UPDATED APRIL 2022
The perfect cardigan for you, as a woman over 50, must have structure, be the right length for your body type and be a color that works with most of your wardrobe. Most women over 50 make terrible mistakes when buying a cardigan. Here’s how to style each cardigan type.
Don’t be side-tracked by the top picks on a knitwear site.
Why the most popular styles of cardigan are a no-no after 50 – slouchy and chunky knit cardigans
If you’re young and slim you look great wrapped up in a slouchy stay-at-home cardigan. Think Marilyn. But this look doesn’t work if you’re overweight or well over 50. Instead of a vulnerable kitten just out of bed, you look like a bundled up depressive who can’t be bothered to go out anymore.
Just notice how often women our age who wear slouchy cardigans stand with folded arms. It’s a signal they are not outgoing (or interested in going out!). By contrast ask yourself when was the last time you saw a woman wearing a very fitted dress folding her arms? She looks confident and open to people.
So don’t fold your arms when you’re talking to people. And don’t grab the sides of a huge woolly around you either. You just look uptight or miserable.
So, forget the slouch if you’re over 50.
Especially if you have a low mood.
I’m telling you, the slouch cardigan – big, bold, collared and with easy access pockets – is not your friend. You need something altogether sharper if you ever want to get out there and re-start having fun.
Slouchies often come chunky. They add to your bulk. But a shorter cable knit or chunky cardigan might be possible. See the ribbed vest in the image above. The lower button left open and the shirt hanging down mean that the bulk of this cardigan is above the waist.
The big on-trend buttons also focus the eye on the vertical line instead of us looking at the width of the hips.
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So can older women wear patterned cardigans?
I notice on-line that patterned cardis feature highly in American stores. Because we are naturally drawn to color and pattern. But if you want to look good, not Mumsy (your mom), you have to look beyond these tempting buys and consolidate your Capsule Wardrobe. Sadly, this probably means choosing a cardi in a single, possibly neutral, color.
As a rule of thumb I would say NEVER wear a bold pattern on your outermost layer.
And a cardigan is a layer. Not a look. It helps, it warms, it flatters – but it is not the look. That is provided by the dress, skirt or jeans plus top.
Unless of course you wear the cardigan as a top.
How to wear a cardigan as a top
In a well-organized closet a cardigan will serve two purposes. It will be a layer. But it will also be a top. So a button to the neck style is perfect. This doesn’t mean you always have to wear it fully buttoned – see below re short cardigans.
The major hassle with wearing a cardi as a top is gapping.
Your new cardigan looks cute. You look great in the mirror. Woops, what’s that happening when you stand sideways? It’s the dreaded between-button gap.
How to stop gapping on a button through top
There are two ways to deal with this annoying problem.
The first is to wear a fine camisole under the cardigan. The gap will still be there but nobody will be seeing your bra. Make sure the camisole is thin. It could be cotton, man-made or silk. It just needs to fit well – not too big, and provide coverage at exactly the right spot. It also needs to be relatively short so it doesn’t hang below the cardigan hem and doesn’t add thickness if you ruche up the hem a bit. If the camisole is in a color similar to the cardi that’s even better.
The second way is to use our old friend Velcro.
Find exactly the point between buttons where the cardi gaps. Now cut a tiny piece of Velcro and sew or stick it on (you can get small self-adhesive strips and circles of Velcro these days) so that without giving the whole frontage a stiff look, it just closes that one inch that makes all the difference. Phew. Now you feel confident. Right?
Should over 50’s wear long cardigans?
These rank high for frump factor. Women sling on a knitted item that reaches to below their hips or even to their hem and feel warm and relaxed.
Listen, if you are slender, long cardigans look beautiful and can take you from the heights of elegance all the way to weekend casual. But if, like me, you are on the heavier side then beware. The lack of structure of a long, and therefore, heavy, knit can spell disaster to an otherwise smart-casual outfit.
It’s all down to how the cardigan falls. To look good it needs to fall dead straight at the back. No bump as it negotiates your backside.
You will find that most long cardigans in your size don’t work for you once you’re well over 50 or well over weight.
But there’s a solution. Buy a larger size.
Now a long cardigan is already a pretty large item. And its weight can make it droop. So buying an even larger item might sound foolish.
So here’s the rule: You can wear a long cardigan but, unless you are slender, it must be very lightweight.
So forget those cover-up, snuggle-down, chunky and cable knit long cardis. They are not for you.
You are looking for words such as ‘fine knit’, ‘gauzy’, ‘two-ply’, ‘cotton rich’, ‘linen-mix’ and ‘lacy’. These are mainly on sale during spring through summer. Since these very fine knits will tend to cling more readily to your rear that extra size is essential. If the size up is simply too long, then don’t go there.
You may well find that you have to roll or push up the cuffs but that’s stylish right now so hallelujah!
