From battlefields to Chanel
Lieutenant General Brudenell, otherwise known as the Seventh Earl of Cardigan (you see where this is going), led the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854. He was wealthy, stylish and notoriously arrogant. As a testament to his foppish tastes, he spent a cool £10,000 a year outfitting his regiment in swanky new uniforms – lucky things. Lord Cardigan’s career was less illustrious than that of his namesake garment, however. But while he may have led his troops into a doomed and bloody battle, we can at least thank him for one thing – lending his name to the sweater-coat styles worn by male officers, like himself, during the war.
Fast-forward a few decades and the cardigan had begun to cement its position in women’s fashion. It was the great Coco Chanel who helped bring it to the masses, and it was women who made them cool. At the time, she was designing more and more menswear-inspired garments, like sailor suits and fishermen-style jumpers, detailed with buttons, ribbons and feminine flourishes. Supposedly, Chanel made the first cardigan prototype herself, cutting straight up the front of her jumper so as not to mess up her hair (don’t we all know that struggle) and it was an instant success. Her version of the cardigan was comfy, slouchy and made from a soft jersey, closely resembling the modern cardigan we know and love today - not for outdoor war-fighting, but created for fashionable, everyday life.
The '40s and '50s, however, saw a distinct slimming of the cardigan, with Hollywood starlets like Jayne Mansfield, Jane Russell and Lana Turner coined the 'sweater girls' of the time, each adopting the fashion of wearing tight, figure-fitting jumpers. The phenomenon even saw the introduction of annual sweater girl contests held all over the country, quickly turning a modest cover-up into a product with serious sex appeal.
It was this same pin-up style of cardigan that also had a late-’90s moment. From Cameron Diaz’s bombshell character in There’s Something About Mary, who wore a modest cardigan with a slinky tank top, to Heather Graham in Bowfinger, who donned a canary yellow cardigan complete with a fur-collar trim that showed off her navel, the cardigan was getting plenty of screen time.