The Corporette Guide to Cardigans

2015 Update: Check out our new and improved guide to cardigans for work

Someone recently wrote to us, flummoxed over how to wear a cardigan. We looove cardigans, particularly in the summer, and so we thought we’d do a quick and dirty guide to cardigans…

cardigans for work.indexed1. Banded. These cardigans have some banding at the bottom and (usually) on the sleeves, which makes their shape a bit blousy or boxy. They can come with a matching shell for a twinset look, or be worn by themselves with, for example, a button-front shirt or blouse, or a nice tank or tee (such as the cardi pictured, Neon cotton bling-button cardigan, available at for $49). Because these kinds of cardis have their own shape, they’re less than ideal for wearing with dresses, and, for our $.02, best with pants. If the twinset is very boxy (think a more Jackie O cut), then they can be worn over your shoulders, almost like a cape (we’re still searching for a good picture). Other examples: Patterson J. Kincaid ‘Luanna’ Cardigan (available at Nordstrom for $88), Banana Republic Long sleeve silk-back cardigan ($70), or Old Navy Womens Pointelle-Trim Cardigans ($26.59).
cardigans for work 2.indexed2. Normal — not banded. For our $.02, these are the “normal” cardigans we stock up on — they hit at mid-hip, and should be fitted to be somewhat tight to your body (we prefer silk sweaters because they keep their shape better than cotton, but polyester blends can also be good).  They  may come as a v-neck, a split-neck, a scoopneck, or a crewneck. They’re often sold as twinsets (such as the Talbots set pictured, Refined cardigan sweater ($69) — also look for brands like August Silk at spots like Filene’s and TJ Maxx), but the cardigan can be worn with dresses, skirts, and pants. If you button the cardigan it can be worn as a sweater by itself (tip: wear a cami beneath it in case the buttons gape), worn under a blazer, or even belted. Worn open, they can be layered on top of tees, tanks, or button-front shirts. Michelle Obama’s closed some of her cardigans with a brooch, which can be a great way to add personality. These cardigans are perfect in the summer because they’re so versatile and are super easy to transport — just button the top button and the bottom button, and wear it over your shoulders while commuting. (This is easier if the sleeves are full, not three-quarter length.) They’re great to add contrasting color, to mute a loud pattern in a dress or blouse, or add a color to a drab ensemble. While they don’t add a lot of authority the way a blazer does, they do add warmth, and are a perfectly acceptable look for the office.  Other examples: Miu Miu Cashmere and silk-blend cardigan (available at for $450), Cashmere Georgette Trim Cardigan (available at Anne Klein for $118), Pink Tartan Pima Cotton Cable Knit Cardigan (available at SmartBargains for $56), or Old Navy Womens Floral-Print Cardigans ($26.50).
cardigans for work 33. Structured, shrunken. This is one of our favorite kinds of cardigans: the structured cardigan that might look a little shrunken.  These are almost like a blazer, but made out of a sweater material instead — they still convey authority, but in a friendly way.  We love to wear ours with dresses or skirts (A-line or straight), or with wide trousers.  (On the weekends, we love to wear them with a longish, untucked top and jeans.)  These are best kept at the office or worn on a day when the temperature is going to be pretty constant — they can be a pain to transport because they’re too bulky to put in your bag, and they’re really not intended for wearing over your shoulders.  Pictured: Merino Wool Full Milano Jacket, available at Brooks Brothers for $144 (was $288).  Other examples: T by Alexander Wang Knit Blazer (available at Nordstrom for $165), Quotation: 525 America Silver Button Knit Jacket (available at Bloomingdale’s for $59).
cardigans for office4. Boyfriend cardi. This is also one of our favorites — these are long cardigans that might look or feel a bit like a doctor’s coat.  Depending on your outfit, they can be great paired with low-volume bottoms like straight pants, pencil skirts, and simple sheaths.  We like pairing them with a long necklace, as well.  A note on belts — these may come with a belt, which, if you don’t like belts, you can just tie behind the sweater (this also gives it a more “nipped in” look than the sweater may have otherwise). If you prefer belts, though, a skinny belt or a wide belt can work with these kinds of sweaters.  Pictured: MARC BY MARC JACOBS ‘Ainslie’ Cardigan (available at Nordstrom for $198). Other examples: Marc by Marc Jacobs Wushishi Sweater (available at ShopBop for $160 (was $228)), Tory Burch ‘Simone’ Merino Wool Cardigan (available at Nordstrom for $225).
cardigans for office 55. Draped  cardi. These are looser, and have more volume than a boyfriend cardi, but are just as long.  These might be a little too casual for some offices (at least, worn open), but they can have a great, bloused look when paired with a wide belt.  Because there’s so much volume with the cardigan, you want to keep your other pieces as sleek as possible. Pictured: Rebecca Taylor Waterfall Cardigan(available at ShopBop for $350).   Other examples: Flyaway Cardigan (available at Anne Klein for $66 (was $89), Open Front Cardigan (available at Ann Taylor for $68).
cardigans for work 66. The Shrug. This is the other major kind of sweater that, we think, every woman should have in her closet: the shrug.  These aren’t great for the office, if only because they’re so great for after hours.  These are short, cropped sweaters that, in theory, only cover your arms and your shoulders.  Because your back can be exposed (depending on the cut of your dress and the cardigan), they can be a little sexy — it’s also a nice way to take a simple sheath dress to an after-dinner party, by adding a slightly fancy shrug (check out Brianna Beaded Crochet Shrug, available at Saks for $396). Pictured: Open Front Cardigan (available at Anne Klein for $51). Another example: DKNY Linen Shrug (available at ShopBop for $125).

