The history of the varsity jacket, from Harvard to hip-hop

SCALLOPED WITH patches, the varsity jacket has, for decades, advertised its wearers as members of a team. But the nature of this team has changed over time. Elite male athletes from Ivy League schools wore the earliest versions in the 1920s, said Deirdre Clemente, fashion historian and author of “Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style.” Woolen jackets – a beloved child of English rowing blazers and letterman sweaters – had press studs, leather sleeves and patches and pins denoting your college and team. They conferred status and swagger and said “I’m a big man on campus” faster than a privileged look.

High schoolers of the ’50s and ’60s turned colleges into emblems of youth culture, but the ’80s brought a different twist: Michael Jackson donned a red and gold one in his “Thriller” video, and hip stars -hop as Run-DMC wore versions of the arguably elite jackets with bravado and a wink. These musicians infused a gritty collegiate style with cool.

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The form of the university has hardly changed over time, but today’s porters choose their own team. What was once rowing Princeton is now Gucci or Louis Vuitton. Young people want to announce an allegiance to a brand and its values, explains Guillaume Philibert, founder of the Dutch label Filling Pieces. Judging by the many universities branded in the spring collections, their desire for it has intensified after two years of confinement. “People want to be part of something and show [it]said Mr. Philibert. “It’s back more than ever.”

TEAM PLAYERS Four updated varsity jackets that can be combined with sweatpants and suit pants. Clockwise from top left: Billionaire Boys Club Jacket, $535, Feature.com; Jacket, $1,895, Rh-ude.com; Jacket, $3,235, Off—White.com; Jacket, $595, GoldenBearSportswear.com

Exercise without being too athletic

Cool, warm and hardwearing, the varsity jacket is a “Hall of Famer” garment, said Olie Arnold, style director at Mr Porter. But now everything revolves around the spirit of the brand. You can opt for the all-American vibe of San Francisco’s Golden Bear; a colorful luxury take by the late Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton; or minimalism courtesy of Céline.

Patches and pins allow the jacket to project its personality. For example, streetwear brand Icecream’s Frosty jacket features a tongue-in-cheek penguin logo from the fictional North Icecream High, while the Filling Pieces model is embroidered with a pineapple patch, a nod to inspiration. caribbean from the spring collection. College “is a room that allows you to be very visual in communicating who you are,” Arnold said. But skip any design you tire of after just one season, he added.

Eager to avoid looking like Emilio Estevez’s “Breakfast Club” understudy? Consider the fit carefully. Older jackets tend to have Michelin Man sleeves that swim even over linebackers’ bodies, Arnold said, while newer ones are often slim and flattering. A varsity plays a good game with jeans and a hoodie, but you can give it a modern edge by pairing it with non-sporty pieces like dress pants and loafers. Taking the jacket out of its athletic context, Mr. Arnold said, ensures it looks fresh and uncostly.

Letters and woman

Eight Winning Moments in Jacket Style History


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1890s

Not so humble beginnings: First worn in the mid to late 1800s by Ivy League athletes, Letterman sweaters like these were the forerunners of varsity jackets.


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Everett-Collection

1970s

Team spirit, television: Richie Cunningham, the freckled 1950s teenager played by Ron Howard in “Happy Days”, embodied Americana in its red version.


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Everett-Collection

1985

Tough-Guy mattress topper: In “The Breakfast Club”, jock and bully Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) endures detention in jeans and a jacket bearing the “S” for Shermer High.


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1980s

Too cool for school: In the 80s, hip-hop groups like NWA and Run DMC (pictured) wore gold jewelry with lettering like these Adidas designs.


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1988

Scary stuff: Michael Jackson accessorized a red and gold version – seen here on his ‘Bad’ tour – with a non-collegiate wolf mask in the 1983 ‘Thriller’ music video.


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1990s

Royal Eagles : According to the story, Jack Edelstein, the Philadelphia Eagles statistician, gave this jacket to Princess Diana after they met at Grace Kelly’s funeral.


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2019

Expat jacket: Tyler, the designer took this jacket from his Golf Le Fleur brand across the Atlantic and paired it with a faux fur hat at the British Fashion Awards.


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2022

Purple power: A lavender version with logo from the late Virgil Abloh’s latest collection for Louis Vuitton, presented in Paris earlier this year.

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