The fashionable sweater

Today it's one of the most common wardrobe items for both men and women, so it's perhaps surprising that the sweater has only been worn as fashion since the 1920s. From then on, the sweater has taken many styles and been used by designers to make statements that go beyond the need for warmth and comfort.

The first sweaters

The sweater's origins lie in sportswear. It can be linked back to the 'guernsey' or 'gansey' sweaters worn by fishermen for warmth and protection. However, towards the end of the 19th century, it began to have wider appeal. Sporting activities – such as golf, boating, tennis and cycling – were growing in popularity and required comfortable outfits appropriate to the activity. Victorian campaigners further encouraged the wearing of less restrictive clothing, known as the rational dress movement. By the 1870s, male undershirts or vests made from knitted fabric of wool, cotton or wool blended with silk were being worn for sports. Called 'jerseys', they were widely adopted by athletes. As demand grew, companies such as John Smedley – which had started producing knitted garments in Derbyshire in the early 19th century – shifted their focus from knitted underwear to outerwear. Machine-knitting developments made such items both more affordable and more widely available.

The rise of the sweater in the 1920s and '30s

Throughout the 1920s and '30s, sweaters – also known as jumpers – grew in popularity. The Prince of Wales popularised the Fair Isle sweater when he wore one as part of his golfing attire in 1922, while the designer Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971) promoted the knitted jersey as everyday ware. This more relaxed attitude to dressing was cemented when the sweater made its first appearance in American Vogue in 1927.

The Museum holds a 'cravat' jumper, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973) to give the appearance of a scarf around the neck. Schiaparelli used the traditional skills of Armenian knitters living in Paris to make this witty design. It became such a success that it appeared in French Vogue and Schiaparelli followed up by creating further amusing, sometime outrageous, sweaters, including designs giving the impression of ties and handkerchiefs, tattoos and even a skeleton.

Schiaparelli cravat jumper
Cravat jumper, Elsa Schiaparelli, 1927, France. Museum no. T.388-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the early 1930s, sweaters were in such demand that Vogue launched the spin-off The Vogue Knitting Bible (later Vogue Knitting). The Scottish brand Pringle claimed to have invented the twinset (a matching jumper and cardigan) that same decade, while Mary Thomas' Knitting Book stated in 1938 that:

All ages have contributed their quota to the progress of knitting, and that contributed by the modern knitter is style. A modern knitted garment is not a thing to be dragged on for extra warmth but has, in its own right, a place in the world of fashion.

Mary Thomas, Knitting Book

The sweater boom years of the 1940s and '50s

During the Second World War, knitting was promoted as being vital for the war effort, while on the home front – in the face of fuel shortages – it was both practical and popular. Find out more about 1940s knitting patterns.

The Women's Home Industries was a post-war offshoot of the Women's Voluntary Services. The organisation, which had originally been formed to make "comforts for the troops", employed hand-knitters all over Britain and became known for its high quality, fashionable garments. An example of their work is the 'Molyneux' jumper (named in honour of the designer Edward Molyneux, although not designed by him), made in the early 1950s, with a fashionable open neck and three-quarter length dolman sleeves (where the sleeves are part of the main body of the garment).

Molyneux jumper
‘Molyneux’ jumper, Beatrice Bellini for Women's Home Industries, early 1950s, Britain. Museum no. T.207-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The glamour of knitwear was enhanced through the 1940s and '50s by the so-called 'Sweater girls': actresses such as Lana Turner, who received the nickname for her appearance in the 1937 film They Won't Forget, and Jayne Mansfield, known for wearing a tight sweater over a cone- or bullet-shaped bra. The sweater's popularity boomed during the 1950s, both in mass-produced and home-knitted versions, thanks to new yarns and new colours.

Experimental sweaters in the 1960s and '70s

The sweater could also be worn as an anti-mainstream statement. The black polo-neck sweater, for example, was closely associated with the beatniks of the 1950s and '60s and with musicians such as The Beatles. It was subsequently picked up by fashion designers, including Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges and Mary Quant. The latter's autobiography, Quant by Quant, describes how she discovered the skinny rib jumper by trying on an eight-year-old's sweater for fun. According to Quant, after six months "all the birds" were wearing them. In the 1960s, French designer Sonia Rykiel made her name with the colourful, often striped, "poor boy sweaters”– finely knit, skinny-rib sweaters – which she designed for her husband's boutique, Laura. In 1964, one was shown on the cover of Elle magazine.

Ensemble mary quant
Ensemble, Mary Quant, 1965, made 1973, Britain. Museum no. T.110 to B-1976. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The sweater also played a key role in the growth of Italy as a fashion centre. Following the Second World War, American aid helped to establish the Italian textile industry and specifically its sportswear and knitwear industry. Missoni is one of the most famous examples – a family-owned company specialising in knitwear that pioneered new mixtures of materials and colours.

The 1970s saw the rise of synthetics and mass-produced clothing and subsequent countermovements within fashion. Deliberately torn and unravelled sweaters were part of the extreme, anti-establishment punk look. For example, a multi-coloured, cropped mohair and string jumper was sold by the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren in their influential London Seditionaries shop.

Westwood jumper
Jumper, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, 1977 – 80, Britain. Museum no. T.94-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The home-knitting revival of the 1980s

During the 1970s and '80s, British designer knitwear focused on the sweater. The likes of Patricia Roberts and Martin Kidman for Joseph transformed the then-dowdy reputation of the hand-knitted sweater, deliberately using elements such as intricate patterning or asymmetric details that couldn't be replicated on commercial machinery of the time. A vibrant red hand-knitted jumper with prominent tiger motif, designed by Martin Kidman for Joseph, is a typical example of the 1980s taste for heavy, strikingly patterned knitwear.

Jumper martin kidman
Jumper, Martin Kidman for Joseph, about 1985, Britain. Museum no. T.90-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Such designers helped instigate a home-knitting revival. Patricia Roberts' pattern books, published from the late 1970s, allowed hand-knitters to create their own high fashion look. She also manufactured her own yarns and kits for sale. From the mid 1980s to the early '90s, British Elle magazine regularly published a knitting pattern, featuring designs by the likes of Comme des Garçons and Joseph Tricot. In response, manufacturers began producing more complex and colourful mass-produced sweaters.

Comme des Garçons attracted attention because of their knitwear. They were part of an influential group of Japanese designers who embraced irregularity, asymmetry and imperfection. A jumper designed by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons in the Museum's collection is made of hand-knitted wool. Its asymmetrically and seemingly randomly placed holes would have been carefully planned. As Kawakubo stated, "The machines that make fabric are more and more making uniform, flawless textures. I like it when something is off, not perfect."

Jumper rei kawakubo
Jumper, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, about 1983, Japan. Museum no. T.168A-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The influence of the sweater has continued into the 21st century. SIBLING, a knitwear collective, designed a men's sweater – intended to be worn with matching sweatpants – printed with scenes that, at first glance, appear as though they are the blue and white pastoral scenes associated with the pattern type 'Toile de Jouy'. But, on a closer look, it's revealed that they illustrate scenes of the 2011 London riots. As their designs show, the sweater's now familiar form still offers plenty of potential for exploration and even subversion.

Sweater sibling
Man’s top and pants, designed by Sibling, Spring/Summer 2013. Museum no. T.86:1-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London