How to Wear a Cardigan Without Looking Like Grandpa

Some guidelines for rocking the classic sweater, the coziest piece of chest-exalting knitwear a man is likely to find.

From left: New cardigans from Vince, Ralph Lauren, and Comme des Garçons.

Source: Brands

What would you say is the most controversial of all men’s sweaters? The red and green reindeer-smeared Christmas crewneck? The sadly emasculating sweater vest? The tennis sweater wrapped around the neck in the manner of a villain in an ’80s teen comedy?

While all of the above are worthy contestants for this curious distinction, I must posit that the title is properly deserved by a sweater now coming back into season and into fashion: the lightweight cardigan.

These bright, bold lightweight cardigans from Gucci illustrate the current trend.

Source: Gucci

The cardigan in general has suffered the slights of armchair fashion critics. The standard objection is that it lends its wearers all of the forcefulness (and none of the charm) of the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter wore a cardigan to give a White House address—a fashion moment that coincided with the decline of his political fortunes. And this is just the tip of the button-up iceberg.

(Original Caption) 1920: Johnny Heisman, head coach of the University of Pennsylvania. BPA2 #384

The shawl-collar cardigan, as worn by football’s Johnny Heisman in 1920.

Photographer: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The Odd Jacket Out

Eating away at its reputation in much the same way moths nibble at wool yarn, detractors scoff at it as a garment appropriate only for the aged, the mousy, the soft. The recent popular success of the moderately chunky shawl-collar cardigan, as made by Rag & Bone, Ralph Lauren RRL, and others, delivers the haters a definitive rebuke. It is the coziest piece of chest-exalting knitwear a man is likely to find.

Meanwhile, cardigans made from more delicate yarn such as extra-fine merino wool and pima cotton continue to attract the same taunts. Sometimes these disses are fully well-deserved, but it’s all in how you wear it. 

And the cardigan is very much worth wearing this time of year. It is easy to remove, an essential factor in your own personal climate control. Flexible in its flimsiness, the thin cardigan negotiates changeable weather with dignity if you treat it and yourself with the proper degree of respect.

The fundamental trouble with the lightweight cardigan sweater is that it is a replacement for a jacket that does not always suffice as a substitute. This is especially true if the cardigan is asked to replace a suit jacket, a task for which it is comically ill-prepared. A cardigan that matches the color of your suit trousers is a cardigan that makes you look like you ineptly tried to perpetrate a crime against formality that is not even worth committing. 

The Business Casual Conundrum

Fred Rogers, style icon.

Photographer: Fotos International/Getty Images

In a business-casual context, it is brighter to conceive of the light cardigan as an easygoing brother of the odd jacket. You will seem altogether more sane in a sweater if there’s some color contrast between your upper and lower halves. The same principle applies to cardigans worn with suits as if they were vests. 

The looks described immediately above are viable, if we’re talking about introducing the cardigan to an ensemble featuring a dark suit and spread-collar shirt and a conventional silk tie. Still, they are potentially goofy. The cardigan more frequently calls for something on the order of a button-down collar and a knit tie. It most wants to be worn under a jacket that is quasi-professorial—made of corduroy or tweed. 

You can get away with wearing a tie pin with your cardigan if and only if you are Mr. Fred Rogers. Who, lamentably, is dead. He will rest all the more peacefully if you follow his example. You’ll never go wrong if you wear it in a context that would also be appropriate for something like classic Keds.

Three New Cardigans Worth a Look

Vince Mixed-Stitch Cotton-Blend Cardigan 
Versatile enough to see you through many occasions, this navy number wants to be worn all weekend long. ($295 at

Gucci Wool Cardigan
A bold sweater built to keep things light (and luxe) beneath a blue blazer or gray jacket. ($1,150 at

Comme des Garçons Play Lambswool Cardigan
A camel-colored sweater with a boyish cut, best matched with blue jeans. ($415 at

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