Boys' Sweaters: Cardigans

Figure 1.--Cardigan sweaters were popular for boys in Britain and to a lesser extent America during the 1950s and 60s. They were by the 1990s, however, little worn.

The cardigan is a close fitting knitted woolen jacket-like which buttoned up the front like a jacket. It is generally viewed as an informal sweater style


Cardiganshire is a county in west Wales. Cardigan, historically, once the ancient seat of kings is certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest truly Welsh town in Wales. In modern times, Cardigan is an attractive and historic market town, set amidst idyllic rolling countryside on the beautiful West Wales Coast.


The style is named after James Brudenell, the seventh earl of The 7th Earl of Cardigan. The Earl served with some notiriety in the Crimean War. The troops had great difficulty staying warm in the Russian winter. So several warm garments were developed during the war, the cardigan and raglan sweaters (also named after an earl) and the balaclava (named after a Russian city).

The Earl of Cardigan

While few Americans may have heard of James Brudenell, the seventh earl of The 7th Earl of Cardigan, his exploits are indeed known by many. The Earl served with some notiriety in the Crimean War. He will forever, be remembered as the man who led the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. Cardigan (1797-1868). In his day, however, it was not the sweater, but the Charge of the Light Brigade that he was best known for. Very much to the manor born was James Thomas Brudenell. In his early adulthood, Cardigan was a striking figure; tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed. He had a reputation as a daring horseman, excelled at swordsmanship, and was a fine shot. He was, much of the time, every bit the martinet Flashman describes; he was also a reasonably complex human being who didn't quite fit the Lord Haw-Haw image. (In fact, photographs of Cardigan in his prime are remarkably similar to Barbosa's dustjacket paintings of Flashman himself.)

Woodham-Smith describes his early childhood; "He was brought up at home among his sisters, and he grew up as such boys do, spoilt, domineering, and headstrong. No arm was stronger than his. No rude voice contradicted him, no rough shoulder pushed him. From his earliest consciousness he was the most important, the most interesting, the most influential person in the world." A legend grew that, at age fourteen, Cardigan had been thrown from a horse and struck his head on a gate: emerging from a weeks-long recuperation, his disposition had changed to a far more harsh, domineering style, and he was subject to flights of extraordinary rage.

However, Donald Thomas sketches a man apparently betrayed by time. The Battle of Waterloo (1815) stamped an impression on England that lasted for generations: for years afterwards, Britain would look to the generals of that battle for leadership and guidance. But James Brudenell was eighteen at the time, and safely camped in an undistinguished schooling at Oxford. By the time he'd graduated, and done the Grand Tour of Europe, Brudenell had decided upon a military career-- with the ambition of distinguishing himself in a battle of Waterloo's importance.

His own father, the 6th Earl, was not enthusiastic. He feared for his son's life should war come. But if peace continued, a military career would be an extravagant waste of money. The career Cardigan desired would require massive amounts of cash to support; beyond the cost of a commission, Brudenell would spend thousands on maintaining horses, servants, uniforms, entertainments, and much, much more. A political career-- marked in those days by the expenses of buying seats in Parlaiment-- would be cheaper, at least. A failed mairrage, however, changed his father mind.

His father prchased a capitancy in the 8th Hussars. He became known for his stridency on protocol and appearance. He was also probably regarded as a dangerous lunatic, in that was he was notorious for his willingness to duel over even minor provocations. But it should be said that in those days before the Reform Bill, the military regiment was "like a mobile estate, in which the lietenant-colonel was lord of the manor, the major was his agent, while the captains and subalterns were his principal tenants and heirs. The private soldiers were the workers." And those shots on the duelling fields were the only shots most British officers heard for 30 years.

In 1832, Cardigan bought the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 15th King's Hussars. Ther previous commander, Sir Joseph Thackwell, was a military historian and respected soldier (he'd lost an arm and had two horses shot from under him at Waterloo), and his command was notable for his humaneness and the rare incidence of insubordinate behavior. All that changed under Cardigan, who suddenly demanded higher standards of formation, parades, uniform maintenance and appearance. Underlings who differed with Cardigan's insistence on discipline and protocol were punished; one Captain Augustus Wathen was nearly court-martialled, mainly because he alerted superiors to Cardigan's overpurchasing of new uniforms. It was the acquittal of Wathen that prompted the army to take the 8th Hussars away from Cardigan.

Cardigan had come in to command men who had fought alongside of Wellington at Waterloo, and who had been majors when he had entered the military. That was also the year when the threats of riots and revolution spurred the passage of the Reform Bill-- which Cardigan, one of the more reactionary Tories of the time, opposed. In short, Cardigan was a man who felt the divine right of kings in the marrow of his bones, and who was deeply at odds with the current reshaping of society.

Cardigan could not believe that he would not have a command. He lobbied the Duke of Wellington (who was amazed at Cardigan's single-mindedness and apparent inability to realize how badly he'd embarassed himself). Only through the influence of relations-- his brother-in-law was the Queen's chamberlain-- and another purchase of rank was Cardigan able to secure the command of the 11th Light Dragoons in 1837-38. (Another factor was Sir William Molesworth, reformer, radical, professed atheist, advocate of the secret ballot and the abolition of flogging. He denounced Cardigan's reassignment, so the military closed ranks to smite Molesworth the upstart. Thus, Cardigan was reinstated by an act of Parlaiment.)

