Paternal. Humble. Infinitely square. The cardigan sweater is generally considered the Mister Rogers of menswear, and for good reason: Fred Rogers made sure of it.
Over the course of 895 episodes and 33 years of the TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he advertised his gentle, nonthreatening nature by slipping from a jacket and tie — symbols of the messy, scary adult professional world — into a knit zip-up that was homely both in the British definition (“Simple but cozy and comfortable, as in one’s own home”) and the American (I mean, yikes).
Despite its anti-glam image, the cardigan is making a comeback, thanks in large part to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the current hit movie starring Tom Hanks, and last year’s highly regarded documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Both films — whose titles are catchphrases he made famous — explore the life of late TV icon, who died in 2003.
There was also an Emmy-nominated PBS tribute, “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like,’ that aired last year.
Mister Rogers’ many colorful cardigans — one of which is now in the Smithsonian — were originally knit by his mother, Nancy McFeely Rogers. According to a recent article on Smithsonian.com, she made a new one every Christmas (a McTouchy McFeely detail if there ever was one).
After she died in 1981, the show’s art director looked to that bastion of saucy style, the U.S. Postal Service, for inspiration, relying on hand-dyed versions of mail-carrier cardigans.
Fashion, of course, was not the point. Mister Rogers’ talismanic cardigan was the sartorial equivalent of a lullaby — sweet, comforting, bland — and it helped lull generations of American preschoolers into the cozy Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where there are no bad people and no bad thoughts.
This worked well for children but did no favors for the sweater itself, helping brand the cardigan — any cardigan — as doofuswear, the male equivalent of a chastity belt. (Likewise considered slightly sorority sister for women, it got a power boost after being worn by Michelle Obama for, among other occasions, drinks with the Queen of England.)
The sweater’s image wasn’t all Mister Rogers’ doing. Unlike the standard form-fitting pullover, many midcentury male cardigans artfully hid the male physique inside a woolly tomb with the contours of a sleeping bag. Generally speaking, this was comfort clothing.
Lingering associations with sitcom dads (think Ward Cleaver) and lettermen sweaters of the Pat Boone 1950s (sis-boom-blah) only underscored the point: The cardigan was a buttoned-up sweater for a buttoned-up era. Would it ever recover?
The time is now. Searches for men’s cardigans on Poshmark, a fashion resale site, have spiked 79% since the Hanks film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September.
Other sweaters in the news
It’s not just the Mister Rogers cardigans that are generating headlines. In October, the shabby-chic olive-green cardigan that Kurt Cobain wore for his famous “MTV Unplugged” performance in 1993 sold at auction for $334,000, apparently a record for a sweater. A symbol of shaggy punk nihilism, it is the knitwear equivalent of a power chord loud enough to scare the meow-meow out of Henrietta Pussycat.
The bad-boy potential of the cardigan also is on display in HBO’s “Succession,” in which Logan Roy, the dark-lord media mogul played by Brian Cox, has made the avuncular shawl cardigan the uniform for his weekly adventures in corporate mayhem and subterfuge.
Outfitting an assassin of the C-suite in an item of apparel typically associated with doting grandfathers and white-haired Irish poets is a mordant costume choice, like slipping an M-80 firecracker into an Easter flower arrangement. Even so, it is hardly the first time anyone has attempted to infuse the cardigan with a little swagger.
Steve McQueen occasionally rocked a cardigan in the 1960s. Then again, he could rock a scarlet Bozo the Clown wig.
At the height of the disco era, Paul Michael Glaser of television’s “Starsky & Hutch” injected the cardigan with a dose of street cred. Glaser’s Starsky looked extremely happening — or at least, extremely 1970s — in his trademark south-of-the-border shawl cardigan, which was, if nothing else, less risible than the cop duo’s red Ford Gran Torino with the faux-Nike white swoop.
The Dude wore it, too
Sadly for Glaser, Jeff Bridges undid much of his hard work two decades later, with his Dude character in “The Big Lebowski” seizing on a similar sofa-throwish cardigan — also known as the Westerley cardigan, by Pendleton — as a signifier of sunbaked, aging-hipster dissolution. You could practically smell the bong water seeping through its fibers.
In the years since, countless male celebrities have made game attempts to rescue the cardigan from Mister Rogers’ closet and make it safe for the red carpet: David Beckham, Pharrell Williams, Daniel Craig. As 007, Craig even managed to make a Tom Ford black shawl-collar cardigan look menacing in the 2008 James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.”
The takeaway? The cardigan is as every bit as bad as you make it.