How to style a long cardigan
Once you have that all-important straight hang you also have a wonderful set of long parallel lines straight down your front. Perfect for making you look slimmer.
Make the most of this effect.
Choose a contrasting shirt, dress or top-and-bottoms. This will draw the eye to the long narrow central panel. If you wear a pale cardigan add a colourful or dark centre panel. If you wear a dark cardigan then team it with a bright or white centre panel. If you wear a patterned cardigan you just look a mess.
Yes you can choose a dark cardigan, dark pants and white or bright colored shirt. Yes you can select a white or cream long cardigan to go over white or cream pants as long as your shirt if very bright or very dark. Yes you can tuck in your top. Yes you can wear a belt. Yes, yes, yes. You are now styling a piece of long slim personal real estate that you haven’t flaunted since college. Think of yourself as tall and thin. But just be prepared to keep that cardigan on whatever the weather.
Is a belted cardigan a good look for older women?
No. ‘But the cardigan falls open all the time without a tie belt.’ Yes, that’s the idea. No. No. No to knitteds with tie belts around the waist. The Post Office no longer allows parcels to be tied up with string. So neither should you!
Should women over 50 wear cropped cardigans?
There are two styles called cropped. They both stop on or around the waist. The first has deep ribbing. The ribbing covers the waist and a bit north. They look great tucked neatly into a skirt or jeans.
You will see these everywhere as they are very much in fashion (in 2020). But take a look at the model. She’s probably very young and skinny.
If your slim waist is your best feature then this is the cardi for you. If not, then don’t even think about it.
The second style of cropped is what I’d call short.
I’m thinking of a style without that wide band of ribbing at the waist. I’m thinking Coco Chanel style. Short and boxy.
These are the most wearable and versatile cardigans around. They are the perfect layer to add to a dress. They just cut off the sides of your waist and make the transition to the width of your hips less alarming without distracting from the beauty of the dress itself.
How to style a short cardigan
Over a dress: Pop it over a dress and leave open. Or button it up half-way with the lower couple of buttons undone too, to balance larger hips.
Over a shirt: Leave the hem of the shirt to hang below the cardi. This can be an inch or two, or a lot more if you wear a long shirt. This style looks fabulous with Mom jeans and a white boyfriend style collared shirt. The cardi can be fully buttoned or just half. Try every buttoning combination once you’re wearing your shirt and jeans so you know just what looks good on you for the many future times you will throw on this combination without a second glance in the mirror.
On its own: My favourite short cardis have a round neck so I can button them up to the very top or nearly and they become a neat little top without need of a shirt. I do admit to usually wearing a tank top or camisole underneath though as this stops any itchiness and keeps the cardi fresher for longer. Who likes washing woollens every day – or, OMG, – paying for dry cleaning after every wearing?
Short cardigans, as Coco made clear, can be dressed up or down. Chanel’s iconic military-style little knitted and woven jackets made the most of braid (she did like the senior military!) and heaped on the pearls to fabulous effect. Frankly this style has never gone out of fashion since the Second World War.
If pearls are too dressy – though they can look wonderful with a cardi and jeans – try a small silk square knotted around your neck. Leave the ends showing for a sporty vibe or tuck them in cravat-style for a more elegant polished look.
Can older women wear short ballerina-style wrap cardigans?
The first problem is that these can only be worn closed because of the long ties. The second problem is that they thicken the waist with the crossed ties whilst at the same time highlighting the waist as this is where they stop.
But I think if you have a smaller bust, wrap cardigans might help to accentuate the top half of you. But I’d be generally a bit careful of this style once you are over 50.
It should be said, however, that the deep V these cardigans make at the front is very flattering. It elongates the neck and attracts the eye upwards to your lovely face. I’m not a fan of this style though on women with deep cleavages. Fabulous at 30, not too smart at 60.
Does a hip length cardigan look good on women over 50?
This is the classic cardigan. It is designed for warmth. Left open it works well – read my comments above on styling a long cardigan. Not quite as slimming as a long cardigan but still good.
The problem comes when you button the cardigan up. Because it stops at your widest point. Now you have a silhouette that is near enough cut in half with the dividing line accentuating an area you probably don’t want highlighting-your hips.
Of course, as always, if you are slim, the classic will look great on you. But if not, then I would alsways wear the classic cardigan fully open.
As you can tell, it’s not my favorite length. I find it just doesn’t work hard enough in my capsule wardrobe.
What is the best sleeve length for a cardigan?
This might sound like a minor point but it isn’t. A cropped or short cardigan usually, though not always, has a three-quarter sleeve. This is excellent news if you are short as showing even a little bare skin makes you look taller. Odd but true.
It also means that you don’t have a shirt or dress sleeve ending at the same point at your wrist and adding bulk there.
Most cardigans have long sleeves – I guess the idea that it’s main function is to keep you warm ranks high with buyers. But you will see that retailers often show the model with rolled or pushed up sleeves – so basically making it a three-quarter sleeve.
