Button up, because the cardigan is having a moment in men’s fashion. Sales have shot up by 79%, according to the clothing resale site Poshmark. Kurt Cobain’s now legendary stone green cardigan from Nirvana’s 1993’s MTV Unplugged performance (complete with cigarette burns) was sold for a record $334,000 (£255,000) in October, while Tom Hanks dons one in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is out in the UK on Friday.
Hanks, playing the postwar children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers, wears a post box red cardigan, in a preppy cut. The cardigan became part of Rogers’ clean cut image, in the lineage of a certain type of family-friendly entertainer, such as Pat Boone or Val Doonican. With its layers of torso-concealing wool, the cardigan was never edgy. But that’s all changing.
“The stigma surrounding cardigans has completely gone,” says Zak Maoui of GQ magazine. “In a similar vein to a socks and sandals combo, the cardigan has left its geek origins behind, moving instead to a super chic realm.”
This “super chic” realm has been defined by Alessandro Michele, who has arguably helped modernise men’s style more than any other designer. In Milan a fortnight ago, he appeared after his Gucci show in an oversize, carrot coloured cardigan. But Michele had anointed the garment years before.
“Cardigans were heavily present in his autumn-winter [AW] 2018 collection,” says Maoui. “[They were] loosely buttoned and worn over untucked shirts, and still even in his autumn-winter 2020 collection, which we just saw, they were long-lined and worn as coats. He injected super nerdy, geek-chic into every collection, making it the new cool.”
The cardigan has been cult before: think Starsky & Hutch’s Paul Michael Glaser in a double-knit wool, cerillo and merino knit, with belt, or Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in a Native American-inspired Westerley cardigan in The Big Lebowski. But the garment has never been taken seriously until now.
“It is being treated slightly differently,” says Damien Paul, the head of menswear at Matchesfashion. “The notion of the cardigan as a stuffy piece of knitwear is old-fashioned and it’s now a statement in itself.”
There are several styles of cardigan which serve different purposes, and men’s high fashion has embraced them all wholeheartedly. Big and chunky; thin, worn as a layer under a piece; bright and statement-like, contrasting massively with the rest of your get up.
“Just look at the recent AW 2020 menswear collections there were so many fantastic cardigans, the variety was quite impressive,” says the stylist Matthew Marden. “Loewe, DSquared, Bode, Isabel Marant, Sacai, all had amazing options. Cardigans have always been much more exciting than they are often given credit for.”
The rise of the cardigan seems to also tie into another trend: the growing importance of coziness for consumers. With the bedding and sleep industries estimated to be worth billions a year, feeling comfortable is big business. As Michael Janiak, a co-founder of the branding agency Pattern, told the US news website Vox: “Right now people just want to feel safe,. The world’s kind of fucked up and it feels crazy. When that happens people tend to pull in, pull their social circle in and retreat into their homes a little bit, and it affects consumer behaviour and perception.”
It’s something that the Hanks cardigan feeds into. Roger’s mother, Nancy, made the first cardigan her son wore on TV, the film’s costume designer told the Hollywood Reporter. “I think there was a comfort to that cardigan.
“A lot of things he did were to draw audiences in and make them believe it was a safe place. There is a very deliberate gentility and comfort you can’t get with another garment.”