The Earl of Cardigan
The button-front sweater’s namesake, James Thomas Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan, was the British commander of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaklava in 1854. Although history would eventually judge Brudenell as more concerned with wardrobe than war craft and his role in the victory as less than heroic, in the war’s immediate aftermath the earl’s favorite sweater came to be known as the “cardigan” in his honor.
The rocky public relations campaign surrounding the cardigan’s roots notwithstanding, the sweater would soldier on to become a versatile piece in the American male’s wardrobe, available with such variations as shawl collars and zipper or belt closures and ranging from thin, stylish layering pieces to bulky hooded cable knits able to keep you warm in a hailstorm. Although the humble cardigan eventually fell out of favor and was established as the mantle of the milquetoast by the mid-1970s, the sweater did have a white knight in those dark times: Steve McQueen, who sported a shawl-collared cardigan in the 1968 movie Bullitt.
Today the cardigan can be found at just about every price point, from affordable—J. Crew and Burkman Bros.—all the way up to luxe designers Todd Snyder and Michael Bastian. Proof of the cardigan’s current cachet is Jay-Z. When he steps out in that gray V-neck with contrasting black collar and button placket layered over a plain white T-shirt, Shawn Carter brings back what Mr. Rogers took away.