Reader Request: How to Wear Cardigans

how to wear cardigans

Bubu threw this request into the Suggestion Box:

I would love a post on cardigans – long short, crew, v-neck, straight, flyaway, ruffly, etc- how to pair then, layer them, what shapes work better on different heights, different builds, etc.

Gah. That’s a LOT to tackle in one post. Luckily, I’ve already written a post that should address the pairing question: This piece on layering necklines will help you figure out which cardigan will play nicely with which underlayer. Though I’ll try to dig into that question a bit more here, too.

As for which shapes work on which bodies, I can’t really generalize. As always, it’s going to depend on a thousand highly personal factors including shoulder span, bust size, waist width and placement, torso length, arm length, personal figure flattery priorities, and (of course) taste. So what I’ll do is run through the basic shapes of cardigans that I own and wear, and explain why they work for me, which may illuminate some reasons why the same styles might or might not work for YOU.


Already Pretty outfit featuring red cropped cardigan, black tank, Kate Spade windowpane print skirt, Rebecca Minkoff MAB Mini, black pumps, black belt, Alivia May crystal necklace

WHAT ARE THEY: Cropped cardigans have hemlines that fall at or above your natural waist (the smallest point on your torso).

WHAT DO THEY DO: Cropped cardigans will draw the eye to your waist, or the point on your torso where their hem falls. They may also make your bust look bigger or smaller, depending on the cardigan shape and how it interacts with your actual boobs.

WHAT TO PAIR WITH THEM: Although I will occasionally do a cropped cardigan with slim-fitting pants, I generally prefer them with skirts and dresses.


Already Pretty outfit featuring navy cardigan, red knit dress, brown leather belt, Radley handbag, pearl necklace

WHAT ARE THEY: Short, tailored cardigans fall at high or mid-hip and sit fairly close to your torso, even when worn open.

WHAT DO THEY DO: Short, tailored cardigans will draw the eye to their hem – just as cropped ones will – especially when worn over a contrasting color. If they are seamed and fairly heavy in weight, they can help define a waistline when buttoned over a loose top. They’ll interact differently with different busts, but they flatten mine out visually.

WHAT TO PAIR WITH THEM: I have owned many of this style of cardigan, and wore mine with everything from leggings and tank dresses to jeans, to sheaths and full-skirted dresses. However that hem-attention-drawing thing means that this style of garment brings the eye right to my hips, my widest part. To balance that, I make sure to purchase styles that are pretty durned fitted OR wear them with a few buttons done up. That way, they cinch my waist and flare out a bit over my hips.

Already Pretty outfit featuring animal print cardigan


Already Pretty outfit featuring zebra cardigan

WHAT ARE THEY: Short, drapey cardigans generally fall at mid- or low-hip and have less structure than tailored and fitted versions. They may have a cascading opening, ruffles, or folds where there would normally be a placket and buttons.

WHAT DO THEY DO: Short, drapey cardigans … well, there are a LOT of different types that will do a lot of different things to a lot of different bodies. How’s that for a cop-out? I have only ever owned one myself – this zebra-print number that was consigned years ago – and since it has a pointed hem in the front it helps draw the eye vertically along my torso. If it had a blunt, straight hem it would draw the eye right to its own endpoint. Short, drapey cardigans may add volume around the midsection and aren’t terribly helpful with accentuating waistlines.

WHAT TO PAIR WITH THEM: Since this style is pretty voluminous by nature, I always wore mine with fitted garments. Sheath dresses and cigarette pants both work well, as would skinny or straight-leg jeans.


Already Pretty outfit featuring yellow boyfriend cardigan, star print tunic, skinny jeans, Frye Vera Slouch boots, J.W. Hulme bag

WHAT ARE THEY: Long, straight cardigans hit below the hip and have a straight or fitted shape. This is the style that many mall stores deem the “boyfriend cardigan.”

WHAT DO THEY DO: Long, straight cardigans can definitely affect your perceived height, especially if they hit low on your thigh and are worn with pants. Shortening effects can be mitigated with heels, if you like. This style has a long, straight opening and therefore draws the eye vertically along your body, but can also serve to mask the waistline since it’s often a non-tailored garment. Fastening one or two buttons can help carve out a waist, as can belting your under-layer.

