The History of Varsity Jackets

A warm, smoke-scented jacket on a crisp fall night. Big felt letters with your graduation year that draw smiles and high-fives from your classmates. Varsity jackets evoke a sense of being young and becoming a fully-formed teenage gladiator. Receiving one was a right of passage for every player that wanted to make “the big leagues.” A simple garment represented a blend of team spirit and personal achievement. For others, it was a way to promote their team and a sense of belonging–whether it was with a school or an entire city. No other piece of outerwear can talk such a big game.

In the heat of summer, it’s hard to imagine that football games and bonfires are right around the corner. However, as I reach into my closet and see my old varsity jacket hanging up, the temptation to throw it on over my favorite graphic tee returns.


A 1950s-era Rich-Knit varsity jacket for sale on Grailed. Image via garagesalevip/Grailed.

Waist-length and sporty, this garment is built for athletes. They feature minimalist collars, from knitted mandarin-styles to point collars. The body of the jacket is typically assembled with melton or boiled wool — as the name implies, this fabric is treated in hot water which makes it dense and durable while also giving it a felted texture. Sleeves are crafted from leather or faux leather with ribbed cuffs, and a ribbed waistband ensures the waist fits closely.

School colors are invariably used but, if your school has terrible taste (ours was dark purple and gray), you can always pick a more toned-down palette for yourself. No matter your choice, a classic hallmark of the varsity jacket is that the body and sleeves are different colors. Two-tone stripes on the collar, cuffs, and even the waistband complete the look. As for the front closures? Buttons, typically the snap kind.

Let’s Talk Lettermen


Sweaters were traditionally how varsity letters were displayed. This photo was taken after school in Amsterdam, New York, 1941. Image via

At its core, a varsity jacket is a garment designed to carry a “letter.” In the U.S., letters are usually awarded as a sign of athletic achievement and participation in varsity-level sports (the highest classification at most schools). This gave rise to the phrase “letterman jacket” which is synonymous with a “varsity jacket”. Historically, these pieces of Americana have also been referred to as “award jackets” in catalogs.

Harvard University is credited is starting this uniquely American trend. In the 1860s, a singular bold letter was used to identify members of their baseball team–a sport that was in its infancy at this time. The original garments are described as gray pullovers with an “H” applied front and center. Sportswear with school letters was the team’s property at that time but MVPs were allowed to keep their sweaters after the season ended. A decade after the baseball team adopted the H system, Harvard’s football program followed suit.


Arthur Siegel captured this photo of shipyard workers taking lunch in 1943. The guy third from the right appears to have a varsity letter on his sweater. Image via

Fireman Theory


A 1850s-era fireman of Cohocksink, Pennsylvania wears his town’s letters on his cape. Image via LotSearch.

Where the Harvard baseballers got the idea isn’t readily discussed, but many organizations adopted bold letters on their uniforms during the mid-t0-late 19th century. Firefighting companies, ironically, were the most flamboyant. Everything from community names to company numbers — and even the familiar capital letters that we associate with letterman jackets — were crafted from brass, leather, and wool.

Firefighting was a far different field in the mid-19th century; there were relatively few professional agencies as brigades were organized and competed like semi-pro athletic teams. They were often supported through brigade members as well as property owners paying a subscription (in case they needed their services). If you’ve ever seen the movie Gangs of New York, you may remember watching the competing private fire brigades getting into a brawl. That wasn’t artistic license–it literally happened.


This fireman appears to be wearing a wool bib-front shirt with his brigade’s letter on the front. Notice the collar and cuff trim. Image via Matthew’s Island.

Competitive parallels can be drawn between firefighters and athletes even today. There are certainly factors of physical exertion that will always remain…but who would’ve thought that putting out a blaze once involved a game of Red Rover?

Collar and Cuff Trim

It should also be noted that rowing teams had sweaters and blazers that may have inspired the modern varsity jacket’s trim. Personally, I believe pullovers and cardigans of all sports evolved concurrently. The varsity jacket that we know and love reflected men’s popular fashion after World War I. We’ll cover this later.

