I was given a little lesson in sportswear history over lunch today. The topic at hand was the varsity jacket (also known as a Letterman jacket), a staple of American university folklore. The lunch, organised by Nike Sportswear, took place in Alice Gallery‘s breath-taking new downtown space located in the heart of Brussels (the gallery is currently holding an exhibition by Parisian artist Olivier Kosta-Théfaine, which runs until 13th November). It was, as a company representative tried to explain, a ‘conference lunch’, where we were invited to listen up, speak up and, well, eat up. We started with the listening, and got down to the eating a little later (lovely spare ribs, chicken nuggets and triple-decker sandwiches).
The talk, given by self-styled consumer culture detective (you got to love the title!) Jason Fulton (a 10 year Nike veteran and now a freelance working for the likes of Converse, Diesel and Red Wing), was a little heavy on the usual buzz words (you know, ‘connecting’, ‘social media’, ‘fast-paced’ and the likes) although some interesting bits of wisdom were nonetheless given. Here’s a rundown of some of the key facts that stood-out:
- The varsity jacket is over 1/2 century old
- The word varsity is actually an abbreviation of the word university
- The jacket first made its appearance in 1865, when the Harvard baseball team needed a way to distinguish itself from other Ivy league universities
- The jacket quickly made its transition to mere sportswear (after baseball, american football also made it an essential match-day style to rock
- The jacket was always owned by the team, and not by the individual. Indeed, after match day, it was to be returned to the team.
- When, in 1952, the term teenager was coined, the varsity jacket came to epitomise ‘teenager cool’ as a way for groups of teens to distringuish themselves in some sort of grouped individuality.
- In the 1980s and 1990s, the jacket became a staple of street and, more specifically, hip hop culture (for more on this, get yourself a copy of Jamel Shabazz’s excellent book Back in the Days)
- Today, the historical significance of the jacket is evidenced by the amount of brands – Bathing Ape, Patta and Supreme, to name but a few – that have brought it back into the collective consciousness of style soldiers from Tokyo to Tel-Aviv.
There you have it, the history of the varsity jacket in eight bullet points.