In the bleak midwinter, as the carol doesn’t put it, you need knitwear. Today, there are any number of high-tech thermo-regulating fabrics that will keep you warm with greater efficiency, but, it must be said, not with the same style.
Since knitting is one of the oldest means of making clothing, it’s naturally given rise to some of the oldest styles of clothing too – and their survival into the 21st century makes every one a classic. Pick your style, yarn and the weight of your knit according to your needs – as a base layer against the skin, mid layer under a denim jacket, or even as serious outerwear.
Everyone from James Dean and Ernest Hemingway to Don Draper and The Dude have made natty knitwear look like their outfit’s main event. Cable knits, cardigans, sweatshirts and Breton tops are all high-impact options in a man’s wardrobe.
Just remember to keep yours clean or packed away airtight – it’s the oils absorbed from the wearer’s skin that attracts those pesky moths. And few things are as disappointing as pulling out your favourite sweater for another cold season of duty to find it looks more like lace. That’s not a good look at all.
Men’s Jumper Styles To Jump For
It’s probably the most anodyne of all styles of sweater. But then it’s hard to argue with the idea that, as a result of that, it’s also the most versatile style of sweater: the crew neck can be worn with just about anything casually – over a shirt or T-shirt – and even with a suit or check blazer. Available in different weights – from fine merino through to chunky highland – it’s the easiest winter jumper choice any man can make when in a hurry.
Plain works best (and is essential for office outfits) despite recent seasons pushing intarsia – that’s when a random pattern or image is knitted into the sweater. If that’s your preference, go abstract to avoid CJD – Christmas Jumper Delusion, the belief that such a style can be worn on any day other than December 25th.
Guernsey Or Fisherman’s Knit
It’s certainly the hardiest of all men’s jumpers, its close-fitting form and super-dense knit is almost guaranteed to see you through the harshest of days. And, small wonder, given that it was originally devised for fishermen to wear at sea – the Guernsey is knitted so that it can be worn either way round, which is useful when dressing in the dark, as well as so that any holes can be easily knitted over.
The Channel Islands may have originated the style, but it’s been common to most historic British fishing communities – indeed, the patterns knitted into a Guernsey (which is typically of one colour) were localised precisely so that it allowed the identification of any fisherman lost at sea, should his body be recovered. Yeah, think on that next time you’re wearing one all cosy by the pub fire…
Scotch & Soda
The roll neck – and its cousin the turtleneck – are positively medieval: the style was originally created as an undergarment for ye olde knights, who needed to protect their necks from chafing chain-mail. Jump forward half a millennia and it took Noel Coward to make the look (no, not the chainmail) popular in the 1920s.
It’s an eminently wintery one, of course, effectively having a built-in scarf, though Coward favoured it because it worked under a jacket and meant liberation from a stiff collar and tie; likewise Steve Jobs, for whom the simplicity of the style also allowed more brain space for pondering just how many times you can ask a consumer to buy yet another charge cable before they migrate to Samsung.
In black there’s still a touch of secret agent-cum-Milk Tray Man about the roll-neck. In a heavier weight you get to play George Mallory or a U-boat captain.
Fitted cardigans are not an easy wear, unless you’re a mod aficionado and completist in your style. The cardigan came well before the mods though: an easy-on, easy-off layer devised by the 7th Earl of Cardigan, no less, to wear while on campaign in the Crimean War.
The chunky cardigan complete with a shawl collar however, is a wardrobe staple. It’s at once comforting and comfortable, and is the ideal ‘house coat’. But, thanks to iconic fans the likes of John F. Kennedy and Steve McQueen – who wore theirs over a white T-shirt or button-down Oxford shirt – it’s become a casual classic too.
Beloved by golfers and the willfully middle-aged – those old enough will recall Ronnie Corbett in his joke-telling chair, or Jimmy Tarbuck in his Lyle & Scott on the links. The V-neck sweater is however, one of the more versatile of styles around.
In fairness it does originate in golf attire – as a longer sleeved version of the fair isle tank top, which Edward VII made popular for play. But today the style is wearable over a shirt and tie, so works for business-casual, but can also figure over a T-shirt, albeit less successfully.
Best still avoided is the V-neck sweater over nothing: Michael Douglas’s character in Basic Instinct was castigated for this style choice, though in retrospect it looks almost edgy. Today it might pass if the sweater was in a sufficiently lightweight merino wool, but it’s still a bit ‘Hollywood leading male’ photoshoot.
Like the Guernsey, the cable-knit sweater has its origins in meeting the unforgiving conditions of deep sea fishing, specifically those off the most westerly point of Ireland, where the Aran Islands are found.
The cable takes its inspiration from the fisherman’s rope and the diamond pattern often knitted from the fisherman’s net. It’s intricate work. But it also helps make for an incredibly functional garment: the wool used traditionally has a high lanolin content, making it water repellent.
And if it really chucks it down? The proper cable knit sweater can take on 30 percent of its weight in water before the wearer feels wet. All of which is another way of saying this is proper winter wear, always good with jeans or casual trousers.
After sneakers, the sweatshirt is arguably sport’s definitive contribution to men’s style. Devised by Russell Athletic as a hard-wearing, comfortable, absorbent layer for athletes to wear to keep warm before or after play – long since replaced by more high-tech options – these days it’s one of those reassuring go-to garments that can get better with age.
Up until the 1970s many were made using a slow and complicated loopback knitting technique, which gave an all-cotton sweatshirt density and stretch but allowed it to hold its shape too. That went out with cheap cotton-polyester versions. In more recent years, however, loopback styles have – driven by Japanese Americana obsessives – made a welcome return.
Breton Stripe Knit
The Breton might be hard to wear without prompting jokey questions along the lines of ‘where are your onions?’ And ‘have you lost your beret?’ Such is the quintessential Frenchness of the style.
Yes, this cotton, boat-neck top was created for the French Navy during the 1850s, the stripes – traditionally 22, blue-on-white, said to mark each of Napoleon’s victories – were chosen to help sailors spot a man overboard.
And, yes, it was a staple style for Riviera-era Pablo Picasso, and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Gaultier. But it’s also supremely comfortable, fills a useful gap – being weighted heavier than a T-shirt but not as heavy as most sweaters – and makes for an easy way into pattern, worn with jeans or khakis or under a blazer. Just check out Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. OK, that’s set in France too…