Cardigan sweaters are the workhorses of the apparel family: so ubiquitous it’s easy to forget that they didn’t always exist. They are sold at most clothing stores in a rainbow of colors, and at democratic prices. They can be either exceedingly preppy or seductively edgy, depending on who wears it, and how: button-downed professionalism versus grungy Kurt Cobain hair flip. They’ve taken on a silver-screen allure thanks to their more glamorous wearers like Brigitte Bardot. They even caused a royal stir back when Michelle Obama wore one (a black Azzedine Alaia) to meet the Queen in 2009, prompting a prickly Oscar de la Renta to proclaim, “You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater.”
But the cardigan comes with a vivid—and fierce—historical provenance. Its eponymous inventor, James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, was a lieutenant general in the British army. He was “an arrogant and cantankerous person,” according to the historian Robert Powyszynski, Sr., but also a wealthy, stylish, and seductive one. As a testament to his foppish tastes, he spent £10,000 a year outfitting his regiment in swanky new uniforms.
The Earl must also have been blessed with an intrepid spirit (or afflicted with a midlife crisis), because in 1854, at the age of 57, he led the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. As Powyszynski writes in The Charge of the Light Brigade, Cardigan was a man “with everything to lose and nothing to gain” when he led the doomed charge. But he survived without a scratch, getting as far as Russian enemy lines before turning tail and riding back to safety. Cardigan returned to London ahead of his troops and, before the truth of his about-face was revealed, he enjoyed a hero’s welcome and a reception by Queen Victoria at Windsor. The knitted waistcoat became a hot commodity during the Earl’s brief window of glory. As proof of the cardigan’s utilitarian staying power, it soon began to be commercially produced in factories, keeping thousands of chilly Brits warm even after they went cold on its namesake.
A few decades later, in 1883, Coco Chanel, née Gabrielle, was born in a provincial town in central France. Known now by the general public for her “Number 5” perfume and innumerable knock-off bags emblazoned with interlocking “C”s, Chanel went from poor orphan to owner of the world’s largest fashion empire through a combination of talent, verve, and intuitive understanding of her zeitgeist. Also the originator of the haute-couture phenomenon known as “that piece of fabric costs how much?” she made a fortune using humble materials and smart but simple designs to create a look that revolutionized women’s dress. The French critic Lucien François summed it up best: “When Mademoiselle Chanel gets to heaven, she will surely impose her cardigans and little jersey shifts on the Princesse de Clèves and Marie Antoinette.”