2020 Update: We still stand by this general advice on how to find seasonless sweaters for the office — but you may also want to check out our more recent discussion of what to wear to work in the summer!
Is there a magical sweater you can buy that is seasonless — great for summer, great for winter, looks luxe, and retains its shape? In general, what do you look for in summer sweaters? Reader N asks:
It seems that many dresses are sleeveless or cap sleeved, and I am always searching for the right coverup for work. To that end, can you recommend a simple, well made light black cardigan? It seems that every single one I’ve purchased the last few years looks cheap and out of shape after more than a few wears.
We’ve haven’t done a hunt for black cardigans for a while — maybe soon! (Note that both the J.Crew one and DvF one, below, come in black, as does August Silk.) When it comes to shapeless sweaters, I haaaate cotton sweaters for that reason. If it’s a lightweight cotton sweater, it looks shapeless after just a few wears in the summer, and when I wash them I can never get them to look quite as nice as they first did on the rack. If it’s a chunkier cotton sweater in the winter, it’s the same thing — a misshapen mess. Wool is too heavy to be seasonless (although merino wool sweaters are often great purchases), and cashmere can be too expensive or delicate to throw into your bag and survive. So what’s a girl to do?
Psst: check out our updated Guide to Cardigans!
My favorite type of sweater for retaining shape — and being a great layering piece year round — is the silk cardigan. It holds its shape. It blocks the wind. It’s easy to throw around your neck and shoulders for a summertime commute and a freezing office (just button it first, otherwise it looks less like a preppy sweater and more like a cape). It’s just as easy to throw around your neck as a scarf/additional layering piece in the fall when you’re not quite sure how cold it’s going to be outside (or how blazing the radiators will be inside). In my experience, a silk cardigan is easily washed in the machine; doesn’t look too worn, too quickly; and doesn’t snag as quickly as polyester. A few tips:
- Look for 100% silk — if it’s blended with linen, wool, or cashmere, it won’t be as seasonless. A silk/cotton blend can be all right — it may make it more washable — but the higher the cotton percentage, the less it’ll hold its shape.
- Avoid less than full-length sleeves — if you want a sweater to truly be versatile you want to avoid sleeves that are too short to tie around your shoulders in the summer. You can still do it with 3/4 length sleeves, but a sweater with ballet length sleeves will get shoved in your bag.
A few options on the market right now (pictured at bottom):
- The classic: a twinset from Brooks Brothers. Silk and Cotton Cardigan, $128, available in four colors; the matching shell is $98. If you’re looking for a true investment, this style has been sold and in fashion for a looong time; in a conservative office like a law firm it’s hard to go wrong with it. (Incidentally: lots of nice suiting separates are available as part of their Spring Sale, as well as some nice basic pumps. This silk and cotton blend cardigan is part of the sale, down to $118.)
- J.Crew has a number of twinsets — this cotton/nylon blend is affordable ($45 today with code WEEKEND), but I prefer the featherweight cashmere. It’s offered as a twinset (online only, in a zillion colors), or, as pictured, this chic little waffle cardigan. Collection Featherweight Cashmere Waffle Cardigan Sweater, $158 today at J.Crew (five colors).
- DvF has a number of these slinky ballerina wrap sweaters out right now in various colors and textures. The neckline is super low by itself — but if you’re wearing it over a sheath dress or blouse, it should be fine. The pictured one (in black) is $268; it’s a cashmere/silk blend. Diane von Furstenberg ‘Ballerina’ Wrap Sweater
- Admittedly, the more affordable options have less silk, and more cotton and polyester in them. This Gap ribbed cardigan (pictured) looks nice for $20 (available in white, beige, and navy; it’s 55% cotton, 45% rayon, 5% silk). Macy’s also has a ton of silk-blend cardigans from August Silk available in regular and plus sizes for $24-$45; note that you can often find the brand August Silk at spots like TJ Maxx as well. In my experience, sweaters with less silk and more polyester tend to be less warm on a chilly night (they don’t block the summer wind as well, I think); they also tend to be prone to snagging — so evaluate carefully when buying. That said, I’ve had many August Silk sweaters over the years, and they’ve been workhorses.
Ladies, what are your favorite sweaters to wear to work in the summer? What do you look for when buying one? Do you find one color (black, white or cream, for example) tends to get more wear than others? How do you buy seasonless sweaters for the office?