Who's to say that James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, had any clue that his name would be a Taylor Swift song? Somewhere between Brudenell and Swift, though, came the cardigan sweater, a knitted outerwear piece that has become the staple in fall fashion. In fact, for many, putting on their favorite cardigan is a signifier for the transition of seasons, and people find ways to fit the cardigan into their style.
Origins: Army to Working Class
It started with Brudenell, often referred to as Cardigan in historical documents, a sharply dressed British lieutenant-general during the Crimean War. The general was known for his lavish sleeveless jacket which provided protection against the cold and the enemies weapons. Brudenell, although infamous for stranding his men at a battle in 1854, became a cultural icon in Britain through his vest, eventually serving as its namesake.
Soon enough by 1864, British merchants began production of cardigans for sailors. The new garment eventually became popular amongst the working class, as it provided warmth while working in dyre conditions, when nautical attire crossed over into mainstream fashion.
Source: National Army Museum UK
Womenswear: Formal to Comfort
By 1910s and 20s, knitwear had become a staple for most people's closets, and the cardigan travelled from Britain to across Europe and the Americas. Different styles of cardigans, from cardigan vests for women's fashion to cardigan jackets marketed as replacements for men's blazers.
Designer, Coco Chanel, helped solidify buttoned sweaters, like the cardigan, in womenswear. Chanel preferred them because they didn't mess up her hair. The designer was often photographed wearing cardigans, which is an element of Chanel that has stayed alive throughout the years.
Queen Elizabeth II was also seen dawning cardigans in her off-duty photographs throughout the decades, whether it was in her office or in the gardens of her palace being caught by the paparazzi. The Queen, dissimilar to Chanel, made the cardigan a comfort garb. By the 40s, the garment was something you wore at home on a lazy day and never outside.
When the 50s and 60s rolled around, there was a new way to wear cardigans. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland popularized the "sweater girls" craze of the time. The trend, which was rooted in sexism, was complete with tight-fitted crew necks and cardigans, leaving little of the silhouette to the imagination. This sexualization of the garment kept it in the boundaries of womenswear, transitioning from formal to comfy to now provocatory.
The trend, which ended becoming a popular film and TV show trope, even had a movie inspired by it. Sweater Girls, the film, focused on two teenage girls trying to preserve their virginities, further sexualizing the cardigan with its promotional imagery. Source: Film Noir Photos
Eventually, in the 60s and 70s, cardigans entered menswear after actors were seen in films dawning the sweaters. Rex Harrison and Fred Rogers wore them for their respective roles in My Fair Lady and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Around this time, President Jimmy Carter rocked a tan cardigan in a televised speech which TIME Magazine named one of the best political fashion statements.
Although cardigans remained prominent in womenswear throughout the decades, the next big cardigan trend was with Kurt Cobain, who brought splashy colorful cardigans to the 90s. In fact, his iconic green MTV Unplugged performance cardigan was sold for $334,000.
Cardigans in The Modern Day
Now, cardigans are a bonafide fall necessity for most people. Cardigans are used for different styles from cottage-core to model-off-duty. From the original knitted style of the sweater to Kurt Cobain's twist, every cardigan goes these days depending on the style approach. From basics to patterned and multi-colors, cardigans have formed a life of their own that has come a far journey from its original military days.
Chanel is keeping the cardigan momentum going a century after its creator brought it to the forefront of fashion. Brands like Gucci have also created their personalized versions of the garment for the autumn romanticizing consumers. The cardigan is prevalent in pop culture through Taylor Swift's song, cardigan, and paparazzi shots of stars like Bella Hadid and Jacob Elordi. This is to say that the cardigan has received better press than most trendy garments that come and go, being the only trendy garment to last the test of time.