Okay, ladies — those are our 6 must-have cardigans and how we wear them. What are yours? Did we miss any major ones?


  1. Interrobang :

    The Aran handknit cardigan, paired with tweeds, for the times excessive air conditioning has turned your office into a frigid Shackleton-scape, and you want to make your disapproval known.

    The sweater-coat, belted or not, because respecting the season means, sometimes, nothing else will do.

    The Mr. Interrobang’s varsity letter sweater, while he’s in Edwardian full-length beaver at Harvard-Yale, for old time’s sake.

  2. Cat – great, useful post.

  3. This was so helpful, Kat. Thanks!

  4. One caveat – while perhaps less attractive, the banded sleeves are great for us shorter-limbed Corporettes!

  5. gorilla body :

    does anyone have a preferred brand for “normal” cardigans that work well for the long-limbed and long-waisted (and big-busted, while we’re at it)? my larger chest makes wearing most sweaters (except some v-necks) either unflattering or downright pornographic, and my proportions make about 90 % of cardigans into 3/4-to-bracelet sleeved, cropped affairs. I have plenty of boyfriend cardigans, PLENTY of banded/cropped cardigans (go from natural waist to right below belly button), and one lonely caslon brand cashmere “normal” cardigan that is almost the perfect length, soft, and durable. i bought this one about 5 years ago, and while it’s still in great shape, i’d like more colors. budget not an issue, but i’d rather pay for craftsmanship than a name.

    • I’m 6′ tall and I have a D cup chest, so I feel you. Check out Banana/Gap/Old Navy’s sweaters in the “Tall” category for women. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the Old Navy cardigans from there that I got a few seasons ago and I even accidentally washed one from Gap and the sleeves were still long enough.

      As you can see, I’m pretty tough on my cardigans, so I don’t mind paying for Banana/Gap/Old Navy quality when I know they won’t last a lifetime with me as an owner as it is.

      • Err, I accidentally dried the one from the Gap. I wash them all. Stupid Mondays.

    • I’ve had good luck with the Liz Baker cardis from JC Penney. If you order online they come in tall and the sleeves stay long enough even after several washings.|71638

  6. I am confused…what makes #1 “banded” and #2 not “banded”? The bottoms and the bottoms of the sleeves on both look similar to me (i.e., there is some vertical ribbing at the bottom)

    • Maybe Kat didn’t notice the banding on #2? I didn’t really see it until I clicked through to see it on the website.

      • I would also add that, while I wouldn’t use #2 as an example of non-banded (since it does have a band if you look closely), I also wouldn’t use it as an example of a traditional banded cardigan, since the band appears to be slimmer and roughly the same tightness as the body of the sweater, whereas, as Kat points out, with banded sweaters, the body is more boxy, which creates a tiny bit of blousiness before the band.

        • Thanks…I was so confused because I couldn’t tell what was different between the two.

  7. This is a wonderful post. I have many, many cardigans and have never broken down why some work in certain outfits and others don’t. This makes so much sense!

    I bought two of the Nordstrom BP 3/4 length cardigans based on a recommendation on corporette and love them. They are in the #2 category, and they look adorable buttoned up with skirts. They come in a million colors and are so cheap. I don’t expect them to last more than year, although thus far they look great after the first few washes. Held up better than the Zara cardigans that I usually buy once a year to inject new color into my wardrobe. For the tall poster above, I am 5’10” and long waisted and they come to my hip bone (which I like for wearing with skirts, but doesn’t look right with pants).

    • NYC – do you have the link to the BP cardigans? I recently bought a Halogen cardigan which I like, but am still looking around to see if I find something I like more.

