2019 Jersey

The Letter Sweater

By G. Bruce Boyer

Jul 13, 2022

The Letter Sweater

Thankfully, you needn't be a star of college sports to enjoy our cashmere "letter sweater".

Sports were perhaps the greatest influence on college style in the 20th century. We tend to forget thatsportcoats were in fact first worn forsports, and left without any infrastructure or padding because athletes were more muscular. That was the essence of “soft tailoring”. Not to mention button down shirts (first worn by polo players), shorts and light flannels (white for tennis), blazers (for rowing, the term comes from the bright stripes of these jackets), and a great variety of knitwear.

Knitwear has been a treasure trove of sportswear over the years: the off-white cable V-neck cricket sweater, the crew neck, the roll neck, and the short-sleeved polo are all styles that come immediately to mind, and each of which made popular over a hundred years ago and still seen today. A quick review of the walls of college gyms, boathouses, fraternities and club houses reveals countless photos of varsity teams accoutered in this nattysportsknitwear. At the moment I’m looking at a sepia-toned photo of the stalwart Yale University football team c. 1910. A robust group of fourteen young men, most with hair parted in the middle, wearing heavy canvas trousers tucked into stout boots, and beefy roll neck letter sweaters sporting a prominently displayed “Y” in contrasting colour stitched on the chest.

Coveted by promising freshman collegiate athletes since the middle years of the 19thcentury as a way of identifying and rewarding participation and excellence in sport, the iconic “letter sweater” was seen on the Harvard baseball team as early as 1865, soon followed by the school’s football team. What the granting of school letters – a young athlete who received one was said to have been “lettered” –  signified historically was both the advent of scholastically organized sports, and a new hero on campus. By 1891 letter sweaters were awarded regularly to collegiate baseball intramural teams. And the BMOC (Big Man on Campus) was born.

By the 20th century, members of varsity college teams were being lettered as a recognition not only of team participation or playing acumen, but as a symbol – note the high moral tone – of character, and commitment to the ideals of the game. It gave the recipient a certain prestige and élan on campus, school memoirs now being full of references to the feats (and often antics) of these noblemen of the pitch, field, and river. There was a golden aura around these promising lads. Was it an indication of success in later life? I’m sorry to say I really haven’t done the dogged research on this point, but the myths of dashing feats live on in memory.

The classic look during  The Golden Age of Ivy in the middle of the 20th century was to wear your letter sweater with khakis, button down, and penny loafers. And a duffel coat in cold weather (camel and navy were the only two acceptable colours). Understated, egalitarian, yet the stuff that dreams are made of. The Drake’s sybaritic cashmere version of this classic, with its quintessential saddle shoulder, ribbed neck, cuffs, and hem is perhaps more for the graduate who has made his mark beyond the playing field.

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