History and Evolution of the Varsity Jacket


There is a sense of pride that comes with wearing a varsity jacket. For many high school and college students, wearing the symbol of their school connects them to alumni and a lineage of other student-athletes from years past. But what is the history and evolution of the varsity jacket? Its origins date back over 150 years and track the rise of organized sports in America.

The Beginnings at Harvard

One of the first schools to start this tradition was Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also known as “Old Blue”. In 1865, the members of the Harvard baseball team originally donned grey flannel pullovers but needed a way to tell each other apart during games and practice. They came up with wearing thick wool sweatshirts. These sweatshirts had an embroidered “H” on the front to represent Harvard.

Only the best players on the baseball team earned the chance to wear one of these special sweatshirts. It showed that they had proven themselves as leaders on the field through their skills and commitment. Within the team, these sweatshirts signaled which players held the most prestige.

History And Evolution of the Varsity Jacket Unpacked

Ten years later, in 1875, Harvard’s football team decided to make their own version of this tradition. Like the baseball players before, this honor was only for those who really did great during the season. This custom would then spread from Harvard to other schools and sports over the next few years. It started the early beginnings of a tradition that has now lasted over a century.

Branching Out

In the latter half of the 1800s, other elite Ivy League universities started following Harvard’s lead in recognizing top athletes. Schools like Yale and Princeton began giving out special letters to their standout players, adopting the symbol of excellence set by “Old Blue.”

High schools introduced personalized warm-up jackets for lettered athletes, similar to those pioneered by Harvard decades earlier. Over time, the designs evolved from the original bulky wool sweaters. Letterman coats became fitted cardigans crafted from finer fabrics, some featuring leather accents. By 1930, the letterman jacket had taken its now familiar form of a collared, button-down jacket with a wool body and leather sleeves.

A Symbol of Pride

Students who had earned their letter proudly displayed it as a badge of honor throughout their high school or college campus. It showed that they were involved members of the student body. The personalized jackets also connected the wearer to their school in a visual way, showing allegiance and spirit for their alma mater.

After World War 2 ended in the late 1940s, the United States experienced a huge baby boom. This led to a growth in youth sports programs across the country as more families had children. Sporting a varsity jacket became tied to nostalgia for the carefree time of adolescence, team bonds, and school pride. Wearing the jacket linked the student to past generations of alumni who had also lettered in their time as scholar-athletes.

Breaking New Ground

The letterman jacket, during the 1960s time of social change and youth rebellion, took on a new meaning beyond just representing school sports programs by emerging as a true fashion statement frequently seen in popular television shows and movies among young audiences.

Major professional sports leagues of the era also recognized the jacket’s growing influence. They started providing customized fan versions in their team colors and logos. Viewers saw these worn by devoted supporters in stadiums.

More than Sports

The letterman jacket entered mainstream street style in the 1980s, marking a turning point for the iconic garment. Other teams besides sports teams started wearing letterman jackets too. The New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls each made their special letterman jackets to show team pride.

Over the following decades, the jacket’s place in popular culture was solidified through endless nods in classic TV shows and films. Worn by the high school jock or rebellious outsider, the letterman jacket became a retro symbol evoking feelings of nostalgia for American youngsters.

Evolving With Changing Trends

The iconic letterman jacket keeps changing over time with new ideas that let kids today show what makes them different in special ways. Even though the basic look of the letterman jacket stays the same, new changes have made the tradition different for kids nowadays. Students can now make their jackets unique by adding things like pictures stitched on or fabrics that match their own personal style. They can customize their jacket to be one-of-a-kind in a way that shows who they are.

There are now more choices to show your own style, but still, the main feeling of earning a letterman jacket continues. For high school students, getting a “letter” for doing well in a sport, club, or other after-school activity is still a really big deal. It shows you worked hard and are proud of your school.

Read more about: What Is A Varsity Letter?

A Timeless Tradition

As the 20th century approached, sports competition between colleges dramatically increased in popularity. Students flocked to support varsity teams on campuses nationwide. Seeing the tradition taking hold in higher education, high schools across America decided to start honoring exceptional student-athletes in their own way too.

Over a hundred and fifty years since the first ones were worn by Harvard’s baseball team, the golden history of the varsity jacket keeps being a timeless sign. It represents the fun memories, friends, and school pride made during years of learning. Its recognizable shape stays tied to America’s education history and brings back feelings of those carefree days. Even as fashion changes, the varsity jacket proves its tradition can change too while staying important to new students.


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I’m Paul Taylor, the founder and owner of Today Patches. I have over 18 years of experience in embroidery and patch design. Today Patches is a one-stop shop for all your custom patch needs, whether you want to personalize your clothing, accessories, or gifts. I work with a talented team of graphic artists and embroiderers to create high-quality patches that reflect your style and vision. I also love to share my knowledge and tips on embroidery, patch making, and fashion on this blog. I hope you enjoy browsing our gallery and reading our posts. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to contact me anytime. I would love to hear from you!

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