  8. How do you wear a cardigan over a button down? I’ve never been able to do it without it looking all crinkly underneath. I’ve tried heavier ways, holding on tight to the cuffs of the shirt while I pull my arms through the cardigan, etc — it just seems like too much material.

    • In summer, I wear cardigans over sleeveless blouses — love them!

      Would appreciate any tips w/r/t long-sleeve shirts, though — I have the same issue. If I buy the sleeves tight enough to lie smoothly, the front is, shall we say, obscene. (And my cardigans aren’t super-tight — maybe I shouldn’t expect the same cardigan to work both over bare arms and shirts??)

    • The only way I have ever gotten this to work (actually with a regular sweater, not a cardigan), is to use a thin sweater that is too big for me otherwise over a button front that fits pretty snugly. But even then I have to hold onto the ends of the sleeves of the button front when putting the sweater on, and then arrange the collar and tug on the bottom of the button down a lot to get everything to lie right. And even then it still *feels* like a lot of fabric, even though it looks fine.

    • The way that I do it is to wear a blouse that’s a little bit too small to wear without the cardigan. Then it’s snug under the cardigan and it is smooth. But you have to be okay with owning some blouses that aren’t acceptable without the cardigan. They’re also great for under vests/sweater vests when the trend is appropriate.

      • Or just hang on to a still-in-good shape shirt that doesn’t *exactly* fit anymore. Guilty of that one a time or two here. ;)

    • The key is to not buy cotton shirts b/c they will never lie flat under the sweater. I prefer knit or jersey blouses for this reason – more versatile.

  9. Chicago K :

    Ooo, great post and thank you Kat!

    While I wasn’t the reader who wrote in, I have certainly mused on here that I wished you would write this guide. Cardigans make a lot more sense now!

  10. One thing to consider with twinsets is that you want to keep the two pieces on roughly the same laundering schedule. Otherwise, they’ll fade or pill at different rates, and it’ll be horribly obvious when you wear them together.

  11. Does anyone still wear shrugs? They’re never terribly flattering.

    • I’ve never cared for shrugs–even if it could look good on someone, the shrug itself looks ridiculous.

    • I bought one, have never worn it. It hasn’t looked right on me, no matter how I’ve tried. It’s in the Goodwill pile now.

  12. @ Liz – It must be a matter of body shape. Shrugs look horrible on me. They add 15 lbs at best. My sister, however, looks 15 lbs thinner in them. We are both plus size, but she is pear shaped and I am apple shaped. My mom, thin but apple shaped, cannot wear a shrug either. We were both so envious of my sis a few years ago when cute shrugs were in what seemed like every clothing store.

    • ^It must be body shape. I’m a pear or hourglass depending on how faithful my fitness regimen has been and shrugs look AMAZING with every outfit. My girl friends who are apple shaped do look very uncomfortable in them, and friends who are stick-thin and straight bodied look a bit military in them.

  13. Kat, I’m the one who wrote you with this question. Thank you! It’s very helpful to get an overview of cardigans and what types to wear with what outfits.

  14. I am actually have an issue related to this, and was wondering if faithful readers have any advice: I would love to find some simple fitted knit tops that I can wear under my cardigans, in basic colors, to change things up when I don’t want to wear a twinset.

    The problem I run into is that I do have a large chest, and fabrics in many places are incredibly thin. I’ve tried the usual suspects: Ann Taylor, Loft, J. Crew, Gap, Old Navy, Banana, and every time, the fabric is too darn thin — it’s either see-through when stretched across my chest, or just looks inappropriate. Can anyone recommend a more substantial knit brand, but something that is still fitted enough that it won’t add bulk under a cardigan?

    • nonny mouse :

      Brooks Brothers have been reliable for me. And their Semi-Annual 40% off sale is going on now.

    • my mom swears by the knit tops by coldwater creek (i know, not everyone’s favorite brand, but these are actually decent). i think this is the link:

      • Sorry, I should have noted that these can be on the boxy side – if you’re concerned, size down.

    • You might try Lands’ End or L.L.Bean – they have some more meduim-weight knits that are good quality. And both have good return policies!

  15. I think shrugs are only stylish for children just now. I have a type of sweater that is useful to throw over things and I think it looks better than a cardigan. It is from Orvis – it’s made of “tape yarn” and has just one big button – up top. Rolled sleeve bottoms and a rolled hemline at the bottom of sweater. So it sort of flares, looks good with pants, jeans and many skirts.

  16. nonny mouse :

    I tend to agree–“shrug” connotes 1998 to me–but I would call the pictured cardigan a bolero, not a shrug.