The Cardigan Style Guide: Classic and Trendy Ways to Wear this Staple
By Julia Wohlers, Brand of People Magazine
Commercially popularized by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, cardigans rank amongst the most versatile items in a woman’s wardrobe. Over the past century, they’ve expanded their influence from chic Parisian statement pieces to Curt Cobain’s concert attire in the 90s and, most recently, to Taylor Swift’s cable knit cardigan merchandise marking the release of her latest album. With their varying fits, cuts, and styles, just the right cardi can be found for any occasion and is suitable for all seasons. Here’s how to select and wear your cardigan sweater.
Types of Cardigans and How to Wear Them
Ideal for seasonal transitions or when the temperature is unpredictable, the long-line cardigan blends form with function and is characterized by its length. Featuring either loose or fitted sleeves, it extends down to the knee and beyond, even as far as mid-calf or ankle (at which length it is also known as a duster). Layer it on top of jeans to tie the outfit together, or wear it over a short skirt or dress to lengthen your legs.
A long cardigan also serves to balance any ensemble with a cropped midriff-baring top. In a plush textile that veers towards comfort over formality, it pairs well with lounge pants or joggers. Given the looser, flowing fit of any long garment like this cardigan, it’s best to provide definition to your silhouette elsewhere by mixing in some fitted, less-baggy clothes as well: think belted pants, perhaps, or leggings, or a tighter top. The long-line cardigan allows you to play with contrasting lengths to elongate your body by drawing the eye upward.
Current trends see the button-up cardigan liberated from librarian-wear and firmly planted in the “essentials” category of your closet. The beauty of this cardigan variety is its adaptability: wear it over a crisp blouse and a pencil skirt for professional attire, or throw it on over jeans on chillier days. This is also a great way to experiment with strong prints and bright colors.
Now that styling from the turn of the millennium is making a resurgence, the iconic shopping mall escalator scene in Never Been Kissed (1999) is a fun source of inspiration. Over twenty years later, the button-up cardigan is still making appearances on models and actresses. Rendered sexier than ever by Bella Hadid’s habit of fastening just the top button of her sweater while wearing nothing underneath, buttonable cardigans have been sighted on it-girls layered over lace-trimmed camis, matching cashmere bralettes or bare skin.
Drape Front Cardigans
Sometimes called shawl collar cardigans, waterfall fronts or ruffle fronts, this open sweater is free of fastenings and puts an up-scale spin on a traditional piece. The graceful draping is universally flattering and elevates a casual ensemble without looking overdressed. You can stick to basics here to help this look succeed: a simple tucked-in t-shirt paired with jeans makes for an easy base layer, as do edgier pieces like leather pants with a lux turtleneck. Opt for a solid colored neutral to go effortlessly with everything, or a bold pop of color to layer over a monochromatic look.
Let’s get practical: fashion is nice but staying warm is nicer! Fortunately, you can stay on-trend during the fall and winter months without sacrificing either one. Thick, chunky cardigans and cozy ribbed knits from short to long are the hallmark of sweater weather and can be worn in so many ways. French-tuck it into flared jeans or style it over a patterned pant in plaid or a retro print. Layer it atop a vintage-inspired collar for a dose of nostalgia, or embrace the “grandmacore” aesthetic by combining your floral embroidered knit with tights and loafers. Oversized knits can be belted around the waist for a cool finishing touch, or paired with a turtleneck (bonus points for jazzing up the collarbone with some layered gold necklaces).
Short Sleeve Cardigans
During the warmer months of the year, short sleeve cardigans are an excellent way to sport trend-friendly tops and create visually interesting layers without overheating. Long-line short sleeve sweaters in a light-weight fabric pair well with denim, while shorter sweaters that hit at the hip or sit just below keep sundresses looking flirty, especially sleeveless dresses when the evenings turn cool. Puff-sleeve cardigans and button-up fronts in cropped cuts are perfectly suited to high-waisted or boyfriend jeans.
Cropped Cardigan Sweaters
Given the tenacity of the crop top craze, it’s hardly surprising to see cardigan sweaters following suit. Cropped cardigans are a simpler alternative to bodysuits and look chic with pencil skirts and high-waisted palazzo pants.
On the streetwear scene, short and loose cardigans can be transformed into makeshift crop tops that feel fresh when paired with straight-leg jeans and sneakers. Not all super-short cardigan looks are appropriate for the workplace, so opt for a high waist and a tuckable fit if you aim to one day wear this piece in a professional setting.
Preppy polo-style cardigans with collars may be reminiscent of the golf course, but this season they’re the hot commodity bringing a retro-cool touch to your ensemble. Often found in lightweight knits with buttons, this cardigan style began as a micro trend on the runways of Prada and Missoni, styled with artsy leather skirts, printed midi skirts and relaxed-fit jeans. Layer it, unbuttoned, with a tank or t-shirt underneath, or button up to the neckline for a prim, put-together vibe.
Much like leg warmers and blush tanks, the wrap cardigan sweater draws inspiration from the world of ballet-wear, providing a soft layer of warmth but still allowing plenty of space to move. Slouchy knit cardigans with twist-knots or criss-crossed fabric at the front and roomy sweaters with thick sash ties all fit the bill. Pair this casual layer with straight-leg jeans or a knit maxi dress in a similar shade.
Where to Wear a Cardigan
The most enviable quality of the cardigan is its ability to thrive in all manner of settings while also serving a practical purpose.
Running errands or grabbing coffee with a friend? A loose fit with front pockets makes for a casual touch that keeps you warm, brings visual appeal and also camouflages any areas of your silhouette that you’d like to streamline. (Make it Instagram-ready by letting it hang off one shoulder.) Headed to a meeting with a client or a parent-teacher conference? Tighter fits or belted cardigans instantly polish your look, show off your waistline, and present perfectly atop slacks, tucked into tapered pants and pencil skirts, or thrown over jeans and dresses. Even formal events like weddings or an evening at the opera find their perfect detail in a cardigan, whether bolero-style or long-line.
With its storied history and widespread popularity, the cardigan is certainly no newcomer to the fashion scene. But selected in fresh textures, and styled in new and interesting ways, it might just turn out to be the statement piece of your ensemble.