It is undeniable that if there is a garment that carries with it the entire American sports imaginary – and not only – this is undoubtedly the letterman jacket.
Yes, because originally, what we know as a varsity jacket, the wool jacket with leather sleeves and pockets to match, also had a large letter on the chest, hence “letterman jacket”.
Lately, the popularity of the varsity jacket has come back to prominence thanks to operations such as that of NIGO and his HUMANE MADE brand, giving his closest friends a pink varsity jacket with white sleeves with the words “I Know Nigo” on the back and the name of the recipient embroidered on the chest.
Worn by the likes of Elvis Presley, James Dean and Michael Jackson, a symbol of many subcultures over time, today the varsity jacket is back to being a must in the streetwear world and we decided to tell its story.
The first time a letterman jersey was ever worn was by the Harvard University baseball team in 1865. That first distinctive garment and that marked the appearance to a certain group was definitely different from what we know today: it consisted of a very heavy wool sweater and legend has it that it was the players themselves who decided to embroider in the center of their uniforms, a large “H”, thus giving life to everything.
In the beginning, the uniform had an enormous value and was very prestigious as well as elitist, in fact, it was given to all the members of the team but only the most deserving could keep it, the others – those who sat on the bench for example and played little – had to return it at the end of the season.
In 1891 they began to wear black jerseys off the field, always distinguished by a large “H” embroidered on the chest. This move led to the creation of “Letterman” pullovers and cardigans that had the basic idea of showing pride in belonging to that particular university, something that still happens at all school levels in the United States.
In the early 1900s, the football team of the same university also began to wear their uniforms distinguished by a large embroidered “H”. Here, too, there was a rule that those who did not play had to return their jerseys, while those who were on the field and playing for the good name of the university against historic rivals Yale and Princeton could keep them.
From then on, a real “regulated customization” of uniforms and jerseys began: other embroideries were adopted to establish the player’s rank – such as a star on the chest to identify the captain – or the result of the matches.
In 1930 what we know today as the varsity jacket was born.
Athletes were demanding heavier clothing to combat the cold and leather sleeves and buttons were added to the wool jersey, with the letter moving to one side and the letterman jacket became a status item within universities.
Not everyone could have the letter, you had to earn it through performance on the field. Once you got it you could sew it onto the jacket, it was very serious.
This custom had by then taken hold in all Ivy League universities – a group of the 8 most prestigious private universities in the United States (Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth College and Cornell) – in high schools and all other colleges in America. It was during this period that the term “varsity jacket” was born and became popular, and all athletes at the various schools (college or high school that they were) wore one.
It was in the ’80s that the popularity of the varsity jacket exploded definitively thanks to the attention it aroused in the professional franchises of American sports. The suppliers who produced the merchandising began to make a satin version of the varsity jacket in such a way as to contain costs and expand the catchment area. The Los Angeles Raiders in football, the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics in basketball made their own versions of the varsity, achieving enormous success.
In this way, pop and mainstream culture became acquainted with the varsity jacket, and in 1983 the varsity jacket became a sought-after item: Michael Jackson wore a red and gold one with an “M” on the chest in the video for “Thriller”.
Hip-hop artists such as Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A. often wore one, transforming it into one of the street items par excellence and making it independent from sports issues.
The fashion and streetwear world that was emerging at the turn of the late ’80s and early ’90s did not miss the opportunity to “appropriate” that model of an extremely cool jacket.
In 1987 Stüssy made varsity jackets using old production methods and traditional materials (wool and leather), the Homeboy Jacket and the 1989 One Love are just two examples of reinterpretations of an absolute icon that we are sure will never go out of fashion.