On Cardigans

(Photo: Zoë Kravitz as Big Little Lies’ Bonnie Carlson doing her finest cardigan acting.)

In the last couple of months, a cardigan I used to wear when I was eighteen has been haunting me. It was school bus-yellow and made of a cotton and wool blend. It was cropped at the elbows and had fat buttons down the middle. It’s neckline was v-shaped but nothing too crazy, and it hugged on my waist a bit without looking too tight. My cardigan was hip and stylish and feminine. It looked like something you could pull from the wardrobe department of any of the hundreds of young adult shows airing at the time. Nowadays, however, only middle-aged white women—portrayed by Cameron Diaz or Reese Witherspoon in the movies—wear cardigans. And they wear them under specific conditions: while walking on the beach on a particularly blustery morning, pensively gazing at the crashing waves as they shiver in a way that suggests an underactive thyroid gland or low iron levels. The conditions for cardigan acting aren’t too far from reality. White women of a certain age seem to be keeping the cardigan industry alive. Everyone else—save for the Brandy Melville or High Fashion Twitter girls who wear fitted beige and pastel cardigans (and sometimes the chunky, shapeless kind) with dainty 14K gold necklaces—has abandoned the cardigan.

Cardigans used to be a staple of my wardrobe. I liked them because they could take a pair of skinny jeans and a band t-shirt to a neutrally feminine zone of style that’s not too girly, but does the opposite of communicating “I’m one of the guys” the way that hoodies often do. I never wanted to be one of the guys, but I still wanted the option, as I didn’t have that choice in high school when I wore a hijab. For me, the hijab restricted the presentation and performance of my womanhood to a similarly “feminine zone of style,” albeit a more claustrophobic one I couldn’t see myself out of.

At my current size, cardigans make me look like a frumpy, matronly librarian or school secretary, which maybe they made me look like before, but I have no way of knowing now, as I didn’t document much of my existence back then. I also might have been more willing to portray myself that way fifty pounds ago, back when I used to dream of having cleavage and couldn’t yet push my boobs together to highlight a split between them. I was at peace with it all because I wasn’t ready to be a woman yet, anyway. Now, I’m so conspicuously Woman (be careful what you wish for!)—with conspicuous jugs where my A cups used to be—and the body of the girl I once was is only preserved in memories that come rushing back to me whenever I put a cardigan on.

Cardigans feel uniquely nostalgic in a way no other item of clothing does. In a cardigan, you can be a girl again. I think that’s why Taylor Swift, who is a year older than me, uses it as a motif in her recent songwriting and visuals. Baked into the cardigan is the aesthetics of adolescence, and specifically, the feelings we felt as young girls forging our styles and sharpening our ideas about the world.

I find it curious that the cardigan hasn’t found its way into the recent fake cultural brouhaha around side parts and skinny jeans. I guess to the crowd of millennial women who wield the aesthetics of their bygone youth as a cudgel against children this isn’t worthy of feigned contention. These women should observe and participate in current trends without making a fuss or awkwardly clinging to their past. If the “avant-basic” discourse proved anything, it’s not cool to squabble over the ephemera of fashion and aesthetics.

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