The sweater is fashionable again: How it went from fishermen's uniform to sex symbol

The sweater is fashionable again: How it went from fishermen's uniform to sex symbol

Yarn story

Text: Gordon Ng

Editor: Jolene Khor

Like most fashion today, the sweater was born from utility. The prototype of these were worn by fishermen, and those sweaters were knit from thick wool to keep its wearers warm. The fabrics were left mostly untreated to retain natural oils that would help keep it water resistant, before synthetic fabrics were a possibility.

Chanel’s designs in the 1920s were centered on making fashion for women effortless and easy to move in, famously employing fabrics like jersey that was at the time used mainly for men’s underwear.

The surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli was an early innovator of the sweater, giving it a sense of fun and whimsy that would move it past its pragmatic origins.

It wasn't until the 1920s when designers — most notably Gabrielle Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli — began turning the sweater into fashionable items. For Chanel, that meant cutting sweaters in comfortable and unfussy jersey and piling on pearl necklaces. The image of Coco Chanel herself in plain and unassuming, long-sleeved black jersey is pretty iconic. Schiaparelli's is a less famous photographic reference, but her surrealist trompe l'oeil, ahead of its time, would prove the sweater fruitful ground for creative visual treatments.

Hollywood actresses like Anne Gwynne pioneered the sweater's evolution into a sex symbol fashion item, using the body-hugging fit of modern fabrics like cashmere to accentuate their bodies.

In the 1940s and '50s, Hollywood had a distinct moment when the sweater turned sexy. Actresses such as Lana Turner and Jayne Mansfield wore provocative, form-fitting sweaters cut in soft fabrics that emphasised the breasts. These were often worn over the conical bras of the time, and the prominence of its sexual attractiveness was striking. The result was (are we surprised?) moral hysteria from men, but the moment remains pivotal for a piece of clothing that started out from the simple need to keep warm.

Riccardo Tisci's printed sweaters for the house of Givenchy were revolutionary in fashion, bridging the worlds of haute couture and streetwear.

In modern times, perhaps the most pivotal moment for the sweater was its turn at stardom around 2012. Riccardo Tisci, during his tenure at Givenchy, broke the rules of high fashion and combined them with burgeoning streetwear, borrowing liberally from the aesthetics of casual sportswear. Some of the most famous Givenchy pieces at the time were the printed sweaters he released: Rottweilers, Bambi, Birds of Paradise. Nicolas Ghesquiere also explored the idea in 2012, creating printed sweaters with spongy neoprene fabrics, dropped shoulders, and vivid prints. All of a sudden, the high fashion sweater, costing easily upwards of a thousand dollars, became a statement piece all on its own. The prints, because they were so recognisable and easy to date, became a status symbol of wearing what was exactly hot and new in the season.

Nicolas Ghesquiere's fall/winter 2012 collection for Balenciaga was called 'futurist' in a number of reviews, and part of that was perhaps his premonition for giving casual pieces like sweaters an intricate, high fashion upgrade.

That moment, though, has passed and the fashion for sweaters seems to be moving past surface glossiness — literally, in the case of those laser-printed graphics from high fashion brands — and back towards tactile plushness. Case in point: the pop cultural high that Chris Evans, in a chunky Aran Islands-style sweater, caused in the film Knives Out. Sales of cable knit sweaters spiked quickly, and there was a surge in interest online in the style. Probably what was so interesting was the way that sweater was so casually worn out. The crew neck and sleeves were frayed, and it looked like the sort of treasured item that gets heavily worn and never thrown. Evans' character in the film is rich and lives off his family's fortune, and the result is that his clothes — while luxurious and desirable — get treated without preciousness.

Chris Evans in the 2019 murder mystery, Knives Out.

Of course, a lot of the sweater's success has to do with Evans being incredibly attractive, but it also seems to say we've come full circle with this style of clothing. After the feverish haze of high fashion appropriation and graphic overloads, we're right back at the comfortable, louche sweaters that fishermen pioneered. It might even be a reaction against the branding and expiry dates of fashion that is markedly seasonal. But whatever it is, the point is that the anonymous, chunky sweater is now something of a low-key sex symbol item.

Talk about a glow up.