Still, this waterborne sport was popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries. It certainly made a splash in the athleticwear world. Rowing blazers today offer a unique selection more akin to business casual (with Gucci-high prices) than the less-formal letterman jacket.

The Cardigan


The New York Yankees baseball team in their knit cardigans, 1923. Babe Ruth is out in front. Image via Sophia Jerrett/Facebook.

Knit cardigans were offered off-the-rack in the late 19th century. They were perfect for warm-up gear. It wasn’t long before the next iteration of the letterman jacket was realized since the full-button coat could be easily worn over flannel shirts–the outerwear was referred to as “coat jerseys” in period catalogs. Despite the growing line of knitted goods that coaches could pick from, pullovers persisted into the next century. Both cardigans and their button-less counterparts incorporated team colors with decorative trim. By the early 20th century, a distinct athletic outerwear fashion was emerging.

The Real MVP: Letters Meet Jackets


The princes of America’s pastime. Photographed in 1928, and named left-to-right, Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth pose in their club colors. The jackets are certainly of note and appear to be of all-cloth construction with button closures. The classic varsity jacket is on the horizon. Image via OldSchoolCool/Reddit.

The Roaring Twenties was a decisive decade for fashion across the board. Athletic wear is included in this claim because the varsity jacket became the icon that is today. Spurred on by the popularity of sports –with big personalities and the means to bring them to wide audiences through print and radio – the industry made bold plays that landed them in the popular imagination.

While boxing was the first sport ever filmed, in 1894, baseball was no stranger to motion picture cameras by the 1920s. After all, team franchises were becoming a big deal. The branding had to capture the thrill of explosive growth.


Ebbets Field Flannels is unrivaled when it comes to pure art in the form of historic sportswear. Image via Ebbets Field Flannels.

There seems to have been considerable overlap between the growth of early motorsports and the proliferation of new styles across American athletic competitions. Shorter jackets were in vogue and teams were keen to adopt them. For baseballers specifically, these garments were similar in cut to cossack jackets and featured fabric bodies along with many of the other hallmarks listed above. While I haven’t identified a true “first varsity jacket,” Ebbets Field Flannels offers an exact reproduction from the New York Cuban Stars‘ 1927 season jacket. What’s missing from this example that we see today? Leather sleeves — which became standard in later decades.

Prominent among the midcentury makers was Butwin Sportswear Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Their pieces are common across the vintage marketplace. Even their tags feature the varsity jacket as part of their logo!


Detail of a 1940s-era varsity jacket made by Butwin and sold by Spaulding Sporting Goods (not to be confused with Spalding!). Image via @unusualatmosphere/Instagram.

The First High-Visibility Jackets?


Cassen’s patent for what would become the classic varsity jacket. It was assigned to Butwin Sportswear Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Image via Google Patents.

World War II realized the shining potential of luminescent paints and coatings like DayGlo. After the fighting stopped, chemists and designers sought peacetime applications. Using the classic varsity jacket as a template, the above patent was assigned to Butwin Sportswear for “protecting against blows or punches with reflective or luminous safety means.” This same basic idea can be found on construction sites today.

The Age of Teenagers


Homicidal teens, hotrods, and varsity jackets. Teenage Thunder (1957) is one of those B-movies that’s just fun to watch. On a cultural note, the loose relationship between varsity jackets and motorsports persisted well beyond the 1920s as hotrodding flourished. Image via IMDb.

Baseball only continued to grow in popularity and was exported by young G.I.’s during and after World War II. Despite the cultural boom, by the 1950s, the U.S. faced an unprecedented puzzle; teenagers. Legions of them. Call it “rebellion,” but everything from the controversial sounds of rock-and-roll to the knife-wielding hotrodders of James Dean’s following represented repressed youth set free.


George Lucas wore a varsity jacket on the set of American Graffiti (1973). This fashion choice was probably deliberate–the movie is a love letter to growing up in Southern California during the early ’60s. Image via Photofest The Hollywood Reporter.

The varsity jacket, property of the high school letterman caught between being young and becoming a man, was now a narrative symbol. Like ancient Greek athletes being crowned with olive branch wreaths, it was a display of physical prowess. There was then additional subtext when it came to storytelling;

For protagonists, the garment represented ability, charisma, and achievement.