WHAT TO PAIR WITH THEM: Although I have occasionally do a long, straight cardigan with a dress, I generally prefer slim-fitting pants, tunics, and leggings with this style.


Already Pretty outfit featuring purple draped cardigan, notch neck tunic, ponte pants, Frye Harness 12R, Infrared Studio skull earrings

WHAT ARE THEY: Long, drapey cardigans hit below the hip and have less structure than their straight-cut cousins. Like shorter versions, they may have a cascading opening, ruffles, or folds where there would normally be a placket and buttons.

WHAT DO THEY DO: Depending on cardigan length and body configuration, this style of cardigan can mask or distract from midsection lumps and bumps. But it may also add midsection volume, so be aware! This style can be belted on some figures.

WHAT TO PAIR WITH THEM: I’ve worn this style belted over slim-fitting pants, open over tunics and skinnies or leggings.

This list is not even REMOTELY exhaustive, of course, but hopefully it’ll give you some ideas for the basics!

Top image courtesy J.Crew.

Originally posted 2011-06-03 06:25:21.

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51 Responses to “Reader Request: How to Wear Cardigans”

  1. Silvia

    Thank you for this post! It’s so inspiring, now I want to go cardigan shopping!

    (And I wanted to spend less money (not only on clothes), at least for the time being…)

  2. K-Line

    Is there anything as ineffable as a slim cardigan? Ones that shouldn’t work (short, crew) can work really well under the right circumstances and if it manages to work with my proportions.

    I would say the key factor in a cardi (again, generalizing), is fit in the shoulders / neck/ upper arm area. If it doesn’t skim beautifully there (which is to say slimly but not tightly), chances are the rest of the sweater will not look great on.

  3. threegoodrats

    I love love love cardigans in all their forms! (I am also a librarian – coincidence? I think not.) Recently I knit one in bright orange and it is my new favorite. Take a peek here: Cardigans are my favorite clothing to thrift because I find such interesting variety. At my favorite thrift shop I’ve found a short tailored grey one nice enough to wear to job interviews, a festive red beaded one, a long flowy teal one and a cropped teal bolero…they are all so wonderful! They are appropriate any time of year because they can be worn as a layer in the winter OR to combat overzealous air conditioning in the summer. Cardigans are the best!

  4. Carrie

    I also heart the cardigan! Interestingly, in the past year, I started wearing much longer and looser ones over my outfits on the days when I was teaching (I’m a professor). I used to wear much shorter/smaller/more fitted cardis on teaching days, but last year I had a couple of incidents of male students staring at my body so much in class that I grew uncomfortable and actually altered my clothing choices on teaching days to conceal rather than foreground my hourglass figure. (Obviously there are some issues here that need to be addressed.)

    Outside the classroom, though (i.e., out on dates with my boyfriend, or hanging out with friends) I continue to rock the shorter fitted cardigans that do highlight my shape. Cardigans truly are the panacea for all of life’s woes! What other garment can accommodate both body insecurity AND body confidence? 😉

  5. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    Love, love, LOVE the color of that J Crew cardigan!

    I missed the guide to layering necklines in the fall–thanks for the link. I thought it was against the “rules” (I know! Gasp! But I DO care about breaking them!) to wear a jewel neck over a v-neck. But your lovely picture of the black cardigan over grey vneck proves otherwise. I have a gazillion v-neck tees so my layering options just shot way up!

  6. Chrysta

    I love cardigans- they are my favorite go-to item in my wardrobe. I only wish I had more colors and styles and I’m working to beef up my cardigan collection.

    Cardis are especially great for me because I have a very large bust and, as such, I have an extremely difficult time wearing any tops that don’t have stretch. Most blouses and dresses are out because they never quite fit right. I can throw a cardigan over a knit or knit-blend shirt, top it off with great accessories and my look goes from casual to dressy.

    Thanks for this great post on cardigans!

  7. Miss T

    You’ve had a lot of great posts and links lately about dressing a full bust line, and as I read this morning’s post, I suddenly realized that cardigans are the one garment that I have failed to integrate successfully in my wardrobe because on me — 5’2″, 36DD — they look AWFUL. And Lord knows I have tried: long, short, V-neck, fluttery hems, you name it. It’s just a proportion thing, not to mention they won’t stay closed over my bust. But, I enjoy looking at the different ways you’ve styled them here!

