The undeniable heavyweight champion and cornerstone of the American sportswear – the letterman jacket or as we know a varsity jacket. The wool jacket with leather sleeves and large letter on the chest, hence the ‘letterman jacket’.
We’re talking about a classic sportswear piece with over 100 years of history behind it. Worn by style icons such as Axel Foley, Michael Jackson and even royalty like princess Diana. As a staple piece it has woven its roots in various subcultures and now it’s maybe hotter than ever thanks to its street cred. Over time the varsity jacket has become more than just a jock uniform. During the recent times it has gained some new fans due to the brands like Aime Léon Dore doing their own spin on this sportswear classic.
On our little deep dive to the letterman jacket’s rich history, we found out that this story goes way back. It begins back in 1865 in one of the most prestigious schools on the planet, Harvard University. Back then their baseball team picked up a serious sewing habit and started sewing a large letter ‘H’ patch to their uniforms. Even though it would be a nicer for this story, those blokes back then didn’t use the leather sleeved wool jackets we know today, instead they had thick knitted pullover.
Uniforms had a huge value and were very elitist, they were something to be earned. If one played poorly one had to return the jersey at the end of the season. It took a couple of decades but eventually the players began to wear black jerseys with the ‘H’ embroidery on the chest also off the field, in 1891. This led to the creation of ‘Letterman’ cardigans that were worn to show pride in belonging to that particular university. After a while players got to customize their uniforms to show their rank and match scores.
This tradition gained popularity and by the 1930 it finally took its final form - woolen jacket with leather sleeves and big letter on the chest – because athletes began demanding sturdier clothing to beat the cold. The letter on the chest was still hugely valued and it had to be earned on the field. The trend also fell down from the Ivy League to high schools and also got the name ‘Varsity Jacket’.
In 1972 the letterman jacket became something more, a symbol for gender equality. In order to change the unequal treatment of women in education, the United States government prohibited sexual discrimination in all federal funded schools. This meant that now female athletes were able to wear the letterman jackets.
We found out that it took surprisingly long time before the American professional leagues and the masses got their hands on this garment. Finally in the 1980’s the popularity of the infamous varsity jacket exploded thanks to the professional franchises of American sports. To maximize their margins and to reach more people the merchandising suppliers of the teams began producing a satin version of the jacket. Franchises like the Los Angeles Raiders, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics got huge success with their version of the varsity jacket. Maybe one of the most famous varsity jacket moments from the 80’s was when the king of pop himself wore a red letterman jacket, in his iconic ‘Thriller’ music vid in 1983.
Years went by and our beloved varsity jacket become an undeniable embodiment of cool by the late 80’s. Rap was booming and groups like Run DMC with their Superstars and NWA with their Raiders merch brought this street staple to the masses. Even streetwear brands such as Stüssy began making their own version of the jacket in 1987, they called their version the Homeboy jacket. And by the early 90’s even the royalty got their hands on this ever cooler – now streetwear – staple, when princess Di wore a custom-made Philly Eagles’ jacket in 1994.
After over 150 years the varsity jacket is maybe popping more than ever in its history. Now all these years later most brands and designers have made and keep on making their own versions of the iconic jacket. It’s a wardrobe staple tightly woven together with culture and music. It has it all, sense of style and practicality. It’s most definitely the eyecatcher - a statement piece - in every vintage aficionado’s wardrobe. It still is the embodiment of cool.