Fashion

Cool Club: The Letterman Jacket is the Uniform of Winners

Athletes, pop stars, hip-hop artists, and more rely on the letterman jacket for attitude.
ILLUSTRATOR Roland Mae Tanglao
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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. 

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
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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 school and team pride, that athletes still wear to this day. 

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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 majority of the season returned them. 

Soon, additional embroidery were adopted to showcase rank or achievement. Stripes along the sleeve indicated additional letters or merits, while a star sewn on the chest identified team captains. 

Photo by Roland Mae Tanglao.
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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. 

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As the letterman tradition made its way from elite Ivy League universities down to high schools and other colleges in the United States, the term “varsity jacket” came into popularity. Soon, every jock across America was wearing a varsity jacket on his back. 

The varsity jacket became part of street style by the '80s 

The varsity jacket caught the eye of professional sport leagues shortly after it gained popularity in public high schools and colleges. Manufacturers of fan merchandise began producing the garment for supporters of professional baseball teams, adding the team logo or mascot on their designs. The fan apparel, however, were not made with the typical wool-leather construction, as these fabrics tended to be expensive. Instead, companies used satin, lowering the cost of the jackets and making them more accessible to a wide fanbase of all ages and classes.  

As the varsity jacket began to enjoy a widespread popularity, it began to cross over to mainstream popular culture, as well. In 1983, Michael Jackson famously wore a red varsity jacket with gold leather sleeves in his music video for “Thriller.” The wool jacket featured a large “M” embroidered on its chest.  

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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 all came up with their own satin varsity jackets.  

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 the the garment as one that now belonged to the streets. By then, it was clear that anyone could wear the varsity jacket, regardless of school affiliation or athletic prowess.  

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. 

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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.

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Sam Beltran
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