    • Loren

      I have the same problem! I thought I was the only person that looked bad in a cardigan. I’m a similar shape about 5’1″, 32D, it doesn’t seem to mater which style of cardigan I put on it just always looks like .
      I blame my short shoulders but really I’m not sure what the problem is.
      On the plus side I don’t think I’ve met a blazer I didn’t like.

    • Halo

      Admittedly, I’m taller at 5’8″, but I’m really busty (38G), but cardigans work nicely for me. I mostly wear dresses, and the cropped cardis (short sleeved are my faves) work to give me the impression of a smaller waist because they hit me just above my natural waist at my narrowest point. I’m never going to minimize my bust, but wearing a structured bra that hoists me up also helps with fit. I tend to wear cardigans that fit snugly, but I either don’t button them up or just fasten one or two buttons. Your milage may vary!

    • Linda

      Hmm, I am your boob twin, just two inches taller. I wear cardigans all the time, but I never even try to button the all the way up. I just do the few buttons in the middle. Jackets almost never work for me, though.

    • Chrysta

      I commented this morning that as a well endowed gal cardigans are my go-to wardrobe staple! I can pair them over knits or a cami that might otherwise look too casual for work.

      Though I agree, I don’t wear my cardis buttoned over my bust. If they are big enough to button over my bust they are so big they hang off me like a robe. What I do instead is buy a smaller size (usually a Medium) and belt over or under the completely unbuttoned cardigan, or button 2 or 3 of the middle buttons, usually just underneath my bust which creates a slimming look.

  8. Andi

    I find that short, fitted cardigans are the best thing to wear over dresses that have a slightly higher waistline. I’m often cold and/or self-conscious, and I end up wearing a lot more of my summer dresses if I throw a little cardi over the shoulders.

    Mid-length are the best when I want to rock a little rockabilly vibe. I prefer those with full or circle skirts.

    I have never liked long cardigans for the same reasons I don’t wear long tunics — I have a long torso/short legs combo and I need to break up my torso line or risk looking very, very squat in a funhouse mirror way.

  9. Deena

    Thank you! Thank you! These posts that help educate my eye are so helpful.

    It took me years to realize that my favored long cardigans weren’t hiding my pear-shaped hips—they were accentuating them by creating a horizontal line at my widest point. I could tell that the effect was disappointing, but I thought it was simply the best that could be done with big upper thighs. It was your blog that helped me realize there was a better way. And now I have a small collection of cropped and short cardigans that I wear all the time; they highlight my smallish waist and let my pear portion gently recede. The difference is amazing.

  10. Kat

    As usual, big boobs make everything difficult. I can’t usually pull off cardigans–the soft, drapey material means that either the buttons pull unattractively or the entire garment hangs off my bust like a theater curtain and masks my waist. (I will sometimes wear one loose and oversized the same way I’d wear a jacket, because they’re nice to stash in your bag for buildings that are kept at the temperature of a penguin enclosure even in mid-summer, but it’s functional rather than flattering.)

    I have occasionally had luck with a medium-length drapey cardigan, held together under the bust with a brooch or belted at the waist.

  11. Anne @ The Frump Factor

    You’ve inspired me to keep trying, because I have yet to find a cardigan that works on me! (I suspect my “Inverted triangle” body type, combined with very long waist, may be factors). They always seem to look too boxy on me, or they just cling to my torso and sit there awkwardly, or the neckline interferes with everything I try to pair it with. But your tips might help! I think I may need to go long — but I kind of love that short, fitted black one with the large buttons that you are wearing!

  12. MJ

    I’ve become a huge fan of drapey or bolero cropped cardigans worn with sweater clips to help keep them together. I also have a few convertible cardigans that would definitely fall under long & drapey. I love how versatile they are. Tied in the front, the back, draped over one shoulder or just worn loose; they are true workhorses.

  13. Annika

    Thank you, thank you for coming up with such inspiring posts ! I love cardigans as I live in a cold climate and very easily get cold. Layering is a necessity for me and thus I am often in a cardigan. My favorite one is in thin wool, a true wrap style that you tie around the waist.
    The cardigan at the top has my favorite color, where did you get it ?

