The slouchy cardigan
Most cardigans that classic menswear fans admire fall into one of two camps.
First is the cardigan to be worn under a jacket, frequently sleeveless. This is often quite thin, and is practical as an additional layer for warmth. It can look a little old-fashioned without sleeves, but functions better under a jacket that way.
Drake’s in its early years did a lot to show how this style can be creative and fun, particularly when loosely buttoned and in more unusual colours.
The second is the shawl-collar cardigan. Rather than being designed to wear under a jacket, this is a jacket substitute itself, with its prominent collar and chunky knit. That style has became perennially popular because it is so flattering, particularly on a slim guy. It helps that Daniel Craig wears them now and again too.
I feel like the dominance of these two is a reason why another style is sometimes looked down on.
When I discussed the cardigan pictured above - the ‘Art Cardi’ from Connolly - one reader said “the oversized fit reminds me of days when cardigans were almost exclusively worn by OAPs”. Another commented “the baggy cut is unflattering bordering on ugly”.
Fair enough. This type of cardigan is not flattering like a shawl-collar - which seems to give all of us bigger shoulders - and isn't fitted like a sleeveless cardigan, which is flattering in hiding the waist, particularly under a jacket.
But it can have great style. It is relaxed, easy, even louche. It isn’t fitted, but instead in the right fabric it drapes beautifully.
Several things make it different from the cardigan your grandfather might have worn - and here we’re into the subtle art of knitwear design.
One is the weight. Often that old-fashioned cardigan was a thin thing, really designed to be worn under a jacket like the sleeveless model described above. That never had enough good material to drape well.
Of course it’s not just the weight, but the density, the ply and the fibre, which determine how straight or softly it falls, how liable it is to crease and wrinkle.
Then there’s the cut. A looser cardigan is better with a generous sleeve. Not so wide that you would notice, but enough to keep it in proportion with the body, and continuing the feeling of luxurious size.
With Connolly's Art Cardi, this aesthetic is echoed in the straight cut at the front (ones for tailoring often have a kink above the first button); the low position of the buttons; the turn-back cuffs; and the saddle shoulder, which creates a smooth run from shoulder to sleeve.
I love learning and thinking about design like this. It’s so subtle, so much less obvious than discussions of cloth weights, patterns or fibre. Often it eludes even close examination - like an art, it requires education, someone to point things out to you.
And it’s very hard to put a price on, in the way men with their logical minds often want to.
All credit here to Connolly’s knitwear designer Lorraine Acornley.
Personally, I like this drapier look most when the rest of the ensemble is quite straight or cinched.
For example in this outfit, I’m wearing tailored flannels in my normal mid-to-high rise, with a belt. A more standard low-rise trouser would look sloppier, as would a non-tailored trouser. The belt emphasises both, creating a focus and a particular tied-up neatness.
Connolly do and have done different colours in this cardigan, but the cream suits me particularly as it goes with almost any tailoring - brown linen or olive flannel, navy serge or black cord. White is usually the best colour of shirt, but that can be an oxford, poplin or polo.
I don’t think it is at its best buttoned, and perhaps this detracts from its practicality. But it doesn’t stop it being something I reach for all the time at home.
One thing it does require, on me, is a shirt. Others can wear them with a T-shirt, but it becomes too unflattering on me without a collar.
The mohair cardigan from The Real McCoy’s I featured recently is the same, although there is also a whole alternative aesthetic with mohair cardigans, which have become fashionable again recently and are often worn with just a T-shirt underneath.
Still, for me it always looked best on Kurt when he had that soft shirt on - undone, with jeans.
As noted in this year’s Spring Top 10, I also bought Connolly’s ‘knit waistcoat’ (below), and the point about its loose, drapey look is the same.
If you didn’t try this on, or perhaps look closely, it could seem the same as that classic sleeveless cardigan we described earlier. But everything beyond the surface is actually different - the body shape, the ribbing tension, the shoulder width, the ribbing, the placket size, the collar height.
This, again, is what design is all about.
In fact the Connolly vest is almost cut more like a workwear piece than a tailored cardigan. It’s terrible under a blazer, but great worn like a gilet, over a shirt on a warm day, or layered under a chore jacket.
It reminds me a little, actually, of the waistcoats I remember seeing men in north Pakistan wear over their shalwar kameez, when I travelled there years ago. Thick, straight cut, and often worn loose during the day. It was a really stylish look - practical and easy.
So if you feel like it, perhaps reconsider the slouchy cardigan. It can be lovely, elegant, even alternative.
And given how much the super-tight, super-short, stretchy-fabric look seems to be hanging around in menswear, I think it's important to talk about how attractive draped fabric can be.
Below are images of the black Real McCoy’s mentioned, the Connolly knitted vest, and the Art Cardi layered underneath my suede belted jacket from Fred Nieddu.
Studio photography, James Holborow. Other internal shots, Jamie Ferguson.