How to Make a Shawl Collar Cardigan Look Stylish, Timeless & Cool

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A lot of guys face a dilemma when stepping up their style games during colder months:

When Daniel Craig, Brad Pitt or Steve McQueen wear a shawl collar cardigan sweater, they look like they could beat you up and steal your girlfriend at a moment’s notice.

But when mere mortals throw one on, we look more like a bookish arts professor at a third-tier community college.

Daniel Craig wearing a shawl collar cardigan in Quantum of Solace
When you nail the shawl collar sweater look…
Daniel Craig wearing a shawl collar cardigan in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
…and when you very much don’t

So what gives? And more importantly: how can men who aren’t playing high stakes poker at Casino Royale or searching for a Quantum of Solace make a shawl collar cardigan look good?

Below I’ll break down the rules for anyone who wants to add a chunky knit sweater to their wardrobe, and suggested a few different ways to become a handsome-ass member of the S-Triple-C.

(That’s the Shawl Collar Cardigan Club, for the unititated. We’re still workshopping the name…)

How to Wear a Shawl Collar Cardigan

Everything You Need to Know to Make Shawl Collars Look Sharp
(and a few choice pics for some solid outfit inspo)

Part 1: The Rules

1. How to Nail The Fit

Keep it (Relatively) Slim
Man wearing slim fit shawl collar cardigan
[image: RW & Co]

This one comes with a slight caveat: keep it as slim as you can.

Shawl collars are often made of thicker types of wool that are comfortable as hell, but not always the most form-fitting.

That’s why it’s even more important to make sure that yours fits you like a glove and hugs your shoulders, arms and torso fairly tightly.

Because of the thicker fabrics, the shawl collar sweater may not show off your physique the way a merino wool sweater would.

But if you pick a size that’s slightly too large, you’ll look more like you’re wearing a housecoat than a classic piece of menswear.

Speaking of which…

2. Choose The Right Length

Not much lower than your waist

Pretty Good

Man wearing slim shawl collar cardigan sweater
[image: Banana Republic / Instagram]

A Little Long, Yet So Wrong

Man wearing beige shawl collar cardigan that's too long
[image: Amazon]

Another easy way to look like you’re wearing a robe is if you opt for a sweater that’s too long.

Some shawl collar cardigans are actually designed this way and some – for reasons that boggle the mind – actually come with a cotton belt!

You are not a jedi knight, and these are not the sweaters you’re looking for.

Instead, look for one that hits either right at or just below your belt line, which is pretty much how you want all of your sweaters to fit.

3. Don’t Be Too Buttoned Up

The rules are a little looser when it comes to how many of your sweater’s buttons you should do up.

If you’re going for a more casual look, you can leave either the top button or the bottom one undone.

Man wearing an unbuttoned shawl collar cardigan
A shawl collar is so classic and sophisticated that going unbuttoned doesn’t mean looking unkempt
[image: Banana Republic]

You can also leave the whole thing undone for a look that’s much more casual and laid back, but still sophisticated thanks to the shawl collar’s classic appeal.

But if you’re wearing a tie and/or going for a more formal or dressier look (more on that below), I suggest doing up all the buttons for a look that’s more… well, buttoned up.

One last note on buttons:

It’s ok to leave the top or bottom one undone, but I don’t suggest leaving both undone.

It might look like your sweater is too small to wrap around your waist, which is probably not an implication you want to give.

4. Pair it with the Right Pants

Go for a different color (or at the very least, different shade) than the sweater

This is a good rule of thumb for sweaters in general, but especially for shawl collars.

Even if your sweater fits perfectly, if your pants are the same color or anything close, you won’t look like a stylish man rocking a classic look.

Too Blue

Man wearing blue shawl collar sweater
Pairing a navy sweater with dark denim isn’t terrible, but without a lot of contrast, neither piece stands out
[image: Nordstrom]

Good Contrast

Man wearing navy blue shawl collar cardigan and white pants
By contrast, rocking a dark navy sweater with cream or white trousers helps both pop
[image: Ralph Lauren]

You’ll look like a 1970s ski bum wearing a onesie.

Make sure your pants contrast both your sweater and the undershirt you’re rocking beneath it.

Jeans are usually a safe and stylish bet with shawl collars (unless your sweater is too similar a shade of blue), as are khakis.

