Get the best gear, latest gadgets, menswear recommendations, new books & deals sent to your inbox.
Like all of the best menswear essentials (both those you own and those you don’t own yet), the cardigan sweater has quite the history, one that begins long before it ends up on your shoulders. A great story tends to lend itself to functionality, rugged appeal, classic style and modern good looks when it comes to menswear, after all (think of the workwear roots of the blue jean, for instance).
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
The cardigan sweater has taken quite the journey to your wardrobe, beginning with British lieutenant general James Brudenell, the Earl of Cardigan. Yes, the Earl of Cardigan. Even if you’re acquainted with its history, a refresher is always helpful. But what does an 1800s British soldier have to do with modern men’s style?
Well, in this case, plenty. The sleeveless cardigan sweaters of days gone by are derived from knitted wool waistcoats worn by British soldiers – you might think of it like the original mid-layer. Today though, cardigans are worn much more casually, and they’re a symbol of timeless style you probably first saw on TV thanks to storytelling icon Mr. Rogers.
Trust us when we say the best cardigan sweaters can be incorporated easily into the wardrobe of any modern man – they’re more cool, more stylish and even a touch more rugged than you might expect.
A cardigan is a long-sleeved button-front sweater, most commonly designed with a V-shaped front rising from the top button of the sweater (not unlike a waistcoat from a three-piece suit). Some cardigans might button slightly higher on your chest, but most retain that V-front.
A cardigan can sometimes feature a fold-over shawl collar for added neck coverage and warmth in the winter. The best cardigan sweaters hit just below the belt line, whereas a standard crewneck or V-neck sweater might hit slightly above the belt line.
Cardigan sweaters have plenty in common with your other favorite winter sweaters, including materials. You’ll find some of the best men’s cardigans come in materials ranging from pure wool to wool and cotton blends, merino wool fabric or even hard-wearing fabrications like merino and nylon for stretch and performance.
The most luxe cardigans are made from smooth cashmere and cashmere blends, with a soft texture and a slight shine to the fabric. Others feature ribbed, ridge-like knitting that provides more durability. Generally, the thicker the sweater, the warmer it’ll be in fall and winter.
Some cardigans feature adornments like vertical stripes or pattern stitching, and more dressy options often opt for a solid color with minimal pattern.
Think of the cardigan like a retro-meets-modern piece – it’s the sort of sweater your grandfather would have worn, yet you can revamp yours for today’s times by opting for a more tailored fit and soft, stretchy fabric.
Never underestimate the importance of fit as you layer up – pick the wrong fit, and you’ll end up swimming in fabric. Go too slim, and you’ll feel restricted and uncomfortable. A good rule of thumb is this: Your cardigan should fit well enough to layer a standard T-shirt, or better still, a classic button-down shirt, while still leaving you with enough room to move (and enough room to button the front of the sweater).
The good news is, cardigans are cut with more room to move than other men’s clothing styles – a large cardigan is going to fit with a bit more room than an Oxford shirt in a size large.
Some cardigans even designate their fit as “Slim,” “Classic” or “Relaxed.” Cardigans designed with a relaxed or oversized fit are trendy, to be sure, but they’re more often seen on runways or designed by high-fashion brands.
A standard or classic-fit cardigan is going to work well on most frames, while slimmer guys can opt for a slim fit (provided it still delivers room for at least one layer underneath). The cardigan itself should hug your shoulders and chest while offering room to move, and you should be able to comfortably button the cardigan without it straining or pulling.
Remember that the cardigan should hit just slightly below your belt line, and bear in mind that all-important rule:
Just think of style icons like Daniel Craig, who famously donned a cardigan as both James Bond and as a journalist in the 2011 film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – we can’t all look like 007, but he nails the basics of a well-fitting, stylish cardigan.
The excellent thing about wearing one of the best cardigan sweaters is the way in which it frames your face and shows off another layer of visual interest, thanks to the V-shaped opening leading from the top button on most cardigans. This leaves plenty of room, literally, to experiment with the layers you want to wear (within reason, of course).
A tried-and-true T-shirt in a neutral color looks good under cardigans made from more fine materials (like cashmere), especially sweaters made from a neutral color. Opt for a T-shirt in a darker shade, like navy, black or charcoal, or a T-shirt made from a textured cotton, as opposed to a plain white tee.
