The feminist history of the cardigan

Once upon a time, this autumn wardrobe staple was a symbol of female empowerment

A cardigan sweater.
(Image credit: Illustrated | mawielobob/iStock, sigurcamp/iStock, imagoRB/iStock, Library of Congress)

Big, sloppy cardigans are as much of a winter time staple as salt on pavement or marshmallows in hot chocolate. But before they became an essential in cold-weather wardrobes, cardigans were a tool of rebellion for women. The cozy knits allowed women to take control of the public presentations of their bodies, and shake off dated gender ideals. When women changed how they looked, often a social change followed close behind.

In the early 20th century, women's fashion was undergoing a transformation. Restrictive, uncomfortable clothes came to symbolize equally restrictive social systems, and rejecting one was rejecting the other. And so, by the 1940s, students at Smith, Wellesley, and Vassar colleges had essentially stopped wearing girdles — that tight garment worn beneath the clothes to shape and slim the contours of the body — and started sporting cardigans.

These button-up sweaters became known as "Sloppy Joes." They were generously long and bagged over the hips, with long sleeves pushed up above the elbows. This look was inspired by the outfits worn by male Ivy League students, who took pride in looking a bit slipshod. The Daily Californian wrote that only the "most self-satisfied of men students" wore filthy cords, sloppy sweaters, and embraced general disorder. They were "proud of their neglect" and thought it showed a "superiority of mind over other men." It didn't take much time for the all-women's schools on the east coast to take on the same look.

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"They began to wear Sloppy Joes around the same time they started to wear pants," Deirdre Clemente, a historian of 20th century American fashion, told The Week. "These young women were saying, 'we're not adhering to your concept of prescribed femininity, we're doing our own thing.'"

The public backlash was massive. Men hated the cardi because it concealed women's bodies and obscured their curves. The media dubbed the women who wore them "Sloppy Sues." A 1947 article in Life lamented the sweaters and was shocked that these women "sometimes even ventured out of dormitories in rolled-up blue jeans and large men's shirts with the tails out. ... like a girl who does not care whether or not she looks like a girl."

In 1937, college men at Northwestern complained that women were "handicapping themselves" with their sloppy dress and they should "make themselves prettier," to deserve their attention. In 1944, one WWII veteran even waged a one-man protest against sloppy sweaters at the University of Minnesota. He declared that "co-ed" dressing wasn't what he'd fought for in battle, and likened the fashion trend to the horrors of war.

Mothers also worried about their daughters traipsing around in sloppy clothing, which was thought to equal sloppy manners, sloppy thinking, and sloppy morals. Some thought the disheveled look foreshadowed an equally disheveled housewife. Others thought it broadcast loose morals, since so many cardigan-wearing women were forgoing the girdle beneath. One mother claimed her daughter's slovenly look would drive a man to drink later, to which her daughter responded: "It's comfortable and I don't care how it looks."

Indeed, dressing masculine was a gift of independence. "Society felt like it deserved access to women's bodies, and Sloppy Joe cardigans obscured that access," says Clemente. "It's why the push back was so vehement."

The shapeless cardigan saw another resurgence in the early 1960s, at a time when fashion was again "on the move," and culture was in transition. Young women were no longer confined to suburban kitchens as young wives and mothers. Instead they were single, economically self-sufficient, and living in their own apartments in the city. Shorts skirts were a nod towards liberation, and baggy cardigans came to represent body freedom. "Women again are obscuring their bodies during a time when there is a new sense of femininity coming out," says Clemente.

Then, the cardigan trend hit Paris. In 1973 United Press International declared "Sloppy Joe Sweater Returns," and the Detroit Free Press echoed "New Sloppy Sophistication For Fall," saying that designers like Kenzo and Chloe were bringing back the college dormitory look of the 1940s for a second round. "For the 'in' crowd the 'sloppy look' was the big trend: ampleness, looseness, and downright baginess in layers and layers of clothes piled around the female frame," UPI confirmed.

Today, baggy cardigans have gone from being sensational to conventional. They come in many shapes and forms, from duster cardigans to ex-boyfriend sweaters to roomy sweater coats. But during a time when women were rewriting their place in society, even something as simple as a slouchy knit held a lot of cultural weight.

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