Perhaps it’s a — perfectly understandable — craving for comfort in the teeth of a crisis. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of us, also perfectly understandably, are carrying a few extra pounds these days, given the latest government advice to never, ever, be farther than two metres from your biscuit tin, or risk imminent expiration. (I’ve got that right, haven’t I? Or is the advice to never, ever approach the biscuit tin? So difficult to keep these things straight.)
Perhaps it’s nothing more than the cyclical nature of fashion, which dictates that what goes out must surely come in again. Yes, even the cardigan.
Whatever the reason, the cardigan is back, in multiple styles and colours and patterns and fabrics. Evidence: Mr Porter, the smart men’s online outfitter, had 153 different cardigans for sale on the day I visited in September, from classic conservative (John Smedley’s merino wool in midnight blue, £150) to bracing contemporary (Prada’s mohair blend in shocking pink, £585) to oligarch fabulous (Gucci’s intarsia wool and alpaca blend, £4,300). And before you throw this publication at your own fluffy quadruped in an alpaca-induced rage, M&S does a nice lambswool number for £39.50.
Those who have for decades preferred their knitwear with buttons will wonder that the cardigan ever went away. The rest of us will marvel that an item more often associated with cosy middle age, like secateurs or toast racks, than with the catwalks of Paris and Milan, could be considered the pinnacle of twenty-first century chic.
To avoid that “en-route-to-the-allotment” look (even if you are, in fact, en route to the allotment), my tip is to dress your cardigan up rather than down. Wear it over a button-down Oxford shirt and under a corduroy blazer, or with a smart Sunspel T-shirt and crisp selvage denim jeans, to signal your savoir faire. In short, think Percy Thrower, a man who always dressed up, even for pruning.
Let’s not mince words here. The cardigan has never been a sexy item. It is more likely to have a moist hankie stuffed up its sleeve than a rippling set of biceps. That bright red stain on its collar? No, not lipstick: yesterday’s tomato soup. That fraying patch at the elbow comes not from strenuous carpet-based coupling, but resting one’s arm on the edge of the table while playing bridge. The most famous cardigan wearer I can think of is, or was, Val Doonican, the late Irish crooner. (Look him up if you’re under 40.)
Unlike Val, I have never owned a wide variety of cardigans. But some years ago I had a handsome, shawl collar, cable knit number from Polo Ralph Lauren. It was my trusty companion for many a postprandial snooze in front of Sunday Grandstand. And, what with the crisis and the extra pounds and the confusing advice around biscuits, I’d quite like another. Another cardigan, that is. Not another biscuit. Although come to mention it…
Alex Bilmes is editor in chief of Esquire
Six of the best cardigans for men
Tan, £79, COS
Checked, £335, Comme Des Garcons (brownsfashion.com)
Beige, £215, Gant
Blue, £180, Howlin' (Matchesfashion.com)
Burnt orange, £39.50, Marks & Spencer
Letters, £49.99, Zara