Whether it’s a V-neck pullover, a beaded Angora cardigan, or a cozy turtleneck, the sweater is one of the most versatile pieces of clothing in a woman’s wardrobe. If properly cared for and stored, vintage sweaters have the extra benefit giving the wearer a touch of classic style.
The turtleneck goes back to the mid-Victorian Era, and in the 1920s, French designers Coco Chanel and Jean Patou popularized the use of knit fabrics in sportswear. But the sweater really came of age in the 1930s, when a group of full-chested Hollywood starlets made the garment the icon it is today. Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, and Jane Russell were the decade’s most popular “sweater girls.” While the sweaters and silhouettes beneath them are what most of us remember, the photographs of these actresses were frequently shot as advertisements for new, figure-flattering bras.
Sometimes the necks of these sweaters plunged to a V, other times they were trimmed with wide lapels. Cowl necks were a particular favorite of pullovers, or jumpers, as they are also known. And in many cases, pullovers were worn underneath a matching cardigan to create a sweater set, or twin set. Since the pullover was part of the look, it was fashionable to only fasten the top button of one’s cardigan when wearing a jumper underneath.
In the 1940s, with a war on, it was common for women to knit their own sweaters, but by the end of the decade, cashmere sweaters became hot retail items. Cashmere sweaters were sold in solid colors with short sleeves, as cardigans, or as set. Cashmere did not pill like other types of wool, and it was very warm for its weight. In fact, cashmere sweaters were so warm that only blends with silk were suitable for summer and in warm climates.
Other sweater trends of the 1940s included short cardigans made out of lamb’s wool and Angora, which were often trimmed at the cuffs, neck, and buttons in beads, and then covered with beaded designs (palm trees, florals, etc.) on the front of the sweater, its arms, and shoulders. For a more formal look, sometimes fur was stitched onto the collar or cuffs.
In the 1950s, swimwear maker Catalina introduced a new line of cashmere-like sweaters, but instead of calling them cashmere, the material was branded as Belgimere, which was basically a lamb’s wool sweater, in short, long, cardigan, and pullover styles, made in Belgium.
Greta Garbo wore turtlenecks throughout the ’50s, although not the revealing halter-top versions which would remain popular through the 1990s. The 1950s are also when sweaters we...
Sometimes matching was preferred, as in a pink cardigan over a pink poodle skirt. Such cardigans were often richly embroidered. Angora remained popular, but Orlon, Acrilan, and other synthetic knits that could be washed and worn by teenage girls gained favor. A good look for school might be a pink sweater with matching, gaily colored embroidered flowers up the front, but that same girl was going out for the evening, say to a coffee house for some poetry and bongos, a black sweater with gold beading delivered that upscale-Beatnik look.
Cable-knit sweaters were big in the 1960s. Often they were styled as cardigans with slimming vertical stripes, or as pullovers with wide bands of horizontal color. Also called fisherman sweaters, the cable-knit sweater was made most famous in 1970 when Ali McGraw wore one in virtually every frame of “Love Story.”
Two other types of sweaters have recently become quite desirable. One is the so-called boyfriend cardigan, which is basically any cardigan that a woman steals from her husband or boyfriend (a sweater from a father or brother will do in a pinch). The idea is to find one that’s several sizes too big so it can be worn loose over jeans, or perhaps just belted over stockings.
A similar type of look can be achieved with the sweater dress, which can be worn like a short dress with tights or perhaps Levi’s underneath. For some reason, wide horizontal stripes are okay on these tight-fitting sweater dresses, probably because the women who can pull off this style are slim enough to negate the potential unflattering effects.