Cool Club: The Letterman Jacket is the Uniform of Winners
Very few pieces of clothing conjure that all-American image like the letterman jacket. Picture the blue-eyed athlete walking across a baseball field. He's dressed in a wool jacket with leather sleeves, striped pockets, and a large letter emblazoned on its chest.
The Ivy League uniform, which is also known as the varsity jacket, soon became a staple of the preppy lifestyle. Stars such as Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Michael Jackson spread its appeal, and when the letterman jacket was embraced by more people, different subcultures adopted the apparel, subverting its original roots of athletic prestige and elitism.
Today, everyone wears the letterman jacket, from high school jocks to streetwear stars to office heroes. Here, a crash course on the jacket that has defined cool for decades.
The letterman sweater was first worn by Harvard athletes in 1865.
The iconic letterman jacket can be traced back to the baseball athletes of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1865, members of the sports team wore the first iteration of the garment, which looked quite different back then. Instead of the collared, button-down jacket we’re all familiar with today, these athletes wore a thick-knit sweater as their uniforms. As the story goes, the team decided to sew a giant “H” on the center of their sweaters, giving birth to the first letterman sweater.
The uniform took on an air of prestige. It was distributed to everyone in the team, but only those who played well were allowed to keep them; players who sat on the bench for most of the year were asked to return sweaters at the end of each season.
In 1891, the baseball team also began sporting black sweaters with a large “H” embroidered on the chest. This trend led to the creation of letterman pullovers and cardigans, showcasing
The tradition made the letterman sweater all the more coveted. Ten years later, Harvard’s football team adopted the practice, embroidering the same letter on its uniform. Similar to their baseball counterparts, football players who participated in the most important games of the season—notably against rivals Yale and Princeton—were allowed to keep the sweaters; those who were kept at the sidelines for
Soon, additional embroidery
The modern letterman jacket was invented in the 1930s
It wasn’t until the 1930s when the letterman jacket as we know it today was invented. During this time, the wool jacket with leather sleeves was introduced in response to a demand for sturdier clothing that can keep athletes warm. Borrowing the signature letter seen on its predecessor, the letterman jacket became a symbol of authority and reputation in school.
Following tradition, a player needed to prove his abilities on the field or reach a certain level of performance before he was “lettered” or awarded with a letter patch of the school’s initials. After receiving the letter, the player sewed it on his jacket to showcase his newfound status. To signify additional merits, instead of adding more stripes along the sleeve, the letterman jacket was sewn with embroidery within the letter or another patch made from chenille or felt.
The varsity jacket became part of street style by the '80s
The varsity jacket caught the eye of professional
As the varsity jacket began to enjoy
The jacket infiltrated other sports, as well, particularly basketball and football. Then-football franchise Los Angeles Raiders, as well as fanbase-heavy basketball teams such as the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls
Its entry into popular culture and sports led the varsity jacket to the fashion scene of the late '80s and early '90s. From its privileged Ivy League origins, it landed on the backs of hip-hop groups like Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A, signifying
Different brands came out with their own takes on the trend. In 1987, Stüssy, known today as one of streetwear’s legendary labels, produced varsity jackets using old construction methods and traditional materials of wool and leather. The brand released the Homeboy Jacket, which was crafted in the iconic letterman style with bold colors and street influences. Stüssy continued to produce other versions, including its highest-selling 1989 One Love varsity jacket with its famed rasta colors, as well as collaborations with brands such as Nike and Bape in the 2010s.
To date, everyone has made their own iterations of the letterman jacket, from homages to the original to more avant-garde and contemporary designs. What is clear, however, is that the letterman jacket’s appeal has prevailed in its nearly 100 years of its existence.