In praise of cardigans and the women who rock them
My YiaYia was a beautiful artist, and by extension a bit of a hoarder, so when she died she left me with sketch pads for days, buckets of animal-themed jewelry, a bevy of vintage slips, and three cardigans. One plain black acrylic (too small, most practical), one red acrylic with a black fur collar (sassy!), and one hot pink acrylic (my standard). I was 15 and just finishing up my tenure as Mary Grace, Prince of Darkness, and was open to revamp my wardrobe with crazy new style elements like “color” and “pieces that aren’t by Morbid Threads.” This is where my love affair of cardigans begins, but it goes deeper than a simple love of #sweaterweather.
Before we get into that, I want to take a minute to reflect on the almighty cardigan from a cultural standpoint. Historically, cardigans are used in media to downplay a woman’s sex appeal until the mid-movie makeover when they be rid of the glasses and ponytail. Even old episodes of Sweet Valley High equate cardigans to dowdiness. Somewhere along the line, cardigans became synonymous with “dowdiness”
This was pretty much the reputation it had in the New Jersey punk scene, but also part of the reason I embraced them so hard. To give some context, I was definitely trying to do a Courtney Love thing at that age (which is a WHOLE other article) so the cardigans were part of a subversion. I had your classic alt-kid standards like leather jackets and Doc Martens, but the twist that I would put them with hyper-feminine elements. Barely-there slips, babydoll dresses, ribbons, or a slash of red lipstick. The contrast was purposely aggressive, if not in the traditional studded-vest and safety pins way.
But among it all, cardigans became my armor, something that softened the aesthetic and kept me protected. Whenever I started to feel insecure about a look the go-to move was to throw on a cardigan. When I wanted to grunge up a stiff party dress at a family event, I threw on a cardigan. When I wanted to reject my crush’s Tripp jacket after the temperature dropped, I just wrapped my cardigan around me tighter. And if I really wanted to retain my independence as Autumn gave way to December, I’d put on TWO cardigans, strong woman that I was.
Alt cred be damned, it was a very real comfort. Plus I had the thrill of watching some garden variety crust punk stare at my pearl buttons judgmentally, before I’d offer, “It’s my dead grandma’s cardigan.” Jerk.
And although that line sounds flippant (I said it constantly because I thought it had a bad-girl ring to it) cardigans also became a very real way for me to wear love. Throughout high school the collection grew to incorporate other cardigans, and they were always, always hand-me-downs. They were my way of constantly keeping people in—and over—my heart.
First I tapped into my other grandmother’s collection (pale peach, intricate beadwork, truncated from a bad dry-cleaning accident) because that just seemed like the logical segway. But then I unconsciously started inheriting cardigans from my friends, be it my then-BFF Melissa (maroon, clear beads, tight to body), Shelby by way of Tarra (mustard, crop, slightly loose and top button missing) or my new college friend Beth (black, gold sequin flower, lace back).
Incidentally, though, I went through another style renaissance at 19, letting Courtney Love step aside for a Bettie-Page-at-Forever-21 look. Certain cardigans…certain friendships…got phased out. Incidentally, I don’t think there’s anyone that would remember me as “the cardigan girl.” I was a girl who collected many “trademark” pieces, and truth be told, the job of the cardigan was never to become a focal point.
But credit where credit’s due, because that subtle hug the sweaters give me never quite went away. That’s why, after moving to Brooklyn to become a beautiful artist, and by extension of that, a hoarder, I made it a point to pack up some of my cardigans.
[Image via Netflix]