How to Wear Cardigans Without Looking Frumpy #FightTheFrump

Do you struggle with how to wear cardigans without looking frumpy? Then this post is for you!

(updated October 2020)

Fight the Frump: How to Wear Cardigans Without Looking Frumpy with real life examples and style tips geared for women over 40!

Cardigans are trending right now, and they’re very practical, but they can be tricky. If you’re not careful, they can read frumpy really fast. I’ve been trying to determine what makes some cardigans look cute and others look frumpy, and here are my best tips!

How to Wear Cardigans Without Looking Frumpy

#1. Figure out what style/length of cardigan looks best on your body type.

As with all matters of fashion, women’s bodies are all different so certain styles will be more flattering on some of us than others.

Learn what works for you by trying on different styles and lengths of cardigans — take pictures if you’re unsure, and compare.

color block cardigan // white tee // skinny jeans // similar booties

#2. Wear form-fitting clothes underneath or a dress that’s belted.

Especially when the cardigan is slouchy, make sure the silhouette underneath is form-fitting; otherwise you will look larger than you are.

A body-con dress like this one works well under a long cardigan.

long cardigan (exact; but my color sold out) // ruched sheath (exact)

I try to wear tees that are more form-fitting under my cardigans.

cardigan // white tee // light wash skinnies // sneaker mules

#3. Size down in longer cardigans and/or choose cardigans that are more fitted. 

Slouchy cardigans are trending for the younger set, but let’s be honest — unless you are tall and skinny, slouchy oversized cardigans tend to add visual weight.

I find that I look best in cardigans that are designed to fit closer to the body. Oftentimes these are made of a fine-gauge knit or ribbed material. This one is really old, but the thin ribbed material keeps it fitting close to the body.

how to wear cardigans without looking frumpy

ribbed cardigan (similar for less) // white tee // white skinnies // espadrilles

I sized down to an XS in this cardigan for a closer fit.

long cardigan // rust tee (option) // utility pants // booties // initial necklace // boho cuff // sunnies (option)

#4. Pay attention to the fit of the arms.

This is another big revelation I had after comparing several pictures of myself wearing various cardigans. My favorites — and the ones I feel are most slimming — are the ones that have skinnier arms.

thermal draped cardigan

I realize this may not be the best advice for those who carry extra weight in their arms (see #1) but it’s something to consider.

hooded cardigan // white tee // crop skinnies // white crossbody

I also prefer a cardigan with shoulder seams ON the shoulder, as opposed to the drop shoulder that is so popular right now. The drop shoulder adds visual bulk to an area most of us don’t want it.

These are close . . . also note the ribbed material and long, slim cut to this sweater.

Jo-Lynne Shane shares two stylish ways to wear a long cardigan for Fall 2019

cardigan (exact, but my color sold out) // grey tee // similar black jeans // similar spotted mules // similar bag

#5. Show some skin.

This is more about what you wear under your cardigan than the style of the cardigan.

Many of us wear cardigans to feel cozy and warm, so it’s tempting to throw a cardigan on over a turtleneck or crewneck top, but most cardigans will be a lot more flattering over an open-neck top.

See how wearing an infinity scarf over this sweater adds bulk and visual weight. Also, the shirt underneath is rather shapeless (see #2.)

Almost every woman, no matter what her size or body type, looks best in a top that shows her collar bones — especially when most of the rest of your body is covered up.

So if you’re stuck on turtlenecks and crewneck tops, try swapping them out for a scoop neck or a v-neck. You may be surprised how much difference it makes!

(This is true for tops worn with cardigans or without!)

cardigan // tank // similar grey jeans (budget option) // booties (tortilla suede)

#6. Pay attention to current trends.

Like with any other article of clothing, cardigan trends evolve, and you will always look less frumpy if you’re wearing a more current style — as long as it is appropriate for your body type.

While super long cardigan coats are trending right now, I steer clear because they’re so long on my 5’5″ frame, I feel they overwhelm me.

But I do like some of the longer styles — like to the knee or mid-thigh.

Try pairing a graphic tee with a long cardigan — the graphic tee creates a pleasing juxtaposition with the more refined cardigan. Also, in this case, the Chelsea boots help keep the look current.

graphic tee // cardigan // skinnies // booties // belt

Or try a cardigan over a printed cami for a dressier look.

cardigan// leopard cami // skinny jeans // booties

And this is taking the cardigan in a totally different direction, but right now, the shorter cardigans are making a comeback… most often worn buttoned-up like this.

camo cardigan // black tank // washed black jeans // similar black suede mules // Lucky Brand earrings // initial pendant // Coach courier bag

#7. Wear slouchy cardigans cautiously.

A cardigan can be cute if it’s intentionally slouchy, but not if it’s simply oversized. If you do wear a slouchy cardigan, I recommend wearing something more form-fitting underneath. Also, wear the cardigan so that it frames the outfit rather than covering it.

I didn’t think I was going to love this oatmeal cardigan when it arrived in the mail, but when I threw it on over my favorite t-shirt and cropped skinnies, I found that the slouchy style works because it sits back and allows the rest of the outfit to show.

It also helps that it’s also not super long. I think this just-below-the-hip-length tends to be the most flattering on me personally.

cardigan (old) // similar tee // crop skinnies // wedge sandals // pendant necklace

#8. Don’t ignore the rear view.

The long, straight cardigans are having a moment right now, but make sure to look at the rear view before deciding to purchase one. They may look okay from the front, but if you turn around, they can go terribly wrong.

This yellow cardigan is longer than my ideal length, but because of the fine-gauge ribbed knit, it follows the lines of my body without adding a ton of visual weight, so I think it works. Also, the side slits help.

long linen blend cardigan // AG legging ankle jeans

I hope these tips are helpful! What would you add to this list?

Shop My Favorite Cardigans

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102 thoughts on “How to Wear Cardigans Without Looking Frumpy #FightTheFrump

  1. Thanks for the helpful info. You look sweet in the ruffle cardigan. What size are you wearing? I suppose bloggers refrain from putting in their sizes lest they alienate smaller or bigger women. But it’s very frustrating to want to buy the recommended/featured item without any reference to the sizing. Clothes are cut so differently these days, and the website info the vendors post is often not that helpful. So, what size in the ruffle cardi are you wearing? Thank you.

    1. Hi Trace. I usually share my sizes, but I didn’t think about it for this post. The cardigans are all size small except the Splendid, which is a medium. Hope that helps! 🙂

  2. Hi, I just bought the sheath dress in the second photo. Bought a size up and it fits well….except I am having trouble with underwear that does not show thru on my backside. I have tried on two pairs of bikinis and two thongs. Any suggestions?

  3. Thanks Jo-Lynn! I have a love hate relationship with cardigans. I want one that skims my figure but doesn’t look boxy or have baggy pockets, to wear with jeans. Cozy. And one to keep at the office for the AC days, likely it should go with black, carbon, grey. No baggy pockets. Still on the hunt! :-/

  4. In your Fight the Frump post you show a buttoned up black cardigan and a dark pink cardigan with a floral blouse at the bottom of the post.  I can’t seem to find any links to any of them.  Are they available?  Thanks much!

  5. This is a great summary. I have stumbled into some of these same realizations but not all. Great to see them all in one place!!

  6. Hi Jo-Lynne. I really enjoyed the recap of the cardigans. I have many in my closet and am sometimes unsure if I look cute or frump 😊 I’m drawn to the longer ones and agree 100% that the top underneath looks better if it’s fitted. Thanks again. Love your insight and knowledge and authenticity. Looking forward to Fall with you. PS I like the idea of showing an item worn two ways, getting more wear out of our items. 

