M any men 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 you do one up, you look like a lowly humanities professor at a third-tier community college.
So what gives? And more importantly: how can men who aren’t James Bond or Thomas Crown make a shawl collar cardigan look good?
Below I’ve collected a few good rules of thumb for rocking a shawl collar, suggested a few different ways you can wear it for maximum impact, and included a list of some select sweaters you might want to try once you’re ready to become a card-carrying member of the cardigan club.
As always I’ve tried to provide options that will be easily attainable for most guys either online or at your local mall, and note that some of the links included are affiliate links, so if you click through and make a purchase I may receive a small commission.
How to Wear a Shawl Collar Cardigan
Everything You Need to Know to Make Shawl Collars Look Sharp
Part 1: The Rules
1. The Fit: Keep it slim
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. The Length: Not much lower than your waist
Another easy way to look like you’re wearing a housecoat is if you opt for a sweater that’s too long.
Some shawl collars cardigans are actually designed this way and some – for reasons that boggle the mind – actually come with a cotton belt! These are not the sweaters you’re going 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. The Buttons: What kind of look are you going for?
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, as both Daniel Craig and the J.Crew model do in the photos in the intro and banner to this post, respectively.
You can also leave the whole thing undone for a look that’s much more casual and laid back, as Steve McQueen famously did in the bad-ass boating picture seen here.
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. The Pants: 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 – 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.
What do you wear under a cardigan?
1. How to wear it with a t-shirt or henley
A few things to keep in mind though: first, make sure your under shirt 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. Stick with something cotton.
2. How to wear it with a collared shirt
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.
If you’re wearing your sweater over a “dress shirt,” – aka the type of shirt that you would wear with a suit and need to get pressed or dry cleaned – and you decide to rock a tie with it, I recommend knotting your tie all the way up.
But if you want to wear a tie in a way that’s a little more casual and laid back, opt for a button-down shirt (so-named because you can literally button your collar to the body of your shirt) instead. Button downs are generally less formal, so here 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.
3. How to wear a shawl collar cardigan with a blazer or jacket
One advantage of rocking a shawl collar under a jacket, especially during the really cold winter months, is that it allows you to skip the scarf.
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, as the gentleman pictured here demonstrates, 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.
Where to Buy a Stylish Shawl Collar
In the past I’ve written a (kind of crazily long) post about what to wear in the fall, and as you’ve probably guessed by now, the shawl collar cardigan is definitely one of my top choices when the temperature starts to dip.
Below are a few of my favorite places to pick up shawl collar cardigans.
Keep in mind that brands tend to cycle particular models and styles in and out each season, so where ever possible I’ve tried to link to category pages rather than specific product pages, so you can peruse a store’s entire shawl collar collection.
Stepping up your sweater game is a great way to sharpen your style, but it’s only one piece of the menswear puzzle.
If you really want to learn how to out-dress the other guys and stand out from the crowd, you need to know how to nail the details—all the details.
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More Resources ↓
From Irreverent Gent:
- 9 of the Sharpest, Most Stylish Types of Sweaters for Guys
- What to Wear in the Fall
- 13 of the Best Men’s Pea Coats (available on Amazon)
From Around the Web:
- Lookastic – How to Wear a Shawl Neck Sweater
- Effortless Gent – Five Ways to Wear a Cardigan
- Got Style – How to Wear a Shawl Collar
Irreverent Gent founder Dave Bowden is a men’s style specialist, an Amazon bestselling author, an unrepentant introvert, a (patient, if long-suffering) Toronto sports fan and the husband of a wonderful (and fortunately much more patient) wife.