    • Sal

      The image of the cardigan alone at the very top of the post is from J.Crew. The pink cardigan I’m wearing in the first portrait is thrifted, originally from Old Navy.

      • Annika

        Thank you ! ( again ) , after hitting send on the comment I noticed that you had indeed mentioned that it is from J. Crew already. I keep looking at it because of the color 🙂

  14. Stacy

    I have been reluctant to try a flowy cardigan because I tend to look like I’m wearing my mommy’s clothes when I wear items that aren’t fitted, but your tips have convinced me to try again. I prefer short, fitted, cropped cardigans with 3/4 length sleeves and wear them with just about everything in my chilly office (dresses, skirts, slacks…and today with a pair of black jeans and cowboy boots). Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pull off the boyfriend cardigan because I’m just too short and petite. Darn. Thanks for the great tips and the push to look outside my cardigan comfort zone!

  15. Jan

    Hi Sal! As an Already Pretty fan from California I am excited to be in your beautiful city this weekend (we came for a wedding). We are staying in the heart of downtown – I will keep my eyes peeled for you on your bike as we explore!

  16. Marisa

    I’m curious about wearing belts over cardigans. It’s a look that I’ve never quite been able to pull off – I always feel like I look silly and overdone, and take off the belt before I leave the house. Maybe I don’t have the right type of belt? Or the right type of cardigan? Possibly that just isn’t a good look for short, busty women?

    • Sal

      Marisa, belted cardigans can be tricky, especially for short, busty women. If your torso is also short, a skinny belt will help keep from shortening it more … but depending on how your built a skinny belt over several layers can cause bunching. Wide belts are best left to the long-of-torso. Try a 2″ wide belt (or so), and experiment with materials: Ribbon, scarves, elastic. Don’t confine yourself to stiff leather.

      In my experience the two cardigan types that work best belted are lightweight waterfall-front (the open kind with no buttons), and cardigans that already have some heft and structure on their own. In the first case, you’re going to be cinching a formless garment so any resulting draping won’t look too odd. In the second case, you’re pretty much just highlighting your waist and as long as you don’t pull the belt too tightly, it will sit flat and quiet on your torso. I’ve never successfully belted a long/boyfriend cardigan, cropped cardigan, or a lightweight mid-length cardigan of any kind. All of them just bunch weirdly.

      For belted cardigan ideas, I suggest checking out Academichic: Those gals all belt their outer layers, and do so beautifully.

      • Marisa

        Thanks, Sal! I hadn’t thought about ribbon/scarves – I’ll give some softer materials a go.

  17. pomomama

    there’s no such thing as too many cardigans, so i loved this post.

    one style detail i’ve learned to assess before grabbing from the rack is V-neck vs. round neck. somehow, a round neck makes me look very top heavy and matronly, while a V-neck seems to divide and conquer my bustline

  18. Anne

    I love my cardis, in fact, I’m thinking about looking for a 12 step program to curb my habit. I have mostly crew neck cardis that hit at the top of the hip, but I continue to look for the the perfect v-neck ribbed cardigan to replace the one I wore to shreds. I guess I will have to rethink the boyfriend cardi with skinny jeans look that I have been sporting lately.

  19. Stacy aka Stacybeads

    I’m a huge cardigan fan. Don’t know what I’d do without mine. In the climate where I live (Atlanta), they’re in my rotation pretty much year-round. In summer they’re necessary for overly air-conditioned interiors, and in winter there are some days where it’s warm enough to wear them instead of a coat.

  20. joann, sidewalk chic

    I didn’t realize there were so many cardigan styles to think about/choose from. I tend to go for medium-sized, drape-y cardigans because I like crossing the ends over and belting it. I do like the look of the short and fitted ones you have above — it looks very tailored and polished. Cardigans are kind of hard for me to buy because I tend to shrink them in the wash…

  21. Joni

    Thanks for this! A couple of insights from my experience: I have a long torso so I tend to avoid shorter cropped styles as that tends to exaggerate my torso length–although this is less of a problem with dresses than with trousers or jeans. I also wanted to make an addition that the right loose flowy cardigan can look great belted at the waist with wide leg looser-fitting trousers or trouser jeans. This look works best for me with a wider stretchy belt that allows me to adjust the drape and placement of the belt and then stays put. I find it so helpful to just play with proportions and see what works.