You will see lots of cardigans with very long sleeves and the model will have the cuff ending on her knuckles. This is a ‘poor rich girl’ look as if you are shivering with cold yet can afford cashmere. Ah fashion is so complicated.
Anyway, suffice to say, the poor rich girl – or the abject as it used to be known – is not a look for women of our age. Never buy a top that has extra length in the arms.
How to buy a cardigan on-line
Measure a cardigan you love to wear. Lie it flat on a table. Measure length from highest point of the shoulder to the hem. Measure the chest when the cardigan is buttoned up. Measure the sleeves from shoulder to cuff.
If you are choosing a different style then put the cardigan on and measure how much shorter you want the sleeve or how much longer or shorter you want the length.
Most good knitwear retailers give you full details of these measurements. Or at least state the size the model is wearing and how tall she is. Always look at the reviews as these often comment on fit, color and texture. Don’t just rely on the star rating. The devil is in the detail.
Are the best cardigans always made of cashmere?
The world has fallen in love with cashmere. It used to be sooooo expensive only rich girls could wear it. But then the rest of us demanded our cashmere woollies too and today everyone wears it.
Not all cashmere is great quality. If it sounds too cheap to be true then it may not last more than a season.
Most cashmere comes from China or nearby (the name’s a giveaway) and is marketed from there too. But specialist retailers such as Brora have their own mills in Scotland.
Cashmere has wonderful properties. It is lightweight yet warm so transitions seasons well. I wear my cashmere cardis all year. It can be knitted into very fine or quite rugged tops. It takes dye well so comes in every possible color. And best of all it is luxuriously soft to the touch.
But rather than just sticking with cashmere it’s well worth taking a look at other materials. Marino wool offers warmth even when fine. It is cheaper and will last longer than most cashmere. It is ideal for smart cardigans as it often has a flatter, less textured surface than other wools.
Blends of cotton and linen work really well when the weather heats up. They are lightweight, usually washable and combine perfectly with summer fabrics. Think summer cardis over linen tunics and dresses, or with cotton shorts and shirts.
And never dismiss cardigans knitted from man-made threads. They may not stay looking perfect for quite as long as wool but they are inexpensive, very lightweight, drape well, come in every color and are often indistinguishable from natural fibres. They make a lot of sense in summer as they can be washed and dried so quickly. Perfect for a button through cardigan to wear on its own over a summer skirt.
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Check out my article on 5 Steps to make an old cardigan look good again. Now you know how to style a cardigan it may not be necessary to buy a new one this year!
Still reading? Thank-you. Here’s a little bonus in the form of a history of the cardigan.
Where does the name cardigan come from?
The cardigan is named after a guy who had it all then lost it all. Wealthy Lord Cardigan (a county in Wales) led the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade in the middle of the 19th century. He was fighting the Russians at Balaclava. So we got two names for winter items of apparel on that day – the knitted waistcoat worn under the soldier’s uniform – the cardigan, and the knitted scarf cum ski mask knitted by women in Britain and mailed out to the troops to help them keep warm in icy weather – the balaclava.
If such things interest you then you’ll enjoy learning that Lord Raglan was overseeing the battle on that day. The tailor Aquascutum of London designed a shirt for him with greater ease of movement so he could wield his sword in battle. Although he died soon afterwards, his lordship left us with the raglan sleeve.
Who made cardigans stylish?
It took another military connection to make cardigans stylish women’s wear. Coco Chanel who enjoyed the company of high ranking German soldiers during the Second World War completely changed our take on the waistcoat. She used knitted and woven materials, usually quite thick, for structured little jackets to layer over dresses and blouses. She added braid, ribbon and pearls to what was essentially a utilitarian, military style. The world went mad for them.
The boxy cut kept its shape well and best of all made our hips look smaller by contrast.
Then along came Marilyn and Brigitte wrapping chunky cardigans over bare skin and looking drop-dead sexy.
The most famous cardigan-wearer recently is the former First Lady, Michelle Obama. In 2009 she wore one when she met the Queen. Her Azzedine Alaia has ensured the cardigan’s place in the very smartest of smart wardrobes.
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Got a favorite cardigan look? Email a photo to: hello at im mother of the bride dot com and I’ll add it to this article.
Hi there Chloe. You’re aiming to look pretty and sexy at 40 – good on you, this outfit certainly works for you. It makes the eye focus on your top and slims your upper body with those parallel lines of the open cardigan front. Nice! Thanks for the picture.
This post is part of a series about creating a capsule wardrobe when you’re over 50. Some other articles in the series are:
10 Steps to Create a Capsule Wardrobe if You’re Over 50 – this is the ‘recipe’.
My Capsule Wardrobe at 70. Real Life Try-on and seasonal updates such as Winter 2021 Capsule Wardrobe at 72. You can see all my Capsule Wardrobe try-ons by clicking on the search icon and typing Capsule Wardrobe.