The Varsity Jacket Went from High School to High Fashion. Here’s How
This story starts all the way back in 1865, when Harvard baseball players started sewing big crimson Hs onto the centers of their sweaters. The demarcation meant they were a star player — and, as such, few had one. Cue the classic jock vs. nerd dynamic.
All joking aside, varsity jackets — a.k.a. “letterman” jackets — became standard issue at the Cambridge-based school a decade later. As cardigans came into the fashion, the big logos moved from the center of the chest to the left, where the letters remain to this day. (That said, some schools put them on the arms.) The bomber-like iteration we all know now didn’t arrive until the 1930s, in synchronicity with the rise of high-school sports. No longer were they reserved for the well-off that went to college; anyone could play football, for example, and thus letter. Hence, the surplus of vintage varsity jackets decades later.
But they haven’t always been this popular. It wasn’t until the ’80s and ’90s that the style found its way into the fashion world. Prior, it served as a wearable trophy, a status symbol: you were a student athlete poised to go pro (or at least collegiate), or at least someone who knew someone like that.
The jacket’s private-school-to-public-school-to-pro-sports-to-pop-culture-to-high-fashion transition didn’t happen fast, though. The varsity’s roots are in prep and ivy culture — remember the Harvard baseball team? By the time hip-hop got ahold of them in the ’80s, Run DMC was borrowing the look from jocks, but they were original to the elites. (Are they one in the same? That’s another debate.)
However, we’d be remiss to overlook the Black men that adapted prep staples to their own personal styles decades earlier. Fashion savant Jason Jules wrote the book, Black Ivy: A Revolt In Style, on this.
“Black men across the country adopted the clothing of a privileged elite and made it their own,” the book’s synopsis reads. “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 today’s modern menswear.”
And have their sartorial preferences proved influential. I’d argue the style’s initial success with the ivy crowd and its introduction to everyone else are the driving forces behind its staying power — the first a sensible throttle, the second a shot of NOS. Nowadays, the same wave that’s 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 out from Golden Bear, Reigning Champ, and even American Trench, and exceptional iterations from a few seasons ago by Ralph Lauren and Ted Baker to explore, vintage-lovers are obsessing over old, truly school-made ones — the kind designers rely on as reference points.
These shoppers, disenchanted by dime-a-dozen luxury reproductions, now prioritize uniqueness over hype. The more rare — whether through paint splatters, distressing, or obscure embroidered names or messages — the better, because by no means could someone find an identical copy of yours if it was one-of-one for someone in the class of ’61. (Just an example. You get the gist.)
How times change — and fast. A few years ago, many of these same buyers were lining up for Supreme logo tees. Prep’s given to streetwear, streetwear’s given to prep, and the varsity jacket lies somewhere in the middle of this transaction. Those intrigued by trends — first vintage T-shirts, then Americana and western wear — are making their way toward the Atlantic, at least aesthetically — even if they call Paris or Milan home.
On the streets of both cities, which are fashion’s biggest stages during Pitti Uomo and Paris Fashion week, men aplenty were seen sporting varsity jackets, whether new or used. There was an even mix of both, but obviously older ones stand out more.
That’s because value nowadays lies in faded veneers of perfection; stains from when crushes wore them during games; and chain-stitched nicknames like “Sunshine” or “Junior.” Athletes may not get better with age — except LeBron James, although I can’t explain him — but their jackets certainly do. (Cold but
kind of very true.) Look for ones from a few decades ago — ones with the traditional woolen bodies and heavyweight leather sleeves. They have a nostalgic quality about them that kills the kitschiness.
Sure, your name may not be Charlie, and no, you didn’t win States in swimming in 1973 — you might not have even born yet — but there are no rules. Rock the jacket.
Set on a Vintage Varsity Jacket? Start Here
There are dozens of sites dedicated to selling old clothes. On Grailed, for example, there are over 45,000 listings for “varsity jacket.”
Want to Go New? Buy One of These
This The Real McCoy’s varsity jacket tries to stay true to the era it references.
Crisp, clean, kind of collegiate — that’s the American Trench way.
Ralph Lauren’s varsity jacket looks like it’s fresh off an Ivy League campus.
Ted Baker opts for all-black, and an open hem, which looks more modern than a cinched one.
Like a good sweatshirt, Reigning Champ’s version looks soft and warm.