Wool and the gang: Why is Taylor Swift wearing a cardigan in summer?

“When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed,” sings Taylor Swift in her new song Cardigan, “you put me on and said I was your favourite.”

This is part of a general cardigan-based theme on Swift’s “surprise” album, Folklore. The singer has anthropomorphised the much-worn but hardly glamorous clothing item and also made it a sartorial mascot. She had a $49 (£38) cardigan for sale as part of the Folklore merch, and gifted said cardigan to pals including Natalia Bryant, a daughter of the late basketball star Kobe, who died in January.

Harry Styles in his JW Anderson cardigan in February
Harry Styles in his JW Anderson cardigan in February. Photograph: NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

This is only the latest cardigan “moment” in 2020 – the clothing item is going from a for-your-sofa’s-eyes-only, at-home staple to a fashion favourite. Swift’s cardigan follows David Beckham’s adoption of the item for walks in the countryside, the rise of the comfy, cosy, crafty cottagecore trend and #harrystylescardigan on TikTok. The hashtag has been used for videos of fans making their versions of Styles’ folksy JW Anderson cardigan, worn on the US breakfast TV show Today in February; more than 1.5m videos had been posted by early July.

Lockdown dressing is, of course, a big factor in the resurgence of the cardigan. Searches for them went up 66% after Beckham wore his, according to Lyst, but you would think that they were already a sure thing. Such is our need for sartorial reassurance that cardigans have been popular even despite two heatwaves since March. Cardigans are the sartorial equivalent of comfort food – they bring protection, warmth and a bit of nostalgia. The best ones are a sort of wearable hug. Even if you are not a cardigan fan, you may have worn one as a small child, or as part of a school uniform. Wearing one now is reassuring: even if the rest of the world is uncertain, you can rely on a cardigan. Their stolid, dependable, nice-cup-of-tea reputation is their strength here.

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It is a development of which I heartily approve. I have just counted and I own eight cardigans. I appreciate Swift’s varsity styles (Richie Cunningham meets Finn from Glee) and Styles’ patchwork (rainy day at Woodstock), but my favourites tend to be the homemade, slightly old-fashioned versions. I bought a blue fluffy one from a charity shop years ago, which is my favourite, and I have a cable-knit pink one. I also have an ancient Marc Jacobs one with yellow knitted 3D frills, which is always impressive. I like to offset their tweeness with something with more attitude: a skate T-shirt, say. All of my cardigans have been very useful working from home – they are cosy, but also a bit of a thing, and that plays out well when dressing for the tops-are-everything world of video meetings.

The patron saint of cardigans, Michelle Obama
The patron saint of cardigans, Michelle Obama. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
The cardigan on the catwalk at Gucci.
The cardigan on the catwalk at Gucci. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock
Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in 1995’s Clueless.
Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in 1995’s Clueless. Photograph: Youtube

But that is not to say the cardigan is square. It was initially a military garment – worn by James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, in the Crimean war. First popularised for women by Coco Chanel in the 1910s, this flexible and practical garment was part of women’s liberation, according to the Atlantic. There have also been cardigan controversies. When Michelle Obama wore one to meet the Queen in 2009, Oscar de la Renta grumbled: “You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater.” Cardigans have gone viral before the #harrystylescardigan, too – take Katie Holmes’ “bradigan” last year.

Harry Belafonte in a cardigan, 1957
Harry Belafonte in a cardigan, 1957. Photograph: Teenie Harris Archive/Getty Images
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Some of the chicest people have worn cardigans –Grace Kelly, Nancy Mitford, Harry Belafonte. And some of the coolest – Kurt Cobain, Tyler the Creator, Miuccia Prada, Cher Horowitz. Cardigans are big on the catwalk this season, with slouchy shoulder-robing, like Kurt, one way of wearing them (see Erdem) and buttoned up and a bit “librarian wardrobe” another (see Gucci).

The cardigan works even if you don’t give a hoot about fashion. In a country where “all the seasons in one day” sums up the typical weather forecast, a cardigan is – to paraphrase Swift – the kind of thing well worth dusting off from under someone’s bed and making your new favourite.


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