Bulkier cardigans with a thick-knit design (often made from wool and wool blends) stand up well to hearty, durable fabrics, like chambray or washed denim shirts. For instance: A medium grey, ribbed knit cardigan pairs exceptionally well with a rugged chambray shirt or a thermal henley. Both are visually appealing, distinctive layers that just go well together.
When in doubt: Think “dressy-meets-dressy” – like a burgundy cashmere cardigan and a simple charcoal tee – or else opt for “rugged-meets-rugged” pairings (chambray shirting and a wool shawl cardigan).
Of course, other classics, including a timeless white Oxford shirt, pair well with essentially any cardigan on the market, and you can even opt for a knit tie to dress things up ever so slightly while still retaining a touch of distinctive style.
Now that you’ve got a hang of the basics, let’s dive into the best men’s cardigans.
Bring a touch of seafaring adventure into your winter wardrobe with this sustainable Wellen cardigan. The fabric is crafted from recycled plastic bottles and oyster shells (seriously) for a modern, sustainable touch. Yet the design itself, including the beefy shawl collar, large buttons and flecked fabric, is a throwback to hard-working sweaters worn by ocean-bound adventurers.
This might be the platonic ideal of the perfect shawl cardigan, from the thick, ribbed-knit design to the substantial collar and the soft yet performance-minded blend of merino wool and cashmere. It’s the sort of exceedingly luxe-yet-dependable sweater someone like Hemingway himself might have treasured, and you can wear it much the same way for cozy winter weekends aplenty.
This handsome cardigan exemplifies the perfect blend of old-school and modern cool. The thick lambswool is exceedingly warm in blustery winter weather, the leather-covered buttons are a next-level design feature any men’s clothing enthusiast can appreciate, and the shawl collar should prove plenty useful for years to come. The Navy color works well with charcoal chinos or faded blue jeans, too.
Famed American menswear designer Todd Snyder bills this as a blend of cardigan and chore coat, with front patch pockets and a design that’s easy to layer. It hits the right middle ground between sweater and blazer, with sturdy and warm 100 percent wool construction, crisp neutral color options and a fit that delivers layering options galore (might we suggest a Todd Snyder chambray shirt?).
When you want a cardigan sweater that strikes a balance between durable and slightly dressy, look for a cardigan – like this one – that boasts both cotton and cashmere. The cashmere delivers softness, the cotton makes it easy to layer atop Faherty’s ultra-soft, famed henleys and flannel shirts, and the shawl collar is a classically stylish design touch, as are the contrasting buttons.
Simple though it might be on the surface, this Alex Mill merino wool cardigan offers up more than meets the eye. The merino wool fabric is, of course, performance-minded and moisture-wicking, while colors like deep green are eye-catching and easy to wear with dressier picks like tan chinos or charcoal corduroy pants. The plain-front design, as opposed to a shawl collar, also makes this particular sweater easier to dress up, should you choose to wear it to the office with slim wool trousers.
Your favorite pair of Bonobos chinos has met its match with this distinctive take on the cardigan sweater. Unlike other sweaters on this list, it boasts a stand-up funnel neck collar design that offers maximum coverage (at least when buttoned up to the neck). The all-over cable knit stitching is also a nod to classic fisherman sweaters, as is the Donegal wool-blend fabric.
Step out of your reliable “Bean Boots” and come in from the cold, then bundle up with this toasty, utterly timeless L.L. Bean cardigan. It looks like a sweater from another era, the sort of log cabin essential made to last for years. The lambswool is thick and dependable on drafty days, while the ribbed design delivers durability in spades. Plus, L.L. Bean notes the fabric delivers warmth without too much bulk.
There’s more than a good chance you’ve been wearing Brooks Brothers dress shirts for years, right? The all-American style masters know how to define a classic like one of the best cardigan sweaters, and they’ve used premium Italian merino wool for an incredibly soft handfeel and luxe quality. Go for a sharp Black cardigan if you favor a refined, dressy winter sweater for elevated affairs this season.
Get our newsletter
Keep up on the latest gear and deals.