Cardigan's tenure with the 11th was just as stormy and unpleasant as with the 15th Hussars. Cardigan couldn't stand officers who'd served in India, and the 11th-- having been there for 17 years-- was full of them. Cardigan waged a war of attrition with them, denigrating them, reprimanding them, excluding them from social functions, etcetera. Thus the "Black Bottle" affair. Indian officers preferred to drink porter, but Cardigan loved the ceremony of great dinners. So he barred porter from the mess table. However, in May 1840, while entertaining the inspector-general, Cardigan noticed a black bottle by Captain John Reynolds, an "Indian" officer. Despite the fact that the bottle was Moselle, served at the request of one of the inspector-general's aides, Cardigan initiated disciplinary proceedings against Reynolds. This time, the Army stood behind its man, Reynolds was reprimanded, and the 11th was stuck with Cardigan. John Reynolds threatened to resign, but the Arny acceeded to his demands-- including a recantation of the reprimand, and that he never be placed under Cardigan's command again. Eventually, the Army reprimanded Cardigan, privately, though in front of his own officers.

But 1840 was to be a watershed year for Cardigan. Between the "black bottle" affair, the ridicule heaped on the 11th Hussars' spectacular and unweildy uniforms, Cardigan had become a figure of fun in the popular press. Cardigan challenged a Lieutenant Tucker to a duel, suspecting him of having written a letter to a newspaper complaining of his leadership: Tucker was wounded, and Cardigan faced the prospect of being tried before the House of Lords. By the end of 1840, Cardigan could not go out in public without being subjected to boos, catcalls, hoots, and insults. Oddly enough, Donald Thomas notes that, unlike his officers, the troopers under Cardigan's command were extremely loyal to him. During periods of civil unrest, when soldiers were targets of mob intimidation, Cardigan resolutely supported them. He was capable of sudden moments of charity.

Flashman's account of the squabbles between Lord Lucan and Cardiag n are, not surprisingly, corroborated by Cardigan's biographers. Thomas's account claims that Cardigan questioned the order sent from Raglan to Lucan; even he saw the folly of sending his cavalry up against the heavy Russian artillery. But Lucan insisted that he follow Raglan's orders, so Cardigan led the Light Brigade into ruin. The popular account of Cardigan after the Charge is fairly simple: when questioned of the loss of his men, Cardigan casually said that "it is no fault of mine," rode back to his yacht, and enjoyed a bath, dinner, and a bottle of champagne. The truth is considerably different, and it provides Lord Haw-Haw with some depth of character.

For one thing, Cardigan's "no fault of mine" remark was made to his own men, when they cheerily offered to go back in against the Russian guns. Cardigan refused, saying that the charge was "a mad-brained trick, but it is no fault of mine." He visited some of the wounded, and then slept on the ground near his wounded aide Maxse. A nurse reports that Cardigan spent half an hour soothing the bugler; others who were there reported that Cardigan spent the following days in gloom and grief. And the obvious point: in the one great military skirmish of his life, and the one chance when he too might capture some of the glory that many of his peers had acquired at Waterloo, Cardigan acquitted himself surprisingly well.

There was a flash of popularity for Cardigan upon his return. Despite the increasing public skepticism of the follies of the upper classes in warfare, Cardigan was given a hero's welcome back to England. Even Punch, which had ridiculed him for so long, ran a patriotic cartoon of the Charge captioned "A Trump card(igan)." Cardigan himself told the story of the Charge to Queen Victoria and her children, but he also told the Queen of the soldiers' hardships and the inadequacies of their equipment.

Even this one victory turned sour for Cardigan, in circumstances Flashman has described. Once it was realized that the Charge was a monumental blunder, the leaders of the Crimean war broke into a blind panic of writing to the newspapers, accusing everyone else of having given the order. Suddenly, the Lord Haw-Haw image resurfaced, and Cardigan spent months defending himself in what was, for obvious reasons, a matter of high personal honor. But eventually even that faded away, and Cardigan settled into life in the landed gentry, scandalizing the upper classes by marrying a woman many years his junior (Adeline de Horsey), and retelling the story of his charge at the head of the Six Hundred.

Country Trends

Cardigan sweaters were popular for boys in Britain and to a lesser extent America during the 1950s and 60s. They were by the 1990s, however, little worn. A student who in 2001 moved to Canada writes, "HBC says that cardigans are rarely worn nowadays. That is true in United States, Canada, and maybe the United Kingdom but in Asia, cardigans are still very popular. I wore a cardigan to school and at home every day when I was at primary school (in Hong Kong) during 1998. Many of my friends did as well and so did the Chinese pupils at the British schools (the English pupils there preferred to wear jumpers with sports logos). I bought my cardigans at Japanese children's fashion shops and my grandmother also knitted some for me. And I liked all my cardigans. When I first came to Canada, on vacation when I was 12, and went shopping in the large stores, I was surprised that they didn't sell cardigans for boys. Jumpers were abundant though. My grandmother knitted and still knits cardigans and jumpers for me. She always does that in her spare time and I have been wearing her products for 17 years. They are always comfortable and warm, even more in chilly Canada than in tropical Hong Kong! Most Canadian kids do not have any appreciation for warm, fuzzy, cosy knitwear. I wear cotton/polyester shirts or t-shirts, slacks, and knitwear- jumpers from stores, cardigans by grandmother- to school now. I do not really like the baggy clothes most Canadian teenagers seem to prefer."


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Created: May 20, 1999
Last updated: 9:17 PM 8/22/2004