What’s not to love about the comfortable and casual sweater (jumper)? 1920s winter sweaters and cardigans for women were copied from menswear, and some of the styles looked identical throughout the 1920s. The sweater-coat was the latest craze, combining the heavy knit of a fisherman sweater with the styling for a short coat or jacket. Lighter sweater-blouses or over-blouses were worn in warmer months as casual alternatives to blouses. Sweaters were a part of the sporty boyish look sweeping through fashion in the roaring twenties.
Read about the progression of 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s sweaters here.
Knitted clothing was initially used for underwear. In the teens, however, women discovered that knitwear, including sweaters, made for good winter outerwear. Improvements in yarn and weaving made mass-produced sweaters softer, stretchier, and available in a wide variety of colors. Even with these improvements, sweaters were not the ultra-soft and cozy sweaters we wear today. 1920s sweaters were thick, scratchy (wool), and stiff. But they were new, fun, and far more comfortable than a sturdy fabric coat.
For years, Normandy fishermen wore wool cable knit shaker sweaters to keep warm. Both men and women adopted the look, wearing the sweater low on the hips. Most shaker sweaters had big shawl collars, a button-down front, a belt that buttoned in the front for the first few years before it was left out for the rest of the decade. They went by another name, sweater-coat, for their resemblance to short jackets instead of the traditional pullover sweater. A matching knit hat and scarf helped seal in the warmth on the coldest of days.
Pullover sweaters were equally common in thick shaker knits. They had short tuxedo collars or sailor collars. While some were hip length, most stretched down to mid-hip for the elongated 20s figure. Button belts or tie belts remained common for the first half of the decade. Popular colors were maroon, green, navy blue, brown, tan, raspberry, teal, and pink. The yarn was made of wool, silk, cotton or rayon.
The other popular sweater style was what we might call a wrap cardigan today. In the 1920s, it was called a tuxedo sweater. The tuxedo sweater had long roll lapels and a loose belt tie, designed not to close but to be worn partially open over a blouse. It was a light sweater for days at home or for springtime outside.
Coco Chanel put her stamp on the ladies’ cardigan, which led to the introduction of the cardigan jacket in 1925. She took the sweater-coat and combined it with a men’s jacket to include a notched collar. Later adaptions left off the collar, creating a button-down cardigan sweater with a simple ribbed neck and sleeves. Following the trend of the mid to late 1920s, these sweater-jackets came in elaborate knit patterns, clashing colors, and various thicknesses for winter to spring sportswear.
The Fair Isle sweater was made popular by the fashion icon the Prince of Wales, who was seen wearing one with his golf attire in 1922. Women began to wear them, too, and like men, they often wore them with knickers on the golf course. The women’s version of the sweater had a V neck, longer length, and a ribbed band narrowing the hem.
The Fair Isle pattern was detailed and unique, something a machine had yet to reproduce. Most Fair Isle sweaters were hand-knitted by women in Scotland and Ireland. They were sold to high-class men and women who could afford them. Patterns were produced for home knitters, and a few were sold in shops and catalogs- although the patterns were not as amazing as genuine Shetland knit sweaters. You can read more about Fair Isle sweaters here.
Novelty sweater designs took inspiration from other cultures besides the Emerald Isles. The “Indian” (Native American) patterns made for equally beautiful sweaters and knit blouses. For the home knitter, the patterns were simpler too.
Designs were also taken from the emerging Art Deco movement — particularly its Egyptian motifs, nature, and the Orient. Plaid, zig-zag, checks, and chalkboard each were popular weaves for mixing neutral or clashing colors.
Designers Jean Patou and Jane Régny took inspiration from the Cubist painters such as Delauney and Mondrian for their sweater designs. They used geometric shapes in bright color combinations, arranging them in scattered patterns. The sweaters were paired with coordinating skirts and cardigans for a complete knit suit ensemble.
Also inspired by Art Deco designs, Chanel created knit suits using more simple and balanced geometric patterns. Lines and triangles made up the bulk of her designs. Mainstream clothiers followed her lead in creating knitted goods, flannel dresses, and blouses that had the same Deco pattern blocking.
The final novelty design of the decade came from Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli who moved to Paris in 1928. Her “trompe l’oeil” (meaning “trick of the eye”) sweater was a black pullover with a white neckline and bow stitched into the pattern. See it here. It was widely copied.
The mainstream took some inspiration from these top fashion designers, often blending multiple styles and using cheaper techniques, such as embroidery or ribbon, instead of the knit-in design.
Coco Chanel first introduced the 1920s sweater-blouse when she wore a man’s sweater, pushed up the sleeves, and fastened a thin belt around the middle. This was one of her personal favorite looks, and it caught on quickly with women.
Sport blouses and overblouses were other names for cloth or knit pullover sweaters. They were designed for winter and spring wear, but no additional shirt was worn underneath. Instead of chunky winter shaker knits, they were woven in flat, thinner stitches. In summer the wave was opened up and worn over lingerie in matching or contrasting colors.
Lace or cotton collars and cuffs were often added to those light sweater-blouses, changing them as often as needed to keep them clean and white. Detachable dicky type collars could also be worn under the sweater-blouses. In the later years, unique contrasting trim fabrics were used to make cuffs, collars, neckties and pocket trim. They were often sold as a set with a skirt made out of the contrasting fabric and occasionally a blazer, too.
Some overblouses were offered in the new short-sleeve variety, a popular alternative to the traditional summer blouse. Weaves could be open or closed and either hung straight like a tunic or featured a waistband around the hip. These short sleeve sweater-blouse would re-appear again in the 1930s, in shorter lengths and modest necklines, creating the Polo shirt/sweater. Common colors were pale green, orange, burgundy red, salmon pink, peacock blue, golden yellow, and tan/ivory.
The short or long sleeve Vestee was a combination vest and tuxedo cardigan with a cord-tie belt. It was considerably shorter than other sweaters, making it fit more into the blouse category. Some came with fur cuffs and collars, while others had attached lace collars for spring.
From the cardigan sweater / jumper came the sleeveless coat sweater, or what we would call a knit vest today. Popular with golfers, the large open armholes allowed easy swinging of the clubs, yet were warm on the body for cooler mornings on the course. Some had deep V-necklines while others had a notch collar with long lapels.
Golfers liked sweaters, too. They favored the long cardigan sweater or short pullover sweater worn over a blouse. The pockets on the cardigan sweaters came in handy for carrying golf balls and gloves.
If golfing for a team, striped pullover sweaters in the school or club colors was trendy. These were also adopted by the mainstream in more generic colors to be worn anytime.
Tennis players also adopted the cardigan sweater and sweater-vest into their white uniforms.
The six-time Wimbledon champion set the tennis world on its ear with her “short” skirts and knit sweaters by Jean Patou (never mind the fact that she was also known to sip brandy instead of water between sets). Lenglen’s brightly colored sweaters matched the silk chiffon “Lenglen bandeau” that kept her bobbed haircut in place.
Women adapted the men’s tennis sweater or cricket sweater in white, blue, tan or grey. These were common sport team uniforms as well.
1920s Sweater Outfits
I was fortunate enough to find a late teen/early 1920s style sweater-coat at the thrift store, below. Many sweaters made in the 1970s were inspired by the 1920s look.
Chunky knit cardigans, geo print pullovers, fair isle sweaters, and shawl collar wraps are all back in fashion. These styles mimic the 1920s but with today’s updated materials. Look for longer length sweaters and pullover with a loose boxy fit. Add a detachable lace collar for a little something extra.
Some 1920s knit sweater patterns are included too: