As the weather changes, a young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of sweaters. Warm, encompassing, figure-forgiving, fuel crisis-fighting sweaters. And, as we face another long hard winter, how much better than the waist-length knit is the full-length (or at least knee-length) knit dress, winter’s equivalent of the shirt dress? Luisa De Paula, buying and merchandising director at www.my-wardrobe.com, says: “We have seen a 23 per cent increase in sales of sweater dresses against last autumn/winter and predict phenomenal sales this season.”
There is a bounty of styles to choose from, whether Sonia Rykiel’s merino wool patchwork dress, a hotch-potch of rainbow hues that recalls Elmer the elephant (£345); MHL’s sturdy utilitarian grey British wool number (£165); Alice Temperley for Barbour Gold’s gorgeous oatmeal Cambridge cable knit jumper dress (£249); or Jaeger’s slate grey cashmere blend sweater dress (£199). Then there are the versions from high street titans such as Zara, Marks and Spencer – check out their Autograph stripe knitted dress with cashmere (£49) – and H&M, whose figure-fitting cable knit dress is a hit at £19.99.
Some designers have even chosen to specialise in the garment. Madeleine Thompson, a knitwear designer, explains its appeal thus: “There is nothing more luxurious, stylish or comfortable than wearing a cashmere sweater dress through icy streets to work on a January day.” Take her pure cashmere oatmeal and charcoal striped Cobain dress, luxe but full of punky attitude (£297).
Chalk it up to coincidence or very smart planning but this season also marks the debut of an all-cashmere knitwear collection by Claudia Schiffer, which features a plethora of sweater dresses, from a divinely arty and deconstructed sweater/cape dress of pure cashmere (£435) to a ribbed ultra-subtle eau de nil merino and cashmere blend rollneck dress (£345).
“For autumn/winter 2011 I looked towards the 1960s for my inspiration,” says Schiffer, “with A-line and tubular fitted dresses in earth tone colours. I wanted to develop a range that could easily move from day to night and allow women to feel comfortable, yet chic, in any situation.”
Also 60s-inspired was the Sonia Rykiel collection. Nathalie Rykiel, president and artistic director, says: “The inspiration behind autumn-winter 2011 was a block party: fun and colourful. It’s a story about a girl with an A-line dress and a 60s vibe.” During the time of year that has the least amount of sunlight, brightness has a value all its own.
Yet not all sweater dresses are created equal and knowing what yarns are involved is crucial to making an informed choice. “Cashmere feels incredibly soft on the skin,” says Schiffer. “However, I found that mixing cashmere with merino wool also works very well to maintain the structure and shape of the piece.”
Thinner yarns such as cashmere also flatter most body shapes, though designer Peter Jensen favours 100 per cent lamb's wool for its traditional feeling and multitude of textures – from chunky to soft. He advises staying away from mohair sweater dresses because they tend to moult everywhere.
Most fashion insiders agree on the sheer versatility of the sweater dress, which can be dressed up with cuffs, heels and coloured tights or played down with big boots and leggings. “I like to use bold statement jewellery,” says Schiffer, who recommends pieces by Kara Ross and Monica Vinader.