There are few things you can wear which are as versatile as a lightweight cardigan. Light wool cardigans have become one of my favourite items of clothing, so much so, that on anything other than a hot day, I’m likely to be wearing one.
It’s important not to confuse a lightweight, fine-gauge cardigan with the more traditional mid-weight cardigan’s our fathers and grandfathers might wear or have worn – that typically ivy league look of the 50’s and 60’s which allows them to be worn only in very cool to cold weather. A close fitting fine-gauge cardigan adds almost no bulk to an outfit, so it’s ideally suited for wear under a suit coat during the day, with the clean “v” formed at the point of buttoning, mirroring the lines of a waistcoat, without the formality that a waistcoat implies. Once your jacket comes off, the sleeves and deeper buttoning point of the cardigan imitates your suit jacket, adding some formality, but in a more relaxed way. Neither of the above points can both be achieved by a sweater or sleeveless cardigan. Additionally, the sleeveless cardigan gives off a school boy school when worn with a shirt, tie and suit trousers (it’s fine with jeans, though, usually).
Sweaters tend to trap heat more indiscriminately, meaning that once you’re any warmer than you’d prefer to be, the only option is to take the sweater off. The cardigan, however, can just be unbuttoned, regulating your temperature and eliminating the need to remove it altogether. An open cardigan has its own relaxed style and it’s easier to take off than a sweater.
It also works well on the weekend or in less formal work places, going well with jeans, chino’s and loafers.
Cloth: Wool or cashmere are the best options for cardigans (and sweaters in general). Cotton looses its shape quickly from any tension, whereas the natural springiness of wool and the crimp of the fleece lets it return to its natural shape quickly, which is ideal if you’ve rolled up your sleeves and then want to put them back down later. Wool is also much better at regulating body temperature.
Texture: As I’ve written about previously, texture plays an important role in the overall look and feel of an outfit, though it goes completely overlooked by most people. The finely woven fibres of a fine-gauge cardigan offer enough formality to be worn with suits or more formal trousers, but enough texture to transition to more casual clothes – it straddles the line between formal and casual better than almost any other item of clothing. You can use this to think about the rest of your outfit, as the texture allows it to work with wool/cashmere knit ties, knitted silk ties, flannel trousers (and jackets), suede shoes and oxford weave shirts. But to re-iterate, its versatility, instead of suede and flannel or a wool tie, it will still pair very well with polished leather shoes, fine silk ties and regular worsted wool’s (the most common wool for suits).
In the colder months of the year, the cardigan replaces the suit coat or casual coat for me, if I’m wearing an overcoat. To my eye, an overcoat worn over a suit/casual jacket creates too much bulk on the wearer, even if both coats are well cut and slim fitting. It’s essential for this to happen to allow the overcoat to get over the coat below it, without creasing it. A cardigan worn below an overcoat, allows the overcoat to be cut much more closely, more like a suit jacket, creating a clean and slim silhouette. Further to this, an overcoat made with a heavier weight cashmere provides plenty of warmth, which an extra coat underneath does little to improve. You’d be far better off wearing a slightly heavier cardigan or sweater if warmth is such a priority.
Colour: As for colour, navy and grey are always the first two choices for building a collection of any new item, due to their versatility. As your collection expands, creme, brown, white, black, dark green etc are able to work very will with a variety of other colour combinations. Leave the top and most other buttons undone, relaxing the overall feel of the outfit. Having too many buttons done up looks stuffy and too studied. As a rule, I generally only do up the second and third buttons, occasionally the fourth, depending on the cut of the trousers I’m wearing and how long my tie is (I generally let my tie hang out below the third button).
John Smedley fine gauge cardigans (made in the UK) are a solid, everyday choice for knitwear as they’re warm, slim cut and don’t pill too much. I’ve also had success with many of the better Italian makers, such as Brunello Cucinelli. Loro Piana, Barba Napoli or Luigi Borrelli.
With any item in your wardrobe, choose the most versatile colours first, then expand your collection slowly, until you have a diverse range to choose from each day and you’ll find yourself reaching for them far more often than you would have expected.