The Letterman: A Short History

In 1852 Harvard’s first rowing team braced itself to face their Ivy League rival, Yale, on the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire in what would become the first intercollegiate sporting event in America. It was this regatta, inspired by the eminent Oxford/ Cambridge boat race, by now a historical institution after their first meeting in 1829, that laid the foundations for the beginnings of an intercollegiate sporting legacy.

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It spurred the establishment of numerous college sports teams and marked the beginning of intercollegiate competition and rivalry.

At around this time the game of baseball in America had begun to take over in popularity from the traditional English sports of cricket and rounders.

In 1845, Alexander Cartwright compiled a set of rules to be applied to baseball. At the same time he was one of the founders of the earliest organised baseball teams named the New York Knickerbockers who also played in the earliest recorded baseball matches. The club itself had been founded in 1845 as a social club for the upper middle classes of New York society. With this in mind, baseball found itself acceptable to the higher classes within society and placed itself within the realms of respectability.

The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 did much to improve the game’s popularity with soldiers away at war playing the game at times of leisure and so the game’s popularity soared post-war.

Baseball made its debut on the collegiate field in 1859 when colleges Amherst and Williams played the first match in Pittsburg, Massachusetts. The rivalry between the two institutions has gone down as one of the oldest in American academic history. This first game instigated a legacy of sporting history that would become a stronghold in the culture of American universities.

The game of baseball on an intercollegiate level also gave rise to another far reaching legacy, the Letterman.

It was in 1868 when Ivy League giants Harvard and Yale met on the baseball pitch to play their first intercollegiate league game. The term ‘Ivy League’ derived from the image of the ivy adorned walls of the gothic structures of America’s east coast universities. These select universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and Dartmouth took their lead from the distinguished English institutions of Oxford and Cambridge, which are steeped in history and tradition.

Like them the American institutions set out to create a league of elite and prestigious universities for the academically gifted high-end of society.

That day in 1868 Harvard proudly took home the win but they also took home with them a piece of history. It was the Harvard team that proposed the simple notion of applying a letter ‘H’ to front of their baseball flannel uniform. The ‘H’ was in an old English style font and the colour magenta it was later changed to crimson to match the official college colour. It was a proud symbol of their allegiance to their campus and it was therefore at this moment the history of the Letterman began.

The Letter refers to the appliqué letter that appears on baseball jackets, crew sweatshirts and knits. The crew sweat that is adorned with a letter is named a ‘Letterman’ and for one who is awarded a letter is said to be have been ‘Lettered’.

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This simple attachment carries with it great meaning; to receive such a piece was a clear recognition of sporting prowess, earning the wearer respect from peers and a distinction of honor.

The Harvard team initially used the letter to distinguish their players and they would return their flannel jersey once a match or season was over. It soon caught on to honour a player’s hard work and contribution by allowing the player to keep his lettered flannel baseball jersey as a reward. Such a reward brought with it a sense of pride and achievement, therefore creating a covetable award.

The importance of the Letterman was soon recognised. Brands like Russell Athletic, founded in 1902 and Champion, founded in 1919 were the pioneers of a new fabric, sweat jersey. Jersey offered an alternative to the dry and itchy flannel wool tops worn by baseball players. Sweat tops stretched, allowing a greater ease of movement and the ribbed cuffs and hem allowed the garment to fit closely to the body. A rib ‘v’ shaped insert, nicknamed a ‘dorito’, positioned to the front and back neck were designed to absorb sweat. The style was quickly adopted as training apparel.

What soon followed would be called the Letter Sweater, in which the letter applied to one’s baseball jersey could also be applied to the crew sweatshirt, therefore enabling the player to display their letter on and off the pitch. It also gave the sportsman the opportunity to display how often he had been awarded that letter by applying stripes to his sleeve. Wearing of the crew sweat off the pitch extended to around campus. This migration set up the transition of sportswear into casual wear as the crew-neck sweatshirt began to be worn as casual daytime attire and not just reserved for the sporting fields.

It was at Princeton University that it became a trend for girlfriends to wear the letter sweater furthering its transgression into everyday wear and furthermore affirming the Letterman as a respectable and desirable piece of apparel.

It was during the 1930’s when the letter was again interpreted into another style, this time into what would become an iconic mainstay in collegiate and American culture; the baseball jacket.

Baseball Jackets, like the crew sweatshirts, had rib cuffs and hem to ensure a close fit to the body, a curved rib collar allowing ease of movement and turning of the head and also featured a press-stud fastening, the zip still being in its infancy at this time.

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In 1893 the Intercollegiate Commission was established who then in 1895 met to set out one of the most important elements of university tradition. With the expansion of American universities it was decided that each institution would be assigned a colour combination. This would then be the universities’ signature and would be applied to ceremonial gowns and other university attire. It was these rules that helped make the baseball jacket so iconic.

Baseball jackets began to emerge in the now traditional format with melton wool body and leather sleeves, displaying the universities colours.

The all-important Letter would be placed on the left chest. The Jacket accompanied by a Letter became a strong status symbol, demonstrating that the wear was a character of sporting skill and achievement. With the popularity of sports such a large feature on campus, the jacket would earn the wearer recognition and high acclaim.

In much the same way as the Letter sweater, the pride afforded in wearing one meant that the baseball jacket became a common sight around Campus worn as a casual jacket rather than solely reserved as Baseball attire.

In 1941 the lives of American civilians changed dramatically as the USA entered World War II. Such an event unavoidably interrupted the progression of American youth; many prospective students were now conscripted into the armed forces along with students already in place at the Ivy League institutions. The collegiate baseball pitches fell quiet during the war years.

