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The M Dash

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An Ode to the Desk Sweater

December 03, 2016 | Filed in: Your Closet

I first heard the term “desk sweater” when I was a 19-year-old intern. My supervisor—a smart, stylish, efficient woman named Elizabeth who once mentioned that she was in a Thursday-night poker group, thus winning my deepest admiration—was getting ready for an after-work cocktail party, and I overheard her fretting about her outfit. “I’m freezing,” she told a co-worker, “but all I have is my ratty desk sweater. I can’t wear this out, can I?”

The sweater in question—a black, amorphous knit that lived on the back of Elizabeth’s office chair—wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t do her any favors, either. I’m not sure whether she brought it with her, but I learned two lessons: 1) Elizabeth had a “desk sweater,” so I should look into getting one too, and 2) Said desk sweater should be suitable for taking to drinks in a pinch.

The Morandi sweater // MM.LaFleur

The Morandi sweater in almond.

If Elizabeth was responsible for my introduction to desk sweaters, my first real job was a crash course in their necessity. After college, I worked in a rickety old building in lower Manhattan that, on the year’s first warm June day, promptly transformed into a walk-in refrigerator. (Also known as “women’s winter,” the phenomenon of inexplicable over-air-conditioning is a well-documented enemy of every lady’s summer wardrobe.) When my lips turned blue, a kind colleague offered me an XL zip-up hoodie sweatshirt—swag from a recent conference that was both ugly and inappropriate for the business-casual office. Out of goose-bumped desperation, I wrapped it around myself like a sloppy cape and hunched miserably over my keyboard.

Like that sweatshirt, a great desk sweater should be comfortable, soft, warm, and resilient (it won’t crease or stretch out when it’s draped over a chair, thrown in a bag, etc). But unlike that sweatshirt, it should also function as an extension of your work outfit—professional-looking over a dress, a blouse, or whatever you wear to get things done. It should be something you’re happy to wear every day, which might be the case if you’re a cold-blooded iguana-human like me.

Bell Sweater // MM.LaFleur

The Bell sweater in cashmere.

Over the past decade, I’ve cycled through 4-6 desk sweaters of varying longevity. I wore one until it got holes in it, and destroyed another by putting it in the dryer by accident; others only lasted a few hours because they were too itchy, too blob-like, or pulled at my shoulders when I reached forward to type. I now know that the best ones are made of soft wool or cashmere, and loose enough to layer without looking droopy. Other requirements: They must have shape (a belt or button at the waist helps), feel luxurious, and be neutral enough to match most things in my closet. Ideally, I want a bathrobe that looks chic.

Cady and Stanton // MM.LaFleur

The Stanton cardigan in gingersnap.

On the list of big-ticket work wardrobe pieces, the lowly desk sweater often takes a backseat to splashier items like a bag, a pair of shoes, a watch, or a nicely-tailored suit. However, I believe it’s just as important (if not even more so) than any of those things, because it’s an investment in your most essential, productive time—those long, typing-filled hours in front of your computer. Sure, great heels might make you stand taller in a meeting, but it’s the desk sweater that kept you comfortable while you researched and brainstormed the brilliant ideas that you brought to that meeting. It’s your thinking cloak, if you will. Choose it wisely.

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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.

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