Let's button up a bit more

Cardigans have the unfair reputation of being staid.

Cardigans really are the unsung heroes of fashion - much derided, and yet so bloody useful that I truly wonder about people who scoff at them, because they can't have any sense. One of my best purchases in recent years has been a thick, belted, to-the-thigh Ted Baker cardigan that has enough cashmere in it to make it wonderfully warm. I bought it on a bit of a whim, one day when I was just so cold that the handing over of £100 for such a garment didn't seem as foolish as it sounds. I'd long wanted a "big cardy" anyway, and in the 18 months since I've had it I've worn it as a coat, comforter, dressing gown or the oversized cardigan it was born to be. I love it.

But cardigans are not regarded as sexy, despite Nigella Lawson's best efforts (she is rarely seen without one, little punctuations of colour over a black base layer). Once, when I was a fashion editor, my big editor came to seek me out because I'd put "cardigans" on the schedule in anticipation of doing a fashion spread on them. "I love that you're doing something so old-fashioned," she said, "so not fashiony." In other words: useful.

My first memorable cardigan was a lemon - yellow six-ply cashmere number that my mother bought for me. Cashmere is the natural fibre choice for a cardigan, as nothing matches it for lightness and warmth. Sadly the colour never suited me, so I gave it on "long-term loan" (to be returned on pain of death) to my sister. I have it back now, but while its softness is unrivalled, the colour still makes me look like I'm seven seconds away from fatal anaemia.

The cardigan started to become fashionable in the 1920s. It was worn before this, but very much as a practical item - if you were posh, only ever on the sports field and never seen "out". But, from the 1920s, it became permissible for a man to be seen without a waistcoat, sometimes even without a jacket, and for a cardigan to cover the shirt front. The Duke of Windsor, whom I mentioned last week with regard to ties (he was a great trend setter), really made cardigans and tank tops items to be seen in. His legacy wasn't lasting, however, and young men tend not to wear cardigans these days - a pity, because, worn with enough confidence, they can look splendid.

So it's left to women to support cardigan production. But cardies still have a very "mumsy" image because their main virtue is to keep you warm. This is crazy, as keeping warm is something that should be lauded, not laughed at. Cardigans are particularly useful at times of fickle weather because they can, in one movement, transform a summer outfit into something more substantial. I'll know I've really become laid-back, a state of mind I aspire to, when I'm able to leave my cardy at home.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent