The Difference Between a Cardigan & Vest

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The main difference between cardigans and vests is that cardigans have sleeves. Vests do not. While different, both are must-have fashion staples which come in a variety of styles, fits, textures, colors and patterns. Both are classic layering pieces which offer incredible versatility to men's and women's wardrobes alike.

The Basics

A cardigan is a knitted sweater with sleeves that opens in the front. Like a jacket, it can be closed with a zipper, buttons, toggles, snaps, frog closures or even hook-and-loop fasteners. A vest is a sleeveless garment that can be knitted or made of other fabrics and materials. Vests can open in the front like a cardigan or be pullovers -- with a crew neck or a V-neck.

The Styles

Cardigans can be worn over other garments or bare skin. They come in myriad of fits, ranging from boxy to fitted. Women's sleeve lengths can range from short to elbow, jewel and wrist lengths; men's cardigan sleeve lengths are generally wrist length. Vests are generally form-fitting. Both vests and cardigan sweaters can be worn casually or more formally, depending on style. For example, vests may be worn as part of a three-piece suit or tuxedo.

The Materials

Cardigans are knitted by hand or machine using yarn ranging from lightweight cotton and delicate cashmere to robust wool and alpaca blends. Vests can also be made this way but are often constructed of leather or cloth. A vest may use the same material throughout or have a “comfort” backing of lighter material -- such as cotton, silk or polyester -- that reduces bulk when worn with a heavy coat or three-piece suit.

Timeless Looks

Men can wear a lightweight wool cardigan instead of a coat over a dress shirt as suggested by the ever-elegant Cary Grant. Menswear vests can be worn as suit jacket alternatives or to add polish to casual jeans and a shirt. Women can wear a cardigan over bare skin or a blouse. A woman's twinset -- a cardigan and matching tank top -- offers a classic look. Vests for men or women can enhance otherwise plain outfits by adding a pop of color and texture.