  22. Bubu

    Thank you thank you thank you! Since I’m the one who hit you with this admittedly crazy-broad and far-reaching question, I want to thank you for a great post that gave me a lot of really helpful tips -and thanks also for all the comments which gave me more info to go on. I’ve been experimenting a lot and I am finding that with my short, hourglass frame, plus broad shoulders and short neck, that V-necks on almost everything are better, including cardis. I also am gravitating to ones with one-button closures over the bust or just below, so that they don’t fall open all the time, but close just over the narrow part of the body. Or I just button the top button on the V and let the rest hang open. Both work well. In the warmer weather I have loved the long v-neck cardi over t-shirt with long scarf, straight jeans and flats- never thought that would work on my figure, but actually does, and gives me more mileage on my straight jeans now that it’s too warm for boots. You’re the best Sal!!!

  23. Laura

    The traditional cardigan neckline is a crewneck, but I’ve found that I need to stick to v-necks. Much more flattering on me and works with layering. They are less common but available if you have patience.

    Long cardigans always seem like a good idea to me, but in practice they seem to add bulk to my lower half, and elide my waistline. I have not had much luck with wearing belts with them. Cropped and hip-length cardigans that follow my curves, however, are some of my most-worn garments.

  24. lisa

    I tried the drapey cardigans for a while, but always went back to my short and tailored ones. They just suit me and the rest of my wardrobe so much better.

  25. sartoriography

    Cardigans- who can live without them? Chicago is a cardigan mecca. What with the constantly changing temperatures and the unpredictable heating/cooling systems, I carry a cardigan with me basically everywhere I go. This post is the perfect description of all the way one can (and should!) wear a cardigan and all the options contained w/in the one name. Cardigans: not just your grandpa’s sweater.

  26. Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    Who knew that there were that many types of cardigans? Thanks for the round-up, all very helpful. I love it when you do these posts.

    PS Thanks for your lovely comments recently. They have really cheered my days.

  27. Jen

    I wear cardigans EVERY day. (I also wear dresses every day.) I tend to prefer either a slim, waist length dark cardigan, or a long, slouchy knitted one in a neutral tone. I used to wear cropped ones regularly until my boobs got a lil bigger…..beware the cropped cardigan if you have a large bosom, I say!

  28. Angeline

    Great post! I do love cardigans. I find that on my 5’4 straight frame, I like fitted cardigans and drapey cardigans best. I feel like the cropped and long straight ones cut off my body in an unflattering way (but it doesn’t stop me from wearing them…just good to know). The drapey ones are a short-gal’s best friend, I think, because it elongates the line of the body very well.

  29. mariah

    Hi Sal
    Love the brown lace up pumps under the “short and tailored” photo – can you link back to the original post? I’d love to know what brand/style they are! 🙂

    • Sal

      Oh gosh, Mariah, not sure I can find the post, but I can tell you about the shoes! Those are Tsubo Nabu pumps, and they’re a couple of years old … but they turn up on eBay every so often. Track ’em down! They’re super comfy and run true to size. Drop me a note if you’d like more details.

  30. Andie

    I simply adore cardigans there is nothing more simple and girly in my opinion but when it comes to wearing them I admit I am at a loss. I thank you and my wardrobe thanks you!

  31. Anonymous

    You got me right into cardigans! Today I am wearing a long lamswool white cardigandress, with a pink soft crweneck cardigan over it. And I love it!

  32. anne

    Thank you for this post. i really appreciate it and learned many different ways of matching my cardigans. i have a few of it stored in my closet and dont wear them much afraid that i dont look good on them. but thank you for these tips ill bring those cardigan out and wear them.

  33. clare

    I am looking for the fake cardigan that mimics the look of wearing the cardigan on your back and tying the sleeves in the front (like old fashioned tennis players) It’s just the back of the sweater, collar and fake sleeves, I can’t remember the fashion term so I can’t find it. Help?

    • Sally

      Oh my gosh, Clare, I didn’t know such a thing existed! If I can find out more, I will try to get back to you as soon as I can …