The wily Europeans might tend to grandstand about their importance in the history of men’s fashion – Britain for its suiting, Italy for its knack for gentlemanly shoes and leather accessories – but America’s place in the pantheon of men’s sartorial legacy is often overlooked.
It was, after all, the US Navy that created the ‘T-shirt’ as we know it, with troops returning from the Spanish American war with the government-issued undergarment proudly on display, having worn it as such in the broiling heat.
And from the grunt and grind of the forces, another casualwear staple was born in the altogether more genteel and gilded environs of Harvard University – the varsity jacket. It swiftly gathered pace become a lynchpin of American sporting dynamism.
Now that item so synonymous with collegiate life and polite Ivy League pursuits is having a resurgence, at least in the upper echelons of high fashion.
At Paris house Saint Laurent, it has become a key component of the house’s new youth-centric focus, while brands such as Valentino and Gucci have elevated it from its sportswear origins, adding lavish decoration and embroidery.
All of which is pitch perfect for the maximalist dandy, but a tad more tricky for your average Joe DiMaggio on the streets.
For that fellow, it’s best to opt for styles that pay homage to the varsity jacket’s low-key, pitcher-appropriate ease. The shape is defined and neat, looking most dynamic with sleek, sculptural lines and contrasting ribbing.
It’s worth applying a touch of DIY industrialism in this respect; have the trim updated by a trusted alterations service or invest in felt varsity letters, if your jacket lacks, and them to have sewn on in your initials (neffco.com offers a service).
There’s also a happy sense of Fifties nostalgia to the style; in today’s tumultuous world, who doesn’t relish that?
Tracing the trend
It was in 1865 that Harvard’s baseball team decided to introduce letters to the player’s uniforms as a way of honoring the best player. The practice caught on and spread to employ a scarlet red H on sweater for each member of the team, although the shape at this point took the form of a woolen cardigan rather than a cropped jacket.
In the 1950s, as the newly invented TV beamed the ideal of the American Dream, the varsity jacket was depicted as the uniform of the sporty jock teenager, traditionally in block colours with contrasting trim and solid lettering. By the time Grease debuted in the 1970s, it denoted being part of a tribe.
After dalliances with the hip hop community of the 1990s, the varsity was then taken up by Hedi Slimane during his era-defining reign at Saint Laurent, focusing on it as a defiant symbol of youth and L.A music-vibe cool. Sporty versions gave way to riotous creations in spangles and animal print.