We don’t choose our magical artifacts — they choose us. So Harry’s wand comes when it pleases as its compatriots are littered across the floor of Ollivander’s; so Achilles’ shield is handed down from heaven, with lengthy exposition, as the warrior prepares for murderous revenge; so my chunky oatmeal cardigan makes its way from reposing in folds at Old Navy to preparing for ambush in my aunt’s Christmas wrapping to embracing me in crisp autumn as it does now. No other article of clothing means anything close to what this cardigan means to me. Look: I’ve made funeral plans (state burial, parents’ closet) and replacement plans (definitely expensive, probably J.Crew) for my chunky oatmeal cardigan. I say the words “chunky oatmeal cardigan” and, without fail, a smile comes to my face. Ah. Chunky oatmeal cardigan.
Sure, I’m partly to blame. My aspirational aesthetic is “suburban dad.” I can’t fathom the existence of shoe companies that are not New Balance. “What brand is that, Victorio? Ann Taylor?” is a common refrain. And I would never, ever wear a graphic tee. But I maintain that there is something special about my chunky oatmeal cardigan; something that makes it sui generis; something, in effect, that makes me love it so. Is it the subdued speckle of black and brown that peppers the beige wool? The shiny brown buttons? The tasteful cable-knit? All of these things, probably, but also something deeper: It is the notion of a cardigan that appeals to me. Metaphysically.
After all, what beats a cardigan? You’re cold: Button it up. Now you’re hot: No problem — unbutton. You want to look like your dad made a lot of money off the war in Iraq: Slap on some chinos and drape that cardigan around your elbows, champ. (Don’t spill your champagne.) It goes on. You got a nice new shirt? You can show that off and stay warm. The cardigan is the MacGyver of knitwear.
The cardigan is named after James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. That’s a shame, because the cardigan is a noble garment, and James Brudenell was a noble jackass. This is someone whose career was “marked by many episodes of extraordinary incompetence.” (And that’s according to Wikipedia. Rough.) This is someone who went to Oxford just because and then skipped out on the parliamentary seat his dad bought for him because he was busy traveling Europe. When he finally made it back from Italy, “his contribution to governing was minimal.” One parliamentary battle of note: There was a vote on whether some of the Catholics should be emancipated. James bravely abstained, against the orders of his patrons. (Not that he particularly cared about the Catholics; he just liked the bill’s sponsor.) This principled stand got him driven out of Parliament — a big inconvenience for our hero, who had to buy his own pocket borough instead of depending on the Old Boys’ Club to hand him one.
But then there was some damn electoral reform, and poor James had to campaign again. Uncouth scoundrels beat him up while he was doing so in Wellingborough, but after disbursing the equivalent of $1.68 million in today’s currency, he was victorious again (though only as a “junior member”). The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, verily. Thankfully, there were safer ways to spend your money in the 19th century, so in 1832, at the age of 35, he bought himself a cavalry regiment. Unsurprisingly, he did not thrive in his command role. James’ mildly unfortunate personality led him to engage in “petty-minded bullying” of his subordinates and he was eventually kicked out of the army for pressing bogus charges against one of his captains.
The 7th Earl of Cardigan was undeterred, and promptly wrote a very determined letter to his sister Harriet, who was married to the Queen’s Chamberlain. He was then gifted the 11th Light Dragoons, and after a journey whose itinerary included a leisurely cruise and a spot of tiger-hunting, he joined his men and spent approximately four weeks with them over the next two years. But boy, were they a jam-packed four weeks: In that time, he managed to ban port, get a long-serving officer fired for drinking alcohol he confused for port and shoot one of his captains dead in an illicit duel (he said, on arrest, “I have hit my man,” but he was let off on a technicality: He shot Harvey Garnett Phipps Tuckett and the indictment accused him of shooting a different person, Captain Harvey Tuckett)*.
And the rest is history. The Earl of Cardigan went on to lead the light brigade on their fatal charge, spent the rest of the Crimean War on his pleasure boat and somehow came back to England a hero. He promptly began telling everyone about how he desperately fought in that fateful, fatal skirmish (he didn’t, but rather after the charge broke, rode back to his lines at a pace that he deemed properly relaxed and above cowardice) and how he lived in a tent with all his men (a claim whose likelihood should be apparent by now). The London Times promptly did an investigative piece that exposed his real wartime exploits, but the Earl of Cardigan was at this point immune to silly things like facts. The myth endured. He spent his retirement shuttling between his countryside estate and London in order to speak before Parliament (he was somehow still a member) about military matters and how the government really ought to recognize his brilliant career more. He died a celebrity, after falling off one of his well-bred horses.
At this point we’ve just had a lot of history, and you’re probably wondering: Why is the cardigan named after the Earl of Cardigan? Did he even wear cardigans? The answer is that we don’t know, but probably not. There are apocryphal accounts that soldiers wore cardigan-like sweaters during the Crimean War, and the Earl of Cardigan was for some reason the most identifiable figure from that bellicose little excursion. And so the cardigan was christened. There is no justice in this world. We’re living in hell.
*By the way, he used a rifled pistol, which was considered “unsporting.”