The call of the cardigan

This old-school silhouette can be an integral part of men's winter-wear wardrobe, but only if it's chosen and styled correctly

Most men baulk at the thought of a fluid, button-down cardigan adorning their masculine frames but, according to style experts, it makes for fuss-free corporate wear in India.

Named after the seventh Earl of Cardigan and British commander Major General James Thomas Brudenell, this open-fronted sweater became famous in the mid-1800s. Typically, it is knitted, full-sleeved, with a V-neck, front buttons, and sans side pockets, lapels or chest pocket. It comes in myriad patterns—stripes, houndstooth and Prince of Wales check, bird’s eye, argyle, Aran, Fair Isle and Nordic—and its USP is its versatility.

Regardless of its global fame or the fact that the cardigan straddles smart-day or corporate-casual dressing space, some men still shun this silhouette, tagging it “grandfather-esque" and “feminine". London-based Alan Cook, head of design (menswear) of clothing, home products and luxury food products company Marks & Spencer, disagrees. He believes a cardigan is definitely manly enough. “It is a great layering piece that can be worn for many occasions. It can be a wardrobe staple in a man’s wardrobe given its versatility. A thick cardigan can be worn as a substitute to a blazer or coat. It is easy to wear and you won’t have to work an outfit around it."

New Delhi-based David Platon, creative director of Indian formal-wear brand Blackberrys (by Mohan Clothing Company Pvt. Ltd) agrees. “It (the cardigan) has come a long way in fashion. It is both masculine and fashionable at the same time," says Platon. “It can be worn both with formals and casuals, and is a layering piece that adds a dash of colour, a rich texture, or an interesting detail to an outfit. This versatility means that it is equally suited to be worn with a suit or a T-shirt."

Small buttons work well, but a metal or plastic zipper, or wooden toggle, are best avoided for formal wear. In materials, go for cotton (light fabrics and its blends) or wool (merino, cashmere, acrylic, lambswool and its blends) that can multi-task as inner and outer wear. Heavy cable, honeycombs or Saxon braids (types of knits) are good too. A subtly-printed or patterned knit can only work if you make it your statement piece and weave a semi-formal look around it. And try to select clean and fail-safe neutrals—anthracite, midnight blue, egg-shell-white or fawn. Pop or bright colours may not work well in most corporate set-ups.

However, New Delhi-based Rajesh Jain, managing director and chief executive officer, Lacoste India, and Mumbai-based Sujay Dixit, marketing manager (India), Celio* Future Fashion Pvt. Ltd, both French clothing retail brands, put the cardigan into the unisex clothing category. Jain says a cardigan for a man and a woman has constructional differences but can transform the simplest outfit into something chic and elegant. Eliana Koulas, co-founder and director of Luxus Retail Pvt. Ltd, which brought in Argentinian sports and leisure clothing manufacturing brand La Martina to India, believes that the cardigan is one of the most misunderstood silhouettes. A man who can pull off a cardigan without looking like he’s going golfing is a man with a powerful sense of style, says Koulas.

Platon suggests picking new proportions and colours, and believes that a little shorter, slimmer and finer knit makes for a perfect modern cardigan. Jain, however, prefers a focus on fit and fine detailing, such as elbow patches, inner cuff details and different-colour stitch lines that could add elements of interest. “A V-neck cardigan is the most elegant of them all and is the easiest to pair," says Jain.

Koulas warns against wearing anything tight and sagging, “A good cardigan should have a soft drape at the shoulders, tapering (at-the-waist) shape that flatters the body, and should hang low enough to cover your belt when buttoned up," he says.

Style-wise, a cardigan, according to Koulas, is a “three-season utility" (except summer) piece. Koulas suggests you wear it open-buttoned or closed, under a sports jacket or overcoat, over a dress shirt or tie, with dark jeans or formal trousers, and as a shoulder throw-on in warm weather.

Koulas’ top choices are the double-breasted cardigan for formal wear, the shawl-collar cardigan for chillier evenings, the lightweight (burgundy) cardigan with matte-leather elbow patches for making a statement, and sporty stripes (pop colours) for lively work-related outings. “A fine-gauge cardigan looks great worn under a suit for a more relaxed-tailored look, while a chunky shawl cardigan is a great casual piece, perfect with jeans or chinos. I would team a block-coloured, fine-gauge, V-neck cardigan over a smart shirt for the perfect work outfit," adds Cook. Platon swears by layering, which he feels is perfect for north Indian weather conditions. Just toss in a contrasting tie and a formal shirt with it. “Layer a solid-coloured shirt with a micro-print cardigan or a solid-coloured cardigan with checks or micro-print shirt," says Dixit.

In short, a cardigan can be your surrogate waistcoat, a light jacket, or a stylish upper in times of need. So, investing in a few to take you through the thick and thin of winter may be a good idea.

Close