Give cardis the slip

American model Suzy Parker in the iconic sweater girl look, 1957. PHOTO: JESSICA/FLICKR – CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

As mist drifts up from rivers across the country and the prospect of winter looks like a reality, the great question of the season is being asked: are you a cardigan person? Or could you become – whisper it – a “slipover” queen?

I was – full disclosure – once a fully committed devotee of the cardigan. Throughout the eighties and into the nineties, in the grip of an obsession with all things vintage that focussed on those golden years of the sweater girl, the 1950s, I spent my Saturdays nose-deep in jumble sales, hunting down the perfect specimen. In those days (pre-moth-pandemic) it wasn’t hard to find discarded cardigans in Sandra Dee pastels: primrose yellow and baby blue, peach and pistachio. And little by little these treasures entered fashion consciousness too.

From Prada (ever one for vintage schoolmarm chic) to the now defunct, cult brand Voyage (whose psychedelic offerings, worn by celebrities from Sadie Frost to Kylie, imitated the velvet trims and shrunken aspect of the charity shop find) to Valentino, Versace and Matthew Williamson, practically every pre-millennial designer who was anyone embraced the cardigan.

Miuccia Prada put them over deconstructed pencil skirts, Williamson over slip dresses in jewel colours, Chanel made knitted versions of their iconic jacket, Dolce & Gabbana buttoned them tight over an irrepressible cleavage. And as we sloped into the 21st century and grunge, the “old man” cardigan took hold: designers like Marc Jacobs made them chunkier, introducing kitsch seventies patterns, pilled bobbles and elbow patches.

The decline of my own love affair came, predictably enough, when it had attained its zenith, namely the cardigan nirvana that is a twinset – and not just any old twinset but one from the legendary Campbell’s of Beauly, purveyors of fine woollens to her majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II. On one visit – my last visit, as it turned out, to perpetually disapproving in-laws in the Highlands in the autumn of 1992 – after hours spent browsing the cedar-scented racks of knitwear in this throne-room of cashmere, I finally settled on a cardigan-and-sweater set in forest green.

It wasn’t the twinset’s fault, of course, that an hour after getting back to London, I received a phone call from my father to tell me he wouldn’t be around much longer, and I felt like putting a match to the blasted thing. But sometimes the bubble just bursts, and the Campbells of Beauly twinset, which I had to keep on wearing as it had cost a fortune, was scratchy and dowdier to boot than Miuccia Prada could have dreamed of in her sternest moments. From that moment it spoke to me of joylessness and repression and all the aspects of the fifties that the sixties (and my father) rose up against.

The cardigan of course, is not dead nor will it ever die, despite the noughties efforts of the unspeakable “waterfall” cardigan to consign it forever to the pyre. Any garment that is versatile enough to run the gamut from grunge queen to Italian saucepot is bound to run and run. But after decades of fetishising it, Prada has shifted the cardigan over to menswear, where it – and the twinset – have gained a new and edgier lease of life on male and masc models. And thus the slipover tiptoes ahead.

Sleeveless style: Agnès b
Sleeveless style: Prada
Sleeveless style: Margaret Howell

The slipover, for the confused generation, is what we used to call a tank top (a term that now refers to a cotton vest top), namely a knitted sleeveless jumper. And this is the garment – so long neglected on catwalks as the sweater of choice of the nerdish and bespectacled – that’s sneaking up from behind as a challenger for the new knitwear crown.

The slipover is the sweater of choice of the nerdish and bespectacled

They’re easy, they’re comfortable, they’re perfect for between seasons and can be layered up in the cold. Slipovers can nip in a loose frock or keep you warm under an unbuttoned jacket without adding bulk; they can add edge to a striped shirt and ease to a pencil skirt; they have the perpetually seductive whiff of vintage – and I love them. Margaret Howell, queen of the stealth classic, offers no fewer than nineteen versions (six for men, thirteen for women) but once you start looking, you can unearth them everywhere, from French brands Sessùn and Agnès B to high street chains Zara and H&M.

These two contenders duke it out, of course, in the run-up to winter’s main event and the big chill, when the giant mega-jumper usually rules. But my tip is, give the slipover a chance this season, and you won’t look back. Plus – shhhh – you can always wear a cardigan over the top.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, November 2023, Style Maven

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