Let’s discuss cardigans, specifically those heavy chunky ones that are so at home in the late fall and winter seasons. In other words, right around this time of year. There is something alluring about a heavy knit cardigan of wool and/or cashmere. The good ones are enveloping and undeniably comfortable. The resulting aesthetic is cozy and casual, sometimes with a rakish and natty touch. That said, I think many guys of my generation think cardigans are reserved for the older set; grandfathers, professors, fathers and the like. There is certainly some merit to this argument, as cardigans can sometimes look tired or slouchy. I think this scares a lot of guys away from wearing cardigans, but it shouldn’t. When worn well , cardigans can be supremely stylish.
In this post we are going to cover how cardigans came about as well as how they should fit, what defines a heavy cardigan and of course, how to wear a cardigan for men.
I’ve prepared a video to compliment this written post. Although much of the content is the same, there are a few differences between the two so if you are really interested in the subject, I recommend taking the time to both read and watch.
The first chunky cardigan that comes to my mind is Clark Griswold’s in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (which, in case you were wondering, is my favorite Christmas movie). Clark wears a heavy grey cardigan with an ugly Christmas themed tie during the Christmas Eve festivities. It is probably worth noting that Clark’s cardigan is definitely on the large side and that Clark is arguably one of the premiere ‘dadcore’ style icons.
Another famous heavy cardigan example is Kurt Cobain’s from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged show. Again, Kurt’s is definitely a size too big, but that was very much his style.
The most notable mis-attributed cardigans would have to be Mr. Rogers’, he wore a red zippered sweater, not a cardigan. And then of course we have The Dude who wore a Pendleton zippered sweater throughout much of The Big Lebowski. But again, because of the zipper, it is not technically a cardigan.
Before we talk about how to wear a heavy cardigan, let’s cover a little background on the name cardigan and how they came to be. The cardigan is, of course, named after some old guy. His name was James Brudenell (aka the 7th earl of cardigan). Brudenell led the infamous charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War in 1854, the charge was soon after immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem of the same name. As the story goes, the soldiers of the time wore what was a sleeveless descendent of the current day cardigan. With the Earl’s fame, apparently so came the rise in popularity of civilian versions of the sweater, which was then named in his honor.
Anyway, let’s establish what exactly a chunky and heavy cardigan is and why it is different from a ‘normal’ cardigan. In the most simple sense, a chunky cardigan is a cardigan on the heavier and more substantial end of the spectrum; both physically and visually. A chunky cardigan is often knit using thicker thread and knit to a thickness sometimes even approaching a centimeter.
The appearance is often textured and rough, although they can also be smooth. Despite the appearance looking rough, the actual feel may be smooth and quite soft. Cable knit is one of the more common patterns. To help differentiate, a normal or non-chunky cardigan is often smooth and knit or woven with thinner threads. Those cardigans thickness is also noticeably less.
More broadly speaking. A cardigan is a knit jacket-like garment. The front opens and closes and is held shut but use of toggles or, more commonly, buttons. Zippers are not appropriate and would eliminate the garments classification as a cardigan, as discussed with Mr Rogers’ and The Dude’s sweaters. Some cardigans have no collar and are in a v-neck like shape that leads down to the buttons, whereas others have a shawl collar or other type of collar. Almost all ‘chunky cardigans have some type of collar. This both balances them out visually but also helps them stand on their own. In addition, sometimes regular cardigans will not have sleeves, whereas I do not think I have seen a heavy cardigan without sleeves.
Generally speaking, chunky cardigans are meant to be worn alone as the outermost article of clothing, minus outerwear. Partly due to their heft, they cannot be worn underneath a jacket. Whereas ‘normal’ cardigans may be worn as the outermost garments but are almost better served being worn under a jacket. This is perhaps the most important differentiator between chunky and normal cardigans.
For reference, above are examples of chunky (top, Ralph Lauren) and a normal (bottom, Drake’s) cardigans.