Part 2: Layering

What do you wear under a shawl collar cardigan?

A T-shirt or Henley

Man wearing grey shawl collar cardigan and white pants
[image: Amazon]

One of the most classic casual looks in all of menswear, layering your shawl collar over a t-shirt or henley looks stylish in almost any setting.

A few things to keep in mind though:

First, make sure your undershirt is a different color (or at least a different shade) than your sweater.

You want to make sure people can visually distinguish between the two easily.

Secondly, try to keep the fabrics in the same ball park.

Since shawl collars are generally made from hearty wool, you don’t want to wear a shiny or synthetic shirt underneath.

The best bet is to stick with something cotton.

A Collared Shirt

Man wearing shawl collar cardigan with button up shirt
[image: Buck Mason]

Throwing on a collared shirt underneath your shawl collar opens up a few more options for you, including the option to add a tie into the mix for a look that’s more formal or business-like.

With that said, if you decide to opt for a tie, I only recommend knotting it all the way up if you’re wearing a proper dress shirt

But if you want to wear a tie in a way that’s a little more casual and laid back, opt for a denim shirt or a button-down (so-named because you can literally button your collar to the body of your shirt) instead.

Button-downs are generally less formal, so you can get away with undoing the top button of the shirt and leaving the tie loose.

It’s a great way to look put together but laid back all at the same time.

What can you wear over a shawl collar cardigan?

A Tweed Blazer

Man wearing blue shawl collar cardigan under brown blazer
[image: Lookastic]

If you want to wear your shawl cardigan under a blazer, opt for one made from a hardy fabric like tweed or flannel.

Those kinds of heavier fabrics tend to look better with knitwear because they’re made from similarly natural fibers, which gives the whole outfit more coherence.

One advantage of rocking a shawl collar under jackets and blazers is that it allows you to skip the scarf, especially if you opt for one in a cozy fabric like cashmere or mereino wool.

When rocking this look, you have two options.

You can keep the shawl collar fully contained within the lapels or collar of your jacket, or you can splay it out over the top and let your sweater’s collar cover your coat’s.

Splaying the sweater collar out over the jacket’s lapels can look good in certain select instances.

But keep in mind that it runs the risk of looking like a warmer version of John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever, which as a general life rule I wouldn’t recommend.

However, sometimes letting the collar dip over the jacket’s lapels gives a certain devil-may-care look that can totally work, so use your own discretion.

A Peacoat or Overcoat

Man wearing a shawl collar sweater under a peacoat
[image: Brooks Brothers Factory]

Another classic way to wear a shawl collar is underneath a warmer winter jacket like a peacoat, under coat or even a chore coat.

I love this look because the two pieces complement each other so well.

Both are classic, versatile staples that look good on any man in any era, and both are fall staples that can get you all the way through winter when combined.

And trust me when I say I know—I live in Canada.

The shawl-collar-under-peacoat look is one of my absolute favourties, and has gotten me through many a Toronto winter in style.

More Resources ↓

More Men’s Style Advice from Irreverent Gent:

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Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros Pictures
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Irreverent Gent

About Dave Bowden

Dave Bowden

Founder, Irreverent Gent
Author, Man in Command and Stop Doubting, Start Dating
Writer, Really Wordy Author Bios

Dave Bowden is a style blogger, menswear expert and best-selling author (in Canada—but still!) whose advice on how to look good and live well has been featured in New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Men's Health and more.

When not obsessing over style and self-improvement, he can usually be found spending time with his wonderful wife and two amazing sons, indulging in a hoppy craft beer, or sobbing over the woeful state of Toronto's sports teams.

Check out Dave's Style Story to find out how a chance encounter with his friend's step-dad taught him the value of looking good and living well (don't worry—it's less creepy than it sounds!), or email him at [email protected] if you want to get in touch.

4 thoughts on “How to Make a Shawl Collar Cardigan Look Stylish, Timeless & Cool”

  1. great post. i literally had the “third tier community college prof” problem and didn’t know why shawl collars weren’t working for me. i think mine was too long, and too baggy. thanks for the explanation, and the recommendations. i signed up to get your list and will be hitting up the stores you recommend next week to try and find one that fits proper.

    • You’re welcome James! Glad to hear that you found the source of your sweater problem. I used to have the same issue with bagginess before I figured out how to make sure they fit right.

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