Where Words Take Us – Cardigan

Cardigan was the first word that came to mind as I shoved Corona aside because, in this exploration of random words, I am determined to steer clear of Covid-19. There is a new normal, after all, and that new normal has to be more than the sum total of the pandemic. We are also still in the midst of the South African winter, a shivering one compared to last year, so we might as well go back to the Russian winter of the Crimean War, no?

The Oxford Dictionaries Online defines Cardigan as a ‘knitted jumper fastening down the front’.

Fashion illustration of woman in knitted outfit with hat and umbrella, wearing a striped blue and wite sleeveless cardigan over a white blouse and matching skirt with black bow tie.
1920s Cardigan, originally published in in the June 1924 issue of Needlecraft Magazine.
Image by: Trudy LaDouceur

What the Brits call a jumper and the Americans insist on calling a sweater, we call a jersey in South Africa, or  ‘jersie’, like my dad used to say in his best Boereafrikaans.  

But the name of the original knitted waistcoat was attributed to the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell, who led the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854. His fame was short-lived when people found out he had abandoned his men at the Russian front. But it lasted long enough for tradespeople to snap up the waistcoat he had designed to keep them warm in the icy temperatures, give it his name and make a fortune because it became fashionable as men’s wear for the rest of the nineteenth century.

Although Coco Chanel is often credited for bringing the cardigan into the world of women’s fashion, she merely seemed to have made famous a trend that started as early as 1908 when Vogue promoted a cardigan-like style of sportswear for women.

New Zealand photographs from 1910 onwards show women from all social ranks wearing this garment. Their inclusion in formal studio photographs, including one of Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp (1912), is especially important since it clearly indicated the shift of knitwear from the tennis and golf courts into everyday fashion.

But Coco was the one who designed the first jersey-knit cardigans and made them longer to wear over a matching skirt or jumper, which became the predecessor of the twinset.

When the Great Depression and World War Two restricted women’s wardrobes, the cardigan became an integral part of the mix-and-match clothing culture, which is still with us today.

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