Antagonistic jocks were simultaneously painted as hulking letterman bullies without brains.


Some football letterman from the fictional Marshall College pictured before the big diner brawl in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Image via Kevingr/Indiana Jones Wiki.

Hollywood leveraged this powerful, dual association in its many depictions of American teenage life–through comedic and dramatic lenses. Wardrobe departments in television shows and movies awarded letters to their actors well into the ’80s (and even beyond with more nostalgic shows).


Archie Cunningham (right, played by Ron Howard) wears a varsity jacket in a scene from the ’50s-nostalgia series Happy Days. Image via The Telegraph.

Hip-Hop and Pop


Strangely, this is the second teenage werewolf that’s made it into this article. Michael Jackson is shown here on the set of Thriller (1984) with director John Landis to the left. Image via F. E. Castleberry.

Urban America turned the varsity jacket into an artistic symbol. Repping the local professional team(s) meant taking pride in your home turf. As hip-hop’s popularity grew, so did the number and sizes of patches that adorned its lyrical poets. Michael Jackson was a pioneer in this respect–his red and yellow jacket from the “Thriller” music video became a cultural icon by the mid-1980s.

The-History-of-Varsity-Jackets-Scott-Howard-(played-by-Michael-J.-Fox)-sports-his-school's-varsity-jacket-in -Teen-Wolf-(1985).-Image-via-TextNow420-Reddit

Scott Howard (played by Michael J. Fox) sports his school’s varsity jacket in  Teen Wolf (1985). Image via TextNow420/Reddit

Modern Makers

There’s no debate, nostalgia has incredible power. The ’80s have already made a comeback and now it’s time for the patch-and-logo-laden ’90s. A celebration of youthful rebellion seems to occur with every generation and it’s interesting that for a solid half-century, the varsity jacket has found a following on and off the athletic fields.

American Trench


This is a faithful reproduction of the archetypical postwar varsity jacket; simple, effective, and full of rich textures that work together. Whether you wear it as is, or use it as a blank canvas for your alma mater, you’re getting a work of American art. The no-frills Varsity Jacket is available from American Trench for $250

Cockpit USA


Jeff Clyman, the founder of Cockpit USA, also created the O.G. hip-hop icon Avirex back in the day. Getting back to their roots in New York’s music scene, they make a letterman jacket that’s a solid tribute to the big felt letters (words) and colorful logos of the ’90s. This version is inspired by their love of aviation with its leather body.

The Cockpit USA Leatherman Jacket is available Cockpit for $790


The second Cockpit USA selection easily transitions from the streets to the country club. Minus the flat collar, it has the classic trappings of a midcentury letterman. This is a versatile fall jacket.

The Classic Varsity is also at Cockpit for $520

Dehen 1920


The most gratifying part of my job, when researching these garments, is finding the companies that are still in business. Dehen 1920 is descended from William Peter Dehen. After immigrating to the U.S. from Germany, he and his family eventually settled in Portland, Oregon where his garment business hit full stride. He supplied activewear to motorcyclists and student-athletes alike. Jump to today and a modern twist has been put on an old favorite; the current varsity jacket offering uses cotton moleskine fabric as opposed to boiled wool. This is a subtle change from afar but sublime to the touch.

You can find the Varsity Jacket Navy Brisbane Moss® Moleskin & Rust Leather at Division Road for $595

Falcon Garments


A slim-fit version of the varsity jacket is intuitive because it exists for the athletic build. However, I don’t see a football player squeezing into this version. Aside from a modern cut, Falcon has also adopted the prevailing Japanese philosophy of using materials that are pure and impeccable.

You can check out this Varsity at Falcon Garments for $525


This is the antithesis of the commercialized jackets from the ’90s. Suave and sculptural, this piece is all about form. The subdued shoulder details, which evoke a sense of the (traditional) alternately-colored sleeves, are eye-catching in an unexpected way. Avant but respectful.

The Varsity 2.0 is available at Falcon for $505