Flattering for all body types and versatile enough to wear on almost any occasion, the shawl collar is, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular design features you’ll find in menswear today. More often than not, you’ll spot it on a cardigan which has surged in popularity throughout the 20th century.
Though there is no concrete evidence as to when or where the very first shawl collar cardigan originated, it is generally agreed that two main sources have somehow come together to create it. The cardigan itself is said to be the creation of James Thomas Brundenell, a military officer during the Crimean war who needed something thick and practical to wear in battle, something he could take on and off easily. The shawl style of lapel, however, is likely to have originated back in Victorian times in men’s smoking jackets.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, as dressing formally in a suit and tie fell out of favour, the shawl collar cardigan was embraced by young male actors. It was seen as an act of rebellion, a signifier that the wearer was young, free and embraced modern thinking. The cardigan was famously worn by the likes of Michael Caine and Steve McQueen.
Left: Michael Caine, 1960s
Right: Steve McQueen rehearsing a car chase scene for "Bullitt", 1968
Later in the 1970s, Paul Michael Glaser famously wore a cream Cowichan shawl collar cardigan in the Starsky and Hutch tv series. Moving forward to the present day, Daniel Craig famously wore a black one in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. With new cultural icons repeatedly seen in them, the shawl collar cardigan, it seems, has had several moments in the spotlight over recent decades.
Paul Michael Glaser as "Det. Dave Starsky" (left) in his iconic shawl collar belted coat with his partner David Saul as "Det. Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson"on the TV series Starsky and Hutch, 1970s
Why the Design of a Shawl Collar Flatters
It’s easy to see why the style is so universally loved. It offers an easy to style layer that can be worn with a wide variety of different under layers. In addition, the inverted v shape and the large collar act together to frame the face and cover the back neck whilst creating an opening on the chest and neck area which achieve a distinctly masculine look.
As you run your eye down the shawl collar, the inverted v shape keep narrowing towards the torso where the first buttoning point is and this also has the effect of broadening one's shoulders whilst making the waist look slimmer.
For these reasons, we have developed a range of our own shawl collar sweaters. Our design ethos has always been rooted in taking classic menswear pieces and creating luxury versions and adding or tweaking design features so that it is something that looks modern and stylish. As such, over the years we have gone about designing different shawl collar styles - some chunkier, some thinner, in different materials, in an effort to cover different occasions and serve different purposes. Currently, we have five styles featuring the shawl collar, each equally as flattering but offering something slightly different to the wearer.
Superfine Lambswool Shawl Collar Cardigan (Heavy)
This piece is the first shawl collar style we introduced and it’s one that has proven very popular. It’s a thick, cosy and comfortable cardigan designed for wrapping yourself up in the colder months. As the name suggests, it's made from a superfine lambswool. Often when people hear thick knitwear, especially alongside lambswool, they immediately think rough and scratchy; conversely when people hear soft knitwear, they tend to think light and flimsy. This cardigan is the best of both worlds. It’s chunky and pillowy yet has an incredibly soft hand feel. So soft, in fact, that we have spoken with industry experts who are surprised to hear it’s not a cashmere piece.
Essentially a substitute for a jacket, this is a heavy piece of outerwear that is intended to be layered over other garments. It’s been designed to be large enough to accommodate almost anything underneath, especially other knitwear. One particularly good match is our Cashmere Submariner Roll Neck, another universally flattering piece.
Cashmere Shawl Collar Cardigan (Heavy)
This piece was born from a desire to create an even more luxurious version of our superfine lambswool shawl collar cardigan - a jewel in the crown. Just like the superfine lambswool shawl collar cardigan, the cashmere shawl collar cardigan is a thick, chunky garment, weighing around 1kg on average.
The difference is that the cashmere version is even softer, with a truly luxurious hand feel. We’ve heard people comparing wearing one to wrapping yourself up in a duvet which we think is the most apt description!
Superfine Lambswool Shawl Collar Coat (Heavy)
A close cousin to the lambswool shawl collar cardigan, the superfine lambswool shawl coat is slightly longer, stopping between mid-thigh to knee. For this style, we designed the knitted fabric to be just slightly thinner than the shawl collar cardigan, in order to allow the coat to drape more naturally and to give it some "swish" when one is moving about.
In terms of fit, this is knitted slightly larger than the cardigan and is, again, intended for layering over almost anything. We recommend it to be worn as a casual substitute for an overcoat that you can throw on to keep you warm on a weekend winter walk but it can equally be dressed up over a suit.
Rather than a button up front, the coat features a belted construction. With two overlapping panels, you can adjust how tight or loose you want the fit to be. This also means you can really wrap yourself up in the garment and feel enveloped by the softness of the lambswool.
For this reason, it’s great for wearing around the house, particularly on cold evenings when you want to warm up and feel comforted and cosy. The length of the coat means it gives you full body insulation, making it ideal for luxurious loungewear, especially if your home comprises big open spaces or is particularly draughty.
Cashmere Painters Cardigan (Mid-weight)
Moving back to cashmere, this cardigan was created in response to customer feedback. Many of our customers live in warmer climates and simply don’t have the need for the bigger, warmer pieces. Other customers also told us they prefer wearing something a little thinner because they warm up easily, or would like to wear a shawl collar style cardigan as a mid layer under a winter coat. With these comments in mind, we set out to create a piece with the same flattering features as our other shawl collar pieces, but that was suitable for all weather wear, and can be treated as a midlayer.
We took inspiration from the cardigans worn by famous painters of the 20th century, namely David Hockney and Pablo Picasso, who would have spent hours painting in similar garments. The button on this piece is right underneath the chest, where you’d find a button on a tailored suit jacket. You’ll still benefit from the same inverted v shape and tapered waist, the cardigan is simply thinner. It’s more of a fitted piece than our other cardigans and so we recommend wearing this over a thinner layer.
A final note on the Cashmere Painters Cardigan: if you’re looking for something similar to Daniel Craig’s shawl collar cardigan from the Quantum of Solace film, this is the one to choose!
Lambswool Shawl Collar Rugby Sweater (Mid-weight)
Last but not least is the Lambswool Shawl Collar Rugby Sweater, which is inspired by the football and rugby jerseys commonly worn at the turn of the century. In keeping with the original styles, this has a boxier fit than most of our other pieces and is also a little shorter. This design means it works really well with high-waisted jeans (of any wash) and chinos.
It’s a casual piece that in itself is a solid component of an outfit and doesn’t rely on layering. It’s a flattering, soft, sporty piece that has been designed with casual weekend wear in mind. If you want the look of a shawl collar but perhaps don’t want to wear a cardigan, or are looking for something easy to throw on without having to consider layers, then this piece is for you.
A versatile feature that compliments almost all body types, it’s no surprise that the shawl collar has quickly become a staple and can be seen in most of our wardrobes. Each of our shawl collar garments is our own take and has been designed with longevity in mind, rather than a desire to keep up with trends. You can rest assured that a shawl collar piece from Colhay’s is one that you can wear for decades to come. If you’re interested in our shawl collar pieces, you can find them all here.