While the cardigan is a longtime fashion staple, dating back to its first appearance in the 1800s, this wardrobe hero has also become a part of the pop culture vernacular. In 2020, to mark the release of her new album Folklore and first single Cardigan, Taylor Swift took the unusual step of selling an actual cardigan alongside more traditional merchandise, like hoodies and T-shirts. A replica of the one Swift wears in her Cardigan video – a thick cable knit V-neck sweater in cream with black stripe edging, that has three stars on each sleeve – sold out quickly on the singer’s online store.
Famous fans of the cardigan including actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Kobe Bryant’s daughter Natalia have posted photos on Instagram wearing the cardigans, which they’d been gifted by Swift. It’s surprising to see such a wintery garment gained popularity in summer, but the cardigan has a way of regaining traction just when it seems to have faded from view.
From its earliest origins to the present day, here some of the faces who have helped make the cardigan famous.
7th Earl of Cardigan
The knitted sweater takes its name from the 7th Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell, a lieutenant general in the British army. Lord Cardigan, famous for leading the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, was known for wearing a short, woolen sleeveless waistcoat to keep warm during the failed offensive in the 1800s. It is thought to have been trimmed in fur.
After the war, the practical knitwear item reportedly became rather popular outside the military, and cardigans began to be widely produced.
Credited with popularizing cardigans for women in the 1920s, it’s said that French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel preferred a button-down sweater because she didn’t like the way traditional pullovers messed up her hair when she put them on. Inspired by the legendary designer’s early work, cardigans and knitted jackets are still seen on the Chanel runways and in boutiques today.
Queen Elizabeth II
While the Queen favors brightly colored coat dresses for formal occasions, when it comes to off-duty style, Her Majesty is all about cardigans. Usually teaming a blouse and pleated skirt with a loose, open cardigan in a muted hue, the Queen has been pictured in button-down sweaters for decades, most recently when the monarch met her newest great-grandchild, Archie.
At the other end of the style spectrum, rock icon Kurt Cobain introduced a whole new generation to the cardigan in the 1990s. The Nirvana frontman took an item of clothing usually seen on grannies and grandpas and made it cool, wearing moth-eaten chunky knits with band T-shirts and battered jeans. One of the singer’s most famous cardigans, worn for the band’s 1993 MTV Unplugged gig, sold at auction for $334,000.
Preppy, fine-knit cardigans from brands like J. Crew were a mainstay in Michelle Obama‘s wardrobe as First Lady, reportedly leading to a spike in sales as fans sought to emulate her elegant style. On the night Barack Obama was elected as President in 2008, the First Lady wore a black cardigan over her red and black Narciso Rodriguez dress.
With the release of Folklore, Taylor Swift put the cardigan back on the map. Given the pop star’s huge reach with 175 million followers on Instagram, we predict we’ll be seeing more cozy cardis in the shops once fall rolls around.