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Like leather jackets and stage-stomping boots, the cardigan is yet another sartorial staple that’s earned a spot in the rock-& roll hall of fashion fame. Long before Kurt Cobain’s famous green cardigan, the utilitarian garment was a military staple that became an “It” item, thanks to one particular aristocratic British officer known for his stylish wool waistcoat.
The traditionally itchy-looking sweater traces its origins to the seventh Earl of Cardigan James Thomas Brudenell, who gained (and lost) glory for leading a doomed charge against the Russians during the Crimean War. Merchants were quick to capitalize on Lord Cardigan’s famed portrait wherein he wore his fashionable signature vest, and a style icon was born.
The Cardigan Throughout Music History
The-oh-so versatile jumper (as it’s called by Brits) effectively became a rockstar essential when Kurt Cobain wore his now-famous green sweater on MTV Unplugged in New York in 1993. It sold for $334,000 at Julien’s Auctions in 2015, and was one of many cardigans that the Nirvana frontman had in regular rotation, says costume designer Nancy Steiner.
The Los Angeles-based stylist worked with the band regularly and styled the music video for “Come As You Are,” which was filmed about a year before the MTV special. “At the time, they had just broken [out] with their first video, and this was their second [one],” Steiner tells Rolling Stone. “I went shopping to get stuff that I thought they would like; I wasn’t thinking of anyone but them.”
If memory serves her correctly from a job done nearly 30 years ago (she’s since styled films like Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, and shows like Twin Peaks: The Return, among many others), Steiner says she hit up her favorite thrift stores and vintage boutiques in L.A. “I’ll bet I went to Jet Rag. I used to go out to [the San Fernando Valley] to a place called Sun Thrift. At that time I lived in Venice, so I might have gone to Gotta Have It, or Salvation Army on 11th Street.”
Cobain picked out a green sweater (similar to the one he’d wear on Unplugged) from Steiner’s vintage haul. “It became iconic because he kept wearing it. He wore a lot of different cardigans,” remembers Steiner, who maintains that she “can’t take that kind of responsibility” when it comes to the cardigan’s icon status, nor Cobain’s grandpa-chic style.
“A lot of people were enamored with Kurt and Nirvana, that was such a moment,” she explains. “I wasn’t inventing anything new. It was the scene, and it was how people dressed back then. It wasn’t my trend; I was just adding to his closet.”
A certain Nineties Swedish band also used its name to pay homage to the humble button-down sweater. And if Reddit’s countless “ID that cardigan” requests are any indication, everyone from guitar gods to rappers to K-Pop idols are inspiring their fans to embrace the simple silhouette.
Need an example? Just see fashion-obsessed shredder John Mayer and his ongoing love affair with intarsia cardigans (we’ll give you a sec to Google “John Mayer cardigans“). Mayer favors cult-cool Japanese brands like Kapital and VISVIM, and he’s apparently the musician style muse of RM of BTS. Tyler, the Creator’s playful streetwear line Golf Wang is no stranger to print-happy sweaters too.
Harry Styles sparked a pandemic TikTok trend earlier this year after donning a colorful patchwork cardigan from British designer JW Anderson’s spring/summer 2020 collection. The Virginia & Albert Museum in London even acquired the knitted piece for its collections, and called the former One Direction singer “one of the most influential style icons of his generation.” (The viral moment inspired Anderson himself to share the chunky knit’s pattern.)
Most recently, Taylor Swift penned a No. 1 song comparing herself to the classic silhouette and even released a replica of the cream cable-knit cardigan seen in her whimsical music video so fans could wear a piece of the Folklore hit. (She even sent some to a few of her famous friends.) Other chart-toppers who continue to carry the cardigan torch include Pharrell, A$AP Rocky, and Donald Glover (formerly Childish Gambino), who all happen to top Steiner’s personal list of music’s best-dressed men.
The Best Cardigans for Every Style
Whether you’re going for a grunge-inspired look or a luxe spin on the classic button-down, we’ve rounded up the best cardigan for every aesthetic. Keep reading for some of our favorites from the likes of Gucci and Everlane and even a T Swift-approved option.
1. AllSaints Ruben Cardigan
Reminiscent of Cobain’s infamous olive sweater, this pocket-less version by edgy-cool British label AllSaints is a lightweight, layering-friendly option. It’s made from a lyocell-polyester blend fabric and finished with ribbed hems.
2. Taylor Swift The “Cardigan”
Yes, you can own the same white cable-knit cardi that Taylor Swift sports in her music video. It features dark gray trim, black matte buttons, and light gray embroidered stars on the arms, and it’s finished with an album title patch on the left chest.
3. Ballantyne Striped Knit Cardigan
This striped V-neck cardigan by Ballantyne hits all of the right notes if you’re looking for a colorful, yet subtle wardrobe upgrade. This comfy cashmere-wool cardigan features a loose fit and two roomy front pockets, and the long sleeves lend themselves well to that effortlessly-cool look.
4. Everlane Felted Merino Cardigan
Everlane’s cardigan boasts a slim silhouette and “none of the scratch” of your typical Merino wool, thanks to fabric made of washed and boiled yarn that maintains softness and warmth. Available in other colors and a similar women’s option.
5. Gucci Oversized Cable Knit Cardigan
What’s black with green and red stripes? This oversized Gucci cardigan, which will suit any designer label lover. It’s a classic chunky cable-knit wool piece that boasts the Italian fashion house’s signature stripes, and it’s finished with sturdy enamel buttons.
6. Sid Mashburn Slim-Fit Shawl-Collar Merino Wool-Blend Cardigan
For a luxury take on the silhouette that Kurt made famous, try this shawl-collar cardigan by cult-favorite menswear designer Sid Mashburn. It’s made of a superfine merino wool-nylon-blend for maximum comfort, and the leather-covered buttons add a vintage-inspired finishing touch.
7. Inverallan 3A Lumber Cardigan
Scotland enjoys winters with an average low of zero degrees Celsius (that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit for Americans), so you know that Scottish label Inverallan’s hand-knit cardigans — like this timeless cable-knit one — will keep your body temp warm. This neutral-hued staple is handmade from 100% pure new wool, and wooden buttons give this a classic, rustic touch.
8. RVCA Noah Stripe Cardigan
If statement-making stripes are more of your thing, this V-neck cardigan by RVCA checks the boxes for comfort and style. It’s made of a soft acrylic-nylon blend and has side-seam pockets, which means you won’t be weighing the front of this cardigan down with your keys and other essentials.