Regarding formality, heavy cardigans occupy a space on the more casual end of the spectrum. Often they are at home above jeans, corduroys and chinos. And over anything from a v-neck t-shirt to a button up shirt. They can be dressed up as well, primarily by using dress trousers and sometimes even a tie. In fact, they can substitute as a sports jacket on some occasions; which only serves to increase their utility. Either way, they are an ideal layering tool and a great way to add some visual interest, and warmth, to an ensemble. Whether or not your button the buttons on the front is up to you, although I think they often look best unbuttoned. Relative to regular sweaters, cardigans are more formal and can almost always be worn instead of regular sweaters.
That said, I do not recommend wearing chunky cardigans under a blazer or sports jacket. First, most of them are too heavy to fit comfortably under a jacket. Second, chunky cardigans do an excellent job of standing on their own. Their texture and patterns often lend them to being a standalone garment; and sometimes the piece which an ensemble is built around. Adding one over a shirt certainly lends a little more formality to a look.
Like any garment, the fit of a cardigan is of great importance. The fit can make or break the look. It can be the difference between looking like an out of touch geriatric and a well-dressed man. You want the sleeves to be long enough to cover shirt cuffs, if the sleeves of the cardigan are too long then just fold them over. Around the arms it is best if the cardigan fits almost snugly, if too large there will be excess space between the sleeve of the cardigan and sleeve of the shirt, causing the cardigan to look slouchy and unrefined, like Clark’s and Kurt’s. Around the chest and stomach, snug can work but you also want enough fabric that there is a little space between the shirt and cardigan, almost like a jacket or blazer. You don’t want something that is strictly form fitting, or especially that restricts movement. Then of course we have the shoulders, which again it is key that your movement not feel restricted. But not so loose to lead to a baggy or slouchy look.
To best demonstrate what we have discussed thus far, lets take this navy blue flecked wool cardigan from J. Crew. The first look we will showcase pairs the cardigan with a white oxford cloth button down and brown corduroy trousers. This is about as simple and classic as it gets. This combination, or something like it, is a great starting point for guys looking to get into the cardigan game because of its simplicity.
Using the same cardigan and shirt we can bring in some grey wool flannel dress trousers and a navy silk knit tie to increase the formality. I have found that silk knit ties complement heavy cardigans quite well so I almost exclusively wear them when wearing a necktie with a cardigan. In this case, the cardigan acts almost in place of a blazer or sports jacket; nearing those items in formality. Although I think it is a more interesting look because of the use of a cardigan.
A second cardigan we are going to make use of is this beautiful brown and olive green wool cable knit one from Ralph Lauren. With this look I wanted to keep the color palette almost monochromatic; only brining in browns and olives. From afar, it almost looks like a suit, but because of the significant difference in textures between the cardigan and corduroys, the two items do not clash. Structure and formality wise, this look is very similar to the first look, just a different color scheme.
This last look is a little bit outside my norm in that I am wearing a white v neck t-shirt (in honor of The Dude) and grey sweatpants; which is topped off with a heavy smooth black cashmere cardigan from Lilly Pulitzer. Certainly the most casual look of the lot and not quite as preppy, which may appeal to some of you.
As you may be able to tell, I am a big fan of heavy cardigans. I think they are not worn near enough and are often worn in a subpar way. By now, we have hit on all of the relevant taking points relating to chunky heavy cardigans and how to wear them. However, some of you may still have questions; please ask in the comments. In addition, if you have any thoughts, feedback or advice of your own; please feel free to share in the comments.
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Great read, it’s definitely still cardigan weather here in the UK even though it’s now March! Sadly I don’t have the chunky knits you have, but I’ll be getting my fine knit cardigans back out once the weather picks up a little 🙂
> the soldiers of the time wore what was a sleeveless descendent of the current day cardigan.
Perhaps you meant ancestor?
Very good and interesting, I appreciate your work.
Excellent post. Way to demystify a necessary but undeserved topic.