The news that Kurt Cobain’s stained, unwashed and cigarette scorched, olive-green grunge cardigan sold for $334,000 (€301,430) at a Julien’s auction at the weekend (making it the most expensive sweater to go under the hammer ever) is quite shocking when you remember his strident anti-capitalist views. Cobain’s iconic cardigan sold when new for a mere $15.95 – he probably paid even less for it in a thrift store. Its sale for over $300K will make it the most expensive cardigan ever, regardless of dubious stains, burns and musty smells.
What is not surprising is that the cardigan, as an item of clothing, is enjoying fashionable status again. Katie Holmes almost broke the internet recently when papped in her sexy, cashmere Khaite cardigan and co-ordinating knit bra while other A-listers including the Hadids, Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber have been spotted wearing cropped, chunky cardigans off-duty too. This new incarnation of the cardigan trend favours flesh over frump – in short, these beautiful young things are wearing theirs with nothing underneath (except a bra) and contrive to artfully flash tanned midriffs and bare shoulders to inject some sex appeal into this traditional knit. The piece once favoured by Miss Marple has had a vampy make-over.
Why has the cardigan trend become so popular again? Is it an expression of the 1990s revival evident in multiple collections this season, a desire for comfort and security in a crazy world, or a reaction against the try-too-hard culture inspired by Instagram influencers and wannabes? Certainly the appeal of a homely knit is obvious when the external environment is so hostile, angry and divided. Wrapping up in a cardigan has many happy associations – childhood knits fashioned by kindly grannies, a sense of inviolable security and the tactile pleasure of being swaddled in a soft, cocooning yarn. It is the antithesis of the bandage dress and in tune with other feminist fashion trends such as suiting, flat shoes and midi hemlines which are unpretentious, easy and understated.
For such a humble piece it has been sported by a wide diversity of stars, including Perry Como, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (from the 1998 film The Big Lebowski), Johnny Rotten, Coco Chanel and Grace Kelly. Its current fashion incarnation as a sexy abbreviated style, owes much to the girl-next-door aesthetic of wholesome 1990s stars Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston. All wore a cardigan well and managed to imbue the knit with a frisson of sultry allure. Now with demure style resurgent and “Granny Chic” a recognised trend, it is not surprising that a younger generation have adopted it as their current crush.
In turbulent times a cardigan is like a proverbial hug – it can comfort, reassure and partially protect us from the hostile climate both natural and political. Wearing one is a sartorial expression of vulnerability – signalling that you feel sensitive, perhaps even scared by global events and the rising sense of anger expressed vociferously over immigration, Brexit and the resurgence of right wing ideas.
The cardigan trend is also supremely versatile: perfect with a slip dress, culottes, midi skirt or cropped jeans with boots, it is flattering and expresses a relaxed approach to style. It can be cropped or maxi, lightweight or chunky, buttoned up and prim or unfastened and subtly sexy. It is the perfect transitional and sustainable garment extending the lifespan of summer pieces, such as lightweight prairie dresses, into autumn days.
The cardigan has its origins in military uniform and is named after James Brudenell, the dapper seventh Earl of Cardigan, who wore a woollen waistcoat under his uniform in the Crimean War. Later, in the 19th century, it evolved into a knitted jacket without a collar which was worn informally. Since these initial incarnations it has enjoyed huge popularity: in the 1920s, central to the flapper look worn by the Bright Young Things, in the 1950s as part of the prim buttoned-up twinset symbolic of repressed sexuality, and in the 1990s as the poster garment of anti-consumerist grunge.
In the 1920s, an era of enormous change in women’s fashion, the cardigan was appropriated by females. Women looked to the ease and simplicity of men’s clothing to allow them navigate the modern world comfortably and confidently. Coco Chanel championed the cardigan because she hated messing up her hair as she pulled on a tight-necked pullover. Her version of the cardigan was made from soft jersey and was worn like the modern cardigan as a fashion item, its long languid silhouette becoming a hallmark of the new liberated woman.
Remember Michelle Obama in her affordable J Crew cardigans on the campaign trail? The Queen relaxing with her dogs at Balmoral? Rogan Roy of Succession taking a break from his power struggles, resplendent in a shawl-collar knit? The cardigan semaphores homely values, contentment and conviviality. It is as low key as high fashion gets, even if Katie Holmes’ Khaite number sells at an eyewatering €1,441 (the bra is an additional €486).
Other seasonal designer versions from Prada (with origami flowers), The Row (ultra-luxe cashmere) and Versace (hot pink mohair) all retail at serious price points but the high street is full of accessible versions of the cardigan trend from COS, Marks and Spencer and All Saints. Irish knitwear brands who craft beautiful cardigans include Sphere One, Elaine Madigan and Ros Duke.