Fit to unravel: a meditation on the cardigan

The way we are now it’s alright

So don’t tell me it’s the last night of our young lives

The way we are now it’s alright

So don’t tell me it’s the last night of our young lives tonight

– The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Kurt Cobain’s Cardigan”

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***

I hang around for another round

I’m hanging around for another round

I’m hanging on to the same old song

I hang around for another round

– The Cardigans – “Hanging Around”

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A few months back, I was watching a sitcom and there was this scene where these two guys were standing in a park talking and one turns to the other and goes, “Sorry, what? I couldn’t hear you over that cardigan.”

It made me laugh. Because I was, at that very moment, wearing a sort-of-obnoxiously loud green cardigan myself. And because, well, there is just something so crumpled and timeless and irresistibly hate-able about this particular modern garment.

It’s in, then it’s out. Then it’s back in, only because it was out before. Repeat ad infinitum.

Among that colorful tangle of culture-and-fashion detritus that is rediscovered every few decades before being summarily shunned anew – the soul patch, the striped Polo shirt, the color orange – the cardigan stands alone, a vestment apart.

To get our terms straight: Let’s consider what distinguishes a cardigan from just … a sweater.

According to an article written on the cardigan sweater on ehow.com, “A cardigan sweater opens at the front, like a coat or jacket, and closes with buttons or a zipper rather than being pulled over the head as a jersey-style sweater is.”

And, according to eHow’s Sara Kircheimer, “A Cardigan sportswear is emblematic of a casual lifestyle and unpretentious modernity.”

When I came up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the cardigan was hardly modern, and the sole purview of a decidedly unhip set.

In the ‘80s, Fred Rogers rocked them unapologetically, and a flashpoint moment of each episode of The Mister Rogers show involved him walking in his door after a stroll around the neighborhood, then taking off whichever cardigan he happened to be wearing, then carefully hanging it up in a fake-closet near the fake-door of his fake-house on what was ostensibly a real-hanger. Country club rats of a certain age also wore cardigans in that era, but even to my kindergarten sensibilities, the look seemed undeniably Magoo, that is to say, sort of fumbly and old and calling to mind the smell of mothballs and your great-grandpa’s foul toilette.

There was this department store called “Lamont’s” in a strip mall near my neighborhood when I was a kid, and for a while in the very early ‘90s they peddled this huge line of kid’s cardigans. They were considered cool for a month or two at the start of one school year. Then, the tide of public opinion turned. Most of us neighborhood kids took note and stuffed our shameful purchases into the backs of closets or conspired to lose buttons and spill ketchup, but it was too late for one boy from up the hill.

Toren’s mom had bought him like five of these striped, baggy things during his back-to-school shopping that September. Now, he was stuck wearing them all through the fall and winter, even on school picture day, and the older kids, especially this one sort of nasty kid named Ed Smith, made fun of him incessantly for it.

Ed would cry out as the younger boy approached the bus stop, “Hey, Toren! Where’s your Lamont’s sweater?”

Toren fought back as much as he could, but I guess it’s just hard to look menacing when you’re wearing a cardigan.

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To give the cardigan its due, it does trace its roots to war. Kind of.

The story stretches alllll the way back to a guy called James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. (Aside: did you know there was also an Earl of Sandwich? And, yes, he invented sammies, purportedly so he could stuff his gullet with cheeses and oily meats without leaving the gambling table or getting grease all over his poker chips.)

In the 19th century, Cardigan was an officer for the British Army during the Crimean War, and he’s credited with leading the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Battle of Balaclava.

Mr. Brudenell was by most accounts an insufferable twat: arrogant, aristocratic, incompetent. His military record was mixed, but in his life he did one thing that would recommend him to infamy: he took to wearing button-up wool sweaters.

He probably didn’t start doing this until his dotage, according to “History of Hand Knitting” author Richard Rutt, when he strolled the English countryside as an old man and likely needed a bulwark against the steady breeze.

From there, the trend unraveled outward and across Europe, spreading Cardigan’s name and his namesake garment far and wide. Fishermen appreciated the cardigan’s comforting warmth, and shabby aristocrats and sporty empty nesters for generations to follow adopted the no-nonsense look.

(As an aside: you wont regret watching this frighteningly awesome video outlining the history of cardigans on YouTube, put out by something called “The West Auckland Cardigan Appreciation Society”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTbifywGHEQ)

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain pretty much singlehandedly brought the cardigan back from the dead in the early ‘90s. Cobain favored a shabby, greenish-gray cardigan, to go with his shabby, bluish-gray eyes and his shabby, greenish-gray heart, all of them now just dust.

Kurt opted to burn out rather than fade away and ate a gun at the none-too-ripe age of 27, but his cardigan lived on. A band called “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” even wrote a song about it, called, unsurprisingly, “Kurt Cobain’s Cardigan,” that is mostly dithering and overly sentimental and doesn’t really mention cardigans at all.

After Cobain’s death, cardigans began to emerge in popular culture with some regularity.

In the 1994 movie (MY FAVORITE) Dumb and Dumber, two down-on-their-luck fuck-ups traveling cross-country in a van recast to resemble a giant, shaggy dog are flagged down by a cop on a motorcycle.

The cop rides up alongside the driver, Harry, and motions for him to roll down the window.

“Pull over!” the cop cries.

Harry looks down, his eyes light up, he yanks a handful of tatty gray sweater up for closer inspection and says, “No, it’s a cardigan, but thanks for noticing!”

In the ‘90s and the early Oughts, a Swedish post-post-grunge band called “The Cardigans” released a half-dozen albums of poppy drivel. A brief glance at their catalogue reveals no mention whatsoever of cardigans.

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My older sister and I spent much of the early ‘90s digging through the bins at Goodwill in search of castoff cardigans of our own. The best one we ever found was gray and ratty with silver buttons. In a rare moment of adolescent camaraderie, we agreed to share it.

Once, when I was 15, after much fretting over my wardrobe, I wore that gray cardigan to an interactive, all-ages showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

When the Cool, Older Kids onstage called for volunteers to come up and mime sex acts with an unpeeled banana, I girded my loins and raised my hand, but I was promptly dismissed by a douchey-looking guy standing next to the emcee who shouted, “No, don’t pick her! She’s wearing an ugly sweater!”

“It’s a CARDIGAN,” I shrieked snottily, but my belly was filling up with self-doubt.

And here’s where things get really weird and full-circly – Who should step out from the amorphous crowd loitering at the edge of that raised stage of my Late or Unforseen Childhood but Ed Smith himself – the aforementioned neighbor kid who’d made pitiless fun of Toren and his striped Lamont’s cardigans.

This was years later. Ed was still older, and still cooler, and still probably mean. And now, he held my fate in his hands.

Ed’s eyes met mine – blue like Kurt Cobain’s, and coldly assessing as they traveled up and down my face and torso. Time slowed, just for a few tics.

“Nah, I know her,” he said. “She’s cool.”

Then, the spell broke, and I was waved onstage to the place where I, and my old-man cardigan, so rightfully belonged, and to where another boy about my age held a banana to his crotch so I could pantomime fellatio on him, to the whooping delight of the audience. I felt vindicated.

The cardigan stands alone.

 

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