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Sweaters vs. Cardigans: Style Differences Explained

As much as we’ve enjoyed a long summer of Hawaiian shirts and jean shorts, it’s just about that time of year again: Sweater weather. You know, when it’s all of a sudden too chilly to leave your arms bare but still too warm to break out your heavy-duty outerwear. So you break open your closet and reach for something that bridges the gap: A sweater. Or is it a cardigan?

A lot of people have a lot of opinions on the cardigan vs sweater debate. Some absolutely loathe cardigans, while others will swear by them. But the thing is, it all really depends on the outfit. The distinct differences between sweaters and cardigans make them especially suited for different moments. 

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Sweaters are generally the simpler option — all you’ve got to do is pull one on with a pair of jeans or chinos, maybe throw a button-down underneath, and you’ve got yourself a style. Cardigans, on the other hand, require a little more forethought. The buttoned placket in the front means you have to consider more thoughtfully what you’re wearing underneath since everyone will be seeing a whole lot more of it. Just think, you’d rather show off a high-quality tee or dress shirt than some ratty old undershirt any day. 

But there’s more to cardigans vs sweaters than just that. So we wanted to take a moment to help clear that all up for you and hook you up with some styling tips for whichever knit you decide to wear this fall. 

What Makes a Sweater a Sweater?

Man at retail store holding a cardigan sweater looking at mirror.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Let’s start by saying this: Sweaters are less of a single style of clothing, and more of a category. That is, any upper-body garment that’s made from a knitted fabric, rather than a woven one, is a sweater. Doesn’t matter the neckline — crewneck, V-neck, turtleneck, roll neck, and shawl collar are all options — or the pattern or design, so long as it’s knitwear and you sport it on your torso, then it’s a sweater. 

All that is to say, the debate over “sweater vs cardigan” doesn’t really matter. Because in reality, a cardigan is a sweater. 

What Is a Cardigan Exactly?

If you’ve never come in contact with a cardigan before (we’re honestly surprised, if that’s the case) and wondering, “What is a cardigan?,” we’re happy to break it down for you. To put it simply, a cardigan is any sweater that has got an open placket in the front. Usually, this opening will be buttoned to allow you to control how much of the shirt underneath you’re showing (and to allow you to better control your body temperature) but it doesn’t have to be. 

Cardigans can also come in a number of collars. Most commonly, you’ll find a classic flat V-neck collar. These lie flat against the body around the collar, keeping things streamlined and easy to layer — you don’t have any extra fabric to worry about. Another popular option is a shawl collar, which folds over around the neckline for more warmth and comfort.

How to Style a Cardigan

Smiling young man walking down stairs in city.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Like any other sweater, styling a cardigan all depends on what you layer with it. Wear it with a shirt and tie in place of a blazer — or underneath one even — for a more formal look, or throw it over a t-shirt and jeans for a look that prioritizes comfort.

Dressed to Impress

In more formal scenarios, think of a cardigan like a waistcoat with sleeves. Wear it with a dress shirt, tie, and a pair of dress pants for a look that feels complete without needing to include a sports coat.

Banana Republic Italian Merino Cardigan Sweater

A Banana Republic Italian Merino Cardigan Sweater in Charcoal Gray.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Consider this your essential V-neck cardigan sweater. Made from merino wool, it’s lightweight but warm, perfect for layering over a button-down and under any outerwear if necessary.

Suitsupply Classic Fit Stripe Dress Shirt

A light blue Suitsupply Classic Fit Stripe Dress Shirt.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s no reason to shy away from patterns when you’re wearing a solid-colored cardigan. Feel free to go for something graphic like this Suitsupply striped shirt. Unless you’re wearing a tie, in which case go simple and use the tie to stand out.

Bonobos Stretch Weekday Warrior Dress Pants

Bonobos Stretch Weekday Warrior Dress Pants in Friday Slate.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Finish off the look by keeping it classy down below. And these Bonobos dress pants have a little extra stretch to keep you comfortable all day at the office.

All-Day Versatility

In terms of casual style, cardigans are as versatile as can be — so long as you find a nice, tailored cotton tee to wear underneath. When you’re running errands, just leave it open to keep from overheating, then button it up to look a touch more put together when you go to grab a drink with friends. 

Polo Ralph Lauren Cotton Shawl Collar Cardigan

A Polo Ralph Lauren Cotton Shawl Collar Cardigan in Boating Khaki Heather.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

With shawl collar cardigans, you run the risk of getting a little warm with all that extra fabric around the neck. This is why we like this Polo option: It’s cotton, so it won’t keep in heat as much as wool, but still has the same effect.

Todd Snyder Made in L.A. Homespun Slub Cotton T-Shirt

A Todd Snyder Made in L.A. Homespun Slub Cotton Navy T-Shirt.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Todd Snyder is the king of sportswear, and we include the t-shirt in that. As the name suggests, this one’s made in Los Angeles with a relaxed jersey fabric but a tailored, well-fitted cut.

Madewell Slim Everyday Flex Jeans

Madewell Slim Everyday Flex Jeans in Gramling Wash.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ever since Madewell started doing menswear, we’ve loved their denim. These are their classic, can’t-go-wrong slim jeans, perfect for daytime hangs and chill nights alike.

Stephen Praetorius
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Stephen Praetorius is a freelance writer and editor with near-boundless interests. His work's been featured in publications…
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