  7. You are so right on the fitted tee! Just a side tuck on a fitted tee takes away all the frump!  Have you ever worn a button up crew cardigan backwards? I’ve seen other bloggers do it but I know someone would tell me my sweater is on backwards! Maybe with a collared shirt underneath…I don’t know.

  8. Where you say to SIZE DOWN, i’ve always sized up in cardigans as I don’t like hte outline of my t-shirt sleeve to show (Or worse, for it it bunch up). I’m a medium and always order large in cardigan.

    On the light pink cardigan photo, the t-shirt outline is showing. Not a big deal, I realize but a peeve of mine when i wear cardigans….

    just discovered your blog! LOVE IT!!!

    1. Yeah, that is why I prefer to wear tanks under my cardigans. I’d still prefer them to fit in a slimmer silhouette through the body, but to each her own. 🙂 I’m glad you found me!

  9. I love this post. The camel and black look great together. Fabulous outfit. I’d love to see what goes into a post. I’m sure we have no idea. What are your Thanksgiving plans?

  10. I am 5 ft tall and fat. I have an apple shape. Even petite clothes are to long. I wear plus sizes to fit over my fat belly and big hips. and the plus sizes are way to big every where else on my body. How can I dress to not look frumpy.

  11. I realize this is an older post, but it’s new to me :). I wear SO many cardigans & jackets (as I’m always cold), & found it so true about the width of the arms!  Due to illness, I’ve lost a lot of weight and find most of my tops, while fitting in the shoulder & waist, look really *off* now ….  and I couldn’t figure out why.  It’s the arm width— way too big!  When I pinned one side in, it looked SO much better.  Thank you for the info!  Looking forward to reading more!  p.s. I’m guilty of the bulky scarf :(…. just need it for warmth!  BUT love your post!

  12. Hi I’m And over 50 mama. Sometimes I just don’t know how the styles are supposed to go and what to layer with what and what to even do with some pieces of clothing. This blog on how to make your long cardigan not frumpy was excellent and just what I needed. So more of the how to’s is what I need!

  13. I was intrigued by this subject because it is so true! I have several styles of cardigans and you are spot on with watching choices in materials, length…etc. I especially noticed that I too wear cardigans so much better with the shoulder seam as opposed to an off- shoulder seam…or no seam. I especially like the thinner material cardigans when they are longer in length. Good information to have….thanks!

  14. I love the lighter material cardigans. I have a greater understanding of how to wear them. Thank you. Also like the high black boots and how they’re fitting closer to the leg, narrower shaft. Don’t really like loose fitting boots of which I see people often wearing. Thank you for your help! Very interesting reads!

  15. I enjoyed this article and numerous images of your cardigan outfitting. I hope to smash my cardigan outfit this Sunday for Mother’s day.

  16. Love your blog. I just wish I could all the photos of the styles (and you!) on my MacBook Air M1 Laptop in full – I don’t know why, but your photos are just too tall to see all at once on my screen. Either your head or your feet are cut off. It makes it very difficult to really look at the photo as a whole.

    1. Yeah, that is just the limitation of that screen. I have one as well, and I just looked at other blogs to make sure mine isn’t any different, and everyone’s is that way. If you look at the blog on your phone, you can see the entire pictures.

  17. You look great in all your cardigans! I need major help. Long story shorter I’ve basically been in the hospital for the majority of COVID, not with COVID, other health problems. I am having the hardest time figuring out how to put outfits together and what shirt you wear under this cardigan and so on. I am nicely begging you for some help. I have 4, I think, cardigans I got recently but no idea what to wear under them. And I have a leather jacket with no idea what to wear under it. I have a pair of spanx faux leather leggings that I want something casual to wear on top with but no idea what would look good or anything. I am a little picky where I shop I stick to places like Nordstrom, Revolve, Michael Star, Evereve and so on. Please help me!

  18. On those longer cardigans, I also think shoving the sleeves up the arm helps to correct the proportion on the body. As a pear-shaped woman, though, i have a rule about long cardigans: “you can’t cover this”

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