Perhaps no other jacket on earth is associated more with American culture than the iconic varsity jacket. Today, everyone from boarding school preps to the most discerning streetwear sartorialist can be seen rocking one on a regular basis in all types of settings and climates. It’s impossible to credit the jacket’s success and diversity to any singular reason, but its aesthetics and history are a good start. Thus, for our third edition of Back to School, we take a look back on the iconic piece of outerwear. Check out the whole story below.
Thanks to the hypnotizing power of mass media, varsity jackets the world over have become inseparable from American athletes in high school and college. And for good reason too, as the original varsity jacket, or as it was known back then, letterman jacket, has its roots in the mid 19th century at the most prestigious university on earth – Harvard University.
The year was 1865 and Harvard’s baseball team was looking for a way to highlight the team’s star players. Being an enterprising group of individuals, one unnamed hero came up with the idea of sewing the old English letter “H” onto the team’s grey flannel uniforms. The embroidered uniforms, known as lettermans, were distributed to each player but only those that played in the year’s most important games were allowed to continue wearing them. Those that hadn’t participated were forced to return their jersey, “H” and all, at the end of the season.
Ten years later Harvard’s football team followed suit and began embroidering the same letter on their uniforms. Like their baseball equivalents, it was common practice for the team captains to allow only the players that participated in the most important games – those against Yale and Princeton – to keep the jerseys. Thus the embroidered letter took on an air of exclusivity and prestige.
By 1891, Harvard’s “Nine” baseball team began to regularly wear black sweaters with a crimson “H” embroidered over the left chest. A simple enough act that unintentionally led to the creation of letterman pullovers and cardigans. On pullovers, the letter was usually quite large and placed over the center of the chest while cardigans favored the left side for placement. When further achievements were met that warranted recognition, stripes were placed along the sleeve to notate additional letters earned while a star indicated the likes of a team captain.
The letterman sweater soon made its way down the line from college to high school although it is not known precisely when. For what it’s worth, the first photographic evidence appears in Phoenix Union High School’s 1911 yearbook. In the picture, a student is seen wearing a v-neck sweater with the letter “P” over the left chest. Soon after, by 1930 to be precise, wool jackets with leather sleeves were introduced and borrowed the signature letter as seen on letterman uniforms and sweaters. Instead of adding stripes along the sleeve for additional merits however, letterman jackets opted for further embroidery within the letter or the addition of another patch made of chenille or felt. At the same time, the name varsity jacket started to come into use as a reference to American high schools and colleges’ varsity teams.
The style was an instant success and became so popular that the jacket soon broke free of its second-tier roots and made its way to the big leagues – literally. The manufacturers of fan apparel for baseball teams began creating varsity jackets that featured each team’s logo and/or mascot for use at games and around town. Unlike typical varsity jackets however, baseball jackets were not restricted to the wool body/leather sleeve combination and by the late 80s were produced mostly of satin. During this time varsity jackets began to cover other sports as well; most notably basketball and football, both of which played important roles in the unique and influential street fashion culture of the late 80s and early 90s.
Teams like the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles (and later, Oakland) Raiders were popular picks and in just a few decades the jacket’s timeless aesthetics in combination with new, cheaper materials caused it to make its way from the wealthy campuses of the Ivy League to the backs of revolutionary hip-hop groups like Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A.
Although these sports oriented satin jackets began to dominate the field, one brand stuck to traditional construction methods and began producing jackets for its most loyal fans known as the Tribe. This brand, of course, is the now-legendary streetwear giant Stussy. First produced in 1987, the Homeboy Jacket came complete with bold colors on a chenille patch with a wool melton body and leather sleeves. The jacket successfully acknowledged the emergence of the varsity jacket as a piece of clothing belonging just as much to the streets as to elite high schools. Stussy has since produced over a dozen iterations, some in collaboration with quintessential brands like Nike and Bape, carrying the iconic jacket well into the new millennium.
With the rise of luxe streetwear in recent years, the varsity jacket has entered the fuzzy gray zone between street fashion and high fashion. This season alone designers like Paul Smith have tightened up the silhouette while Lavenham x H by Harris created a perfectly contemporary version featuring mesh nylon sleeves.
What’s next for the nearly 100-year old jacket is anyone’s guess but if current releases are any indication, we like what’s in store. Let us know what your favorite varsity jacket is in the comments section below and see you in 2 weeks for another edition of Back to School.
First Image: Dehen 1920