It was post war, once the battlefields now took their turn to fall quiet and for its soldiers to return that the campus experienced it’s biggest transformation to date.

The G.I Bill, instigated by the American Government, was an attempt to ease the re-integration of its returning soldiers into society, rebuilding itself post war. One of its greatest concerns was the prospect of high unemployment figures and the effect this would have on the economy. One of its solutions was to offer these men passage to university. The G.I bill resulted in inflated numbers at universities across the country including the Ivy League universities. It must be said that crucially a reason for the rise in numbers was that students who would be attending at that time anyway were joined by the students that had been forced to postpone their study and were now doing so after a period of deferment. But what really made the difference was the new class of student, the middle class.

In the years running up to the war the Ivy League institutions were seen as the reserve of the elite, the upper classes of society. The G.I bill now facilitated the enrolment of people from all corners of society. This had a great effect on the ‘preppy’ look and campus lifestyle. It was the collegian G.I’s that popularised khakis into the preppy look after realising their ease of wear during wartime.

In the years following the War, the people of America began to enjoy increased leisure time with more regular working hours and pay. This, mixed with the raised numbers at university, led to the burgeoning interest in intercollegiate sports and along with this the now increasingly popular ‘Ivy League Look’.

The Baseball Jacket and the letterman experienced its halcyon period. Collegiate sport flourished along with its style. Letterman Jackets and sweaters were increasingly worn across campus and became a regular sight in American culture.

The look signified an aspirational lifestyle, one full of prospects. It was a life once reserved for the few, the elite and prestigious, a cut above the everyman but now it was achievable for many. With this in mind, the baseball jacket and the letterman became much further reaching symbols.

The occupation of Japan post World War II by the American military forces was also one of the pinnacle times in American clothing culture and its ascent to a wider audience.

The American occupation did much to establish a new sense of freedom for the population of Japan, raising human rights and building growth in the economy. People felt freed from the constraints of dictatorship and conforming to traditions. The image presented to them of American GI’s both in uniform and in casual American style launched an interest in western clothing and style that is still strong today.

It was in Japan at this time that the Baseball Jacket experienced its first permutation. At Yukosuka Airbase the stationed American airmen commissioned the local craftsmen to embellish their baseball jackets with embroideries of traditional Japanese motifs. The jacket embellishments became popular as souvenirs of a time spent upon foreign lands. Such jackets were later coined as Sukajan, meaning souvenir jacket.

The Japanese enthrallment with American clothing was only to increase with the publication of ‘Take Ivy’, in Japan in 1965, creating something of a cult following. The book visually documented Ivy League university life, from students walking about campus to the busy dining halls and providing an intimate view on campus society. Featuring the fashions and clothing etiquette of this, now a mainstay in America, this was new to the Japanese viewer who quickly identified a clear lifestyle message. The Ivy League Universities were well regarded as the epitome of elite in the field of education and its attending students were proud to be seen as a part of it through adorning the colours of the university and the varsity jacket emblazoned with the university name. ‘Take Ivy’ writer, Teruyoshi Hayashida, describes his struggle to understand the idea of campus fashion due in part to his upbringing in Japan where it is necessary for students at school to wear a strict uniform. Like his readers he quickly realised that the students of the Ivy League campus were creating their very own image. The campus and its surroundings were their world and therefore were influenced by its own society. Sporting attire becoming casual wear being a key component to the preppy look.

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The Japanese viewer adopted an admiration for the student customisation and creating a fashion movement rather than just a trend.

The 1970’s saw another phase in the life of the baseball jacket: Britain and America saw the uprising of the Punk and Hip Hop trends respectively. Hip Hop adopted the baseball jacket, influenced by its meaning and symbolism of belonging to a brotherhood. It combined elements of the collegiate letterman and the sukajan, again furthering the reach of the baseball jacket into American culture.

It was at this time the Ivy Look took something of a back seat as popularity dropped in favor of the new trends such as Hip Hop that offered an alternative lifestyle. That was until 1980 when the book The Official Preppy Handbook was published. The book, edited by Lisa Birnback, was a lighthearted take on the preppy lifestyle, once again garnering interest in the style and its image. This resurgence was further aided by the advancing popularity of designer Ralph Lauren.

With his beginnings as a salesman for Brooks Brothers he was well versed in the preppy look. He is one of the styles most renowned cultivators and progressed the look from the confinement of the collegian and the campus to the wider, mass audience. The preppy look became popularised throughout American society, affirming it as now mainstream in its culture. The Baseball Jacket was a key player in the preppy look, with its transgression into everyday wear: it not only symbolised a connection to sporting achievement and participation in what was one of America’s great pastimes but also a reflection on a lifestyle. A lifestyle of one’s drive to better oneself and an allegiance with the perceived higher end and fashionable set of society.

The Letterman and the Baseball Jacket have affirmed their position in the fashion and style archives in the history of America, so much so that such a style has now transferred to mainstream menswear. Brands such as Carhaart, Fred Perry and Stussy, each varying in their brand ethos, have visited the Letterman and interpreted it through their brand identity whilst remaining close to the Letterman image of authenticity.

Over 80 years the Baseball Jacket has navigated a passage from its first beginnings as covetable reward jacket on the sports fields at the elite Ivy League institutions, through to fashionable campus attire, reaching the shores of Japan set against the backdrop of a post war civilisation seeking to discover its new identity to modern day in which the jacket has now firmly positioned itself in the realms of men’s fashion, continually adopted and interpreted by brands and designers.

It was that day 1868 that a legacy was established, an unforeseen lasting and far reaching legacy that continues to influence, and yet it is a style that refuses one to forget its roots and the history of a now timeless piece.

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