Yet again it was the popularity of the Prince of Wales and his fashion on the golf course and the overwhelming desire for casualness in menswear that the 1920s men’s sweater replaced the sporting coat and blazer of the early 1900s. Softer, warmer (or cooler depending on the knit) and more affordable, it was loved by all classes — working and gentlemen equally.
Mens 1920s Winter Sweaters
The men’s heavy knit wool sweater was fashioned after fishermen from Normandy. It was worn as a layer under even heavier raincoats. Its working-class beginnings suddenly became popular when the British and especially French adopted and adapted the style. The French gave the sweater its name, or rather three names for each eight weight. The “sweater” is a lightweight wool knit garment. The “pullover” is of a warmer medium weight. The “chandail” is a heavy wool worn by vegetable sellers in French markets- a favorite style with Picasso and artistic types.
Sweaters came in a variety of styles to go with each weight. The heavy Shaker shawl collar sweater with thick waistband and cuff ribbing was a favorite throughout the decade. It was especially common in shades of brown. College men adopted it wearing college colors and letters on the front pockets. The shawl collar could be folded up the neck and buttoned high to keep cold air out. Lighter weight versions of the button up sweater coat lacked a heavy collar and instead were of fine knit and thick ribbed cuffs and trims. This is the style that is often called a Cardigan sweater in women’s wear, and years later in menswear, too.
Mens Pullover Sweaters
The pullover sweater with a V-neck was hugely popular among the “flamming youth.” Available in heavy and light weights in what was a true spectacle of bright colors and loud patterns. One reporter said they were “bright enough to stop traffic.” These vibrant colors were tans, greys, canary yellow, orange-brown, sky blue, royal blue and emerald green. Patterns were large checks, zig zags, plaids, and wide horizontal stripes. One brief trend in the mid-1920s was for gaudy diamond pattern sweaters. A blue diamond pattern against a mauve background is one such example of clashing colors. These certainly made a statement, but as with all fads they quickly left again. By the late 1920s, the trend was for small patterns in still gaudy but tamer color combinations.
The Fair Isle sweater is one of these more reasonable patterns. It came in a V-neck pullover style with patterned stripes where each row is a different pattern. They were busy but festive. The prince of Wales wore them on and off the golf course, so naturally all men followed.
Beside big patterns losing favor, the V-neck also became “last season” when the round crew collar swept college campuses on the East coast. Colors were still bright but with many mid-shades of blues and greens to soften them. The solid color sweater also came back again in the late 1920s giving up patterns altogether going into the 1930s. The ’20s crew neck sweater would soon lead menswear into the crew neck T-shirt revolution of the ’40s and onward.
Besides golf men’s sweaters were adopted by all sportsmen. The cricket sweater with vertical cable knit cream or white panels and contracting blue V-neck trim in Britain became a classic men’s Tennis sweater in the USA. Tennis star Bill Tilden wore them before and after games, making it the most common publicity look for him.
The tennis star look was adopted by all upper class men as a summer casual uniform. The white sweater was too easily dirtied for working class men who preferred the more rugged Fair Isle and small prints sweaters.
1920s Sweater Back in Fashion
Ralph Lauren borrowed 1920s menswear designs for the 2012 fall runway. He used a lot of heavy knit sweaters, especially with shawl collars in both men’s and women’s lines. Other designers followed his lead and today we are seeing a revival of 1920s style men’s sweaters. Grab one while you can because I don’t see this trend coming back anytime soon: