Written by Tiegan Johnston
The Letterman Jacket has slipped in and out of popular culture since the 1950s, and with the mid-century, vintage resurgence of the past few years, it is once again becoming a lusted after addition to many Millennial and Gen Z wardrobes. Yet, the origins of the jacket trace all the way back to 1865, when the Harvard baseball team began the practice of sewing large Old English letter ‘H’ patches onto the centre of their uniforms. Instead of the collared wool jacket and leather sleeves we’re familiar with today, the “letterman sweater” was a thick knitted pullover.
These sweaters became a sign of prestige. Although they were worn by everyone on the team, only those who played well were allowed to keep their letterman sweaters – benchwarmers had to return theirs at the end of the season. As these uniforms became a symbol of school and team pride, they were adopted by the Harvard football team. Soon, the cardigan overtook the sweater in popularity and the letters were shifted from the centre of the players chest to the left.
This tradition continued to gain popularity with other universities and by 1930 it had taken the form we are so familiar with – wool jackets with leather sleeves and chenille lettering – in response to a demand for sturdier uniforms. As the garment trickled down from the Ivy League to high schools, the term ‘Varsity Jacket’ was coined and popularised. This was the Jock uniform of America.
Eventually, the jacket caught the eye of the professional leagues, with merchandising manufacturers producing them for athletes and supporters alike. To keep the prices down for the public, companies began using satin for the jackets instead of leather, making it more accessible to all fans. As the Varsity jacket infiltrated other American sports, fanbase heavy teams like the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls created their own versions.
This all-American staple of preppy lifestyle began to enjoy widespread popularity and crossed into popular culture. In 1983, Michael Jackson wore a red letterman jacket with gold leather sleeves and a large letter ‘M’ emblazoned on the chest, in his iconic “Thriller” music video.
The jacket gained so much popularity that it became a staple of 80s and 90s fashion scene, with hip-hop groups like Run DMC and NWA sporting the jacket, making it a staple of the streets. In 1987, the legendary streetwear label Stüssy began producing its own Letterman jackets using old production techniques, with the original leather and wool materials. The brand went on to release its Homeboy jacket, that paid homage to the original varsity jacket with elements of street influence.
In 1994, even Princess Diana was sporting a custom-made Philadelphia Eagles’ Varsity jacket, a gift from their former statistician Jack Edelstein.
Today brands like Nike and Bape continue to create their own versions of the iconic jacket, ensuring that it continues to be a staple of street and preppy styles. Most recently, Bella Hadid was papped in an iteration of the jacket, pairing it with baggy jeans and loafers, meaning this iconic garment is no longer a symbol of prestige and elitism, but a defining feature of cool.