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Cardigan Chic

Vivia Chen

February 4, 2011

Michelle It's cold and icy in New York, so my thoughts naturally turn to "woollies," as my stepmother-in-law calls sweaters. She disdains "those overheated American homes" and keeps her house in the hills of Florence as cold as an English boarding school.  Whenever she sees me shivering, she'll say, "You need a better woolly!"

Besides drafty Tuscan houses, I associate sweaters with my New England college days. Sweaters are for warmth and coziness. But I don't think of them as substitutes for jackets or blazers in office settings where coats and ties are de rigueur.

But according to a recent editorial in The New York Times by fashion writer Kate Betts, the rules have changed--at least for women. Betts writes that Michele Obama has revolutionized office attire, making sweaters--in particular, cardigans--the new power suits:

With her brio and idiosyncratic clothing choices, Mrs. Obama has rewritten the dress code for women who work. We wear cardigans now instead of always jackets, flats instead of impossibly high platform heels. We have a little fun with fashion, even to the point of being more frivolous.

You might remember that Obama even wore a cardigan--with the sleeves pushed up--to meet Queen Elizabeth. So if it's good enough for the Queen of England, it should be good enough for the office, right?

That seems to be the prevailing attitude. Kat Griffin over at Corporette.com analyzed different types of cardigans and loves them all. She thinks the heavier, structured ones are just as credible as a tailored jacket for professional women, conveying "authority, but in a friendly way."

My law school friend, Jennifer, now an in-house counsel, finds cardigans to be interchangeable with jackets. "I think cardigans are the most practical item of clothing ever invented," she says. She prefers ones by Tse or J. Crew, adorned "with a scarf or simple jewelry to finish the outfit."

But she cringes at the thought of cardigans on men at the office. "Male lawyers wearing cardigans tend to look either professorial or like Mr. Rogers--not the image you want to project in a high-powered law firm."

Somehow, though, women in cardigans feel empowered. Maybe they are just more comfortable.

Readers, would you wear cardigans to an interview, client meeting, or court? Are cardigans the slippery slope for formal corporate attire? What's next? Fleece?

 Related posts: "Little Toe Peep," "Ladies Who Wedge," "Tell Her She Looks Ridiculous," "(Over)Dressed for Success."


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 Photo: Peter Souza, Courtesy of the White House 


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Certainly, a quality cardigan is a great investment piece, and with the right jewlery and dress can be just as polished as a suit. Because there are beautiful colors available, it can add style and freshness to a wardrobe, perking up the general suit-suit-suit look.

In recent years, the cardigan over suitdress has become my professional attire of choice. There are numerous suitdresses out there that are as professional as traditional 2 piece suits, and a cardigan can add warmth or depth. I've done this look for all client meetings (including Board meetings and execs) for a while. I would still do a suit for court (I'm not a litigator), but I would be comfortable enough with the cardigan over suitdress with pearls for even an interview. I am early 30s, in practice for 10 years.

It really depends on the circumstance. I wouldn't substitute a cardigan for a suit jacket for a court appearance or a high-profile executive meeting. It just doesn't have the formality. But I think a quality cardigan can be a lovely addition to regular business attire.

Yes, Michaelle Obama has made the cardigan popular as business attire. The other day, all of the tellers in my bank were wearing sweater sets, a la Michelle. They were not, of course, trying to project authority.

I'm not sure that I would wear a cardigan in all of those circumstances. I was just in court today and wore a traditional suit. A client meeting? Yes. I think the goal is to transmit professionalism but to feel comfortable enough to develop a rapport with people. Interviews and court you have to go with what others see as powerful which is typically a traditional suit. But if I were presenting a training, or something like that I would use a cardigan interchangeably with a tailored suit jacket.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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