This story begins way back in 1865, when Harvard baseball players began sewing the great scarlet Hwith in the middle of their sweaters. Demarcation meant they were a star – and, as such, few had one. Channel the classic athlete vs. nerd dynamic.
All kidding aside, varsity jackets – also known as “letterman” jackets – became standard issue at the Cambridge-based school a decade later. As cardigans came into fashion, the large logos moved from the center of the chest to the left, where the letters remain to this day. (However, some schools put them on their arms.) The bomber-like iteration we all know now didn’t arrive until the 1930s, coinciding with the rise of high school sports. They were no longer reserved for the well-to-do who went to college; anyone could play soccer, for example, and thus the letter. Hence, the surplus of vintage varsity jackets decades later.
But they weren’t always this popular. Only in the 80s and 90s did the style find its way into the world of fashion. It used to serve as a wearable trophy, a status symbol: you were a student athlete ready to go pro (or at least college), or at least someone who knew someone who was.
The jacket’s transition from private-school to public-school to professional-sports-to-pop-culture-to-high-fashion didn’t happen quickly, though. The university’s roots are in preparation and ivy culture – remember the Harvard baseball team? By the time hip-hop took them over in the 80s, Run DMC was borrowing looks from athletes, but they were original for the elite. (Are they one and the same? That’s another discussion.)
However, we would be remiss to ignore the blacks who adapted the preparations to their own personal styles decades ago. Fashion expert Jason Jules wrote a book, Black Ivy: Rebellion in styleto this.
“Blacks across the country have adopted the clothing of the privileged elite and made it their own,” the book’s synopsis states. “It shows how a generation of men took the classic Ivy look and made it cool, edgy and unpredictable in ways that continue to influence modern menswear today.”
And did their tailoring preferences prove influential. I’d say that the style’s initial success with the Ivy and its introduction to everyone else are the driving forces behind its staying power — the first being reasonable throttle, the second being a dose of NOS. Today, the same wave that flooded the market with rugby shirts and loafers (by a black designer, no less) is pushing varsity jackets back onto the scene.
While there are new ones from Golden Bear, Reigning Champ and even the American Trench, and exceptional iterations from a few seasons ago by Ralph Lauren and Ted Baker to explore, vintage lovers are obsessed with the old, truly school-made – be kind designers rely on reference points.
These buyers, disillusioned with dozens of luxury reproductions, now prioritize uniqueness over advertising. The rarer – whether through splashes of paint, disturbing or obscurely embroidered names or messages – the better, because there’s no way anyone could find an identical copy of yours if it’s a one-of-one for someone from the class of ’61. (Just an example. You get the point.)
How times are changing — and fast. A few years ago, many of those same customers waited in line for Supreme logo T-shirts. Preparation is given to streetwear, streetwear is given to preparation, and the varsity jacket is somewhere in the middle of this transaction. Those intrigued by trends – first vintage T-shirts, then America and western clothing – are making their way to the Atlantic, at least aesthetically – even if they call Paris or Milan their home.
On the streets of both cities, which are the biggest fashion stages during Pitti Uomo and Paris Fashion Week, plenty of men were seen sporting varsity jackets, whether new or used. It was an even mix of both, but obviously the older ones stand out more.
This is because value today lies in the faded veneers of perfection; stains from when crushes wore them during the games; and chain nicknames like “Sunshine” or “Junior”. Athletes may not get better with age—except for LeBron James, though I can’t explain him—but their jackets certainly do. (Cold but
species very true.) Look for the ones from decades ago – the ones with the traditional wool body and heavy leather sleeves. They have a certain nostalgia that kills kitsch.
Sure, your name might not be Charlie, and no, you didn’t win a state swim in 1973 — maybe you weren’t even born yet — but there are no rules. Rock the jacket.
Put on a vintage varsity jacket? Start here
There are dozens of sites dedicated to selling old clothes. On Grailed, for example, there are more than 45,000 ads for “varsity jacket.”
Want to become a new one? Buy one of these
This varsity jacket from The Real McCoy tries to stay true to the era it refers to.
Sharp, clean, kind of university-like – that’s the American trench way.
Ralph Lauren’s varsity jacket looks like it just came off an Ivy League campus.
Ted Baker opts for all black and an open hem, which looks more modern than tight.
Like a good t-shirt, the Reigning Champ version looks soft and warm.