Fashion History, Styles And Designers: Sweater Coats

Sweater coats old and new have a long fashion history. Whether retro or modern you can find them online or knit your own.

Knitted garments have been around for a long time. Knitting is such an ancient craft that no one knows who first invented it, and how it spread.Some scholars believe it was invented in the Middle East, perhaps in Persia. Others believe it originated in North Africa. Because knitted garments were made of organic fibers, which disintegrate with time, and because they were used until they wore out, few samples of ancient knitting remain for us to study, but knitted stockings were found in Egyptian tombs.

The first knitted garments tended to be leg and foot coverings. The flexibility and stretchiness of knitting was particularly useful for leggings and stockings. But as time passed, some clever person realized that what worked for the legs could work for the arms, and even the body, and the sweater was born.

No doubt some sweaters were always longer than others, but the knitted sweater coat did not become a fashion garment until fairly recently. By the early 20th Century women were wearing a wide range of knitted wear, as under and over garments, but fashion garments were still formal and were made of woven fabric.


Then came Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Everybody knows Chanel's name now, but when she first began to design, she was a working class French girl with a disreputable past. One of her lovers bankrolled a shop for her in Paris so she could sell the hats she designed. Her rental contract stated that she could not sell fashion clothing because there was already a couture shop in the building. She discovered that the knit fabric such as that used in the sweaters worn by French sailors was not considered fashion fabric. She could use it to make clothing without violating her contract. This knit fabric, called jersey, became the backbone of the fashions she created from World War I through the Twenties. Because of her designs, knitwear moved from the working classes to haute couture, and has remained there ever since.

Sweaters became more and more popular as outerwear as the Twentieth Century rolled on. As houses and cars were better heated there was less need for a heavy winter coat and a variety of sweater coats, ponchos and shawls emerged as fashion garments. In the Fifties, styles were formal and ultra feminine. Angora sweaters with detachable lace or fur colors, beaded embroidery or rhinestone buttons might occasionally serve as jackets, but they were rarely longer than waist length. During the first years of the Sixties, Jacquelyn Kennedy was fashion's formal icon. Throughout the late Fifties and early Sixties, Italian designers like Sebastian used wool knit to make lined, highly constructed sweater coats that were often accented with contrast binding in a style reminiscent of Chanel. Then came the hippies, and everything changed. Throughout the late Sixties, ethnic garments were the rage, and long belted Mexican sweaters made of heavy wool were the rage for both young men and women.

By the Seventies, fashion was active and informal, and sweater coats were everywhere. Designers like Pierre Cardin loved it, and soon his designs were being knocked off by less famous designers in every color and fabric from cashmere to acrylic. Cable knit, chunk and bulky styles good old classic stockingette knit in all kinds of varieties and combinations were popular. Styles varied in length from mid-thigh to ankle, and orange, beige and brown irregular earth-tone stripes were particularly trendy. A long, long belted sweater coat over a tiny skirt and a pair of platform shoes was a classic Seventies look.

The Eighties brought a renewed emphasis on glamour and elegance, and the sweater coat slipped into the background again. It's true that nothing is more dead than last year's fashion, and the sweater coat went to the thrift store, where it lingered until the retro youth of the nineties brought it out again. The Seventies have drifted in and out of fashion over the last decade. Those too young to live through them the first time enjoy a disco fantasy now and then, and the internet makes it possible to shop for retro looks as never before.Although prices are higher than in the thrift shop, the multitude of choices on E-Bay probably makes up for the expense.

These first years of the new millennium don't have a nickname yet but they are certainly a time in which anything goes. Now more than ever, young people like to make their own fashions and fashion combinations. The more outrageous the combination the better, and those wacky sweater coats of three decades ago are still popular with those who can find them.

Meanwhile independent home knitters and sewers continue to develop their own ideas about sweater coats. Those who knit for themselves aren't slaves to fashion and can do whatever they like. Google "knit coats" and you'll find a multitude of versatile fashion ideas that you can knit for yourself if you so desire. Or if you prefer you can buy knit fabric and design and sew a coat to suit yourself.

Name designers and manufacturers may think they dictate fashion, and to some extent they do. But if you can make it, you can wear it and no one will say you nay. In fact, they may very well copy you. As we know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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