Letter Perfect: The History of Varsity Jackets

By Karen Harris

Richie Cunningham wearing an iconic varsity jacket in a scene from TV's "Happy Days". (filmaffinity.com)

If you played a sport in high school, you probably couldn’t wait to get your Varsity letter. That meant you could officially have a varsity jacket, or letterman jacket, and proudly strut the school hallways showing off the fashion that designated you as an athlete. Letterman jackets remain one of the biggest traditions in high school’s today. The jackets themselves have not changed much—still a woolen coat with leather arms. Have you ever stopped to think about this high school athletic tradition and how it originated? 

Harvard baseball team--the first to wear varsity letters. (diplomaframe.com)

Harvard Baseball, circa 1865

In 1865, the coaches of Harvard’s baseball team wanted a way to distinguish the best players and to reward them for their athletic prowess. They decided on a wearable. They had thick, wool sweaters made and embellished them with an over-sized H. The coaches dubbed the recipients of these sweaters as “the Letterman.” Players vied for the coveted sweaters and, therefore, upped their game. 

1897 football team champions wearing varsity sweaters. (Photo by H. Lefebvre/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

The Move to Football

A decade later, in 1875, the football team at Harvard adopted the Letterman program for their team. This was to be a way to acknowledge the hard work and athletic ability of key players on the team. By making the Letterman an exclusive club, other players worked hard to join. Everyone wanted to be seen walking around campus in a Letterman sweater. 

1920s Letterman sweater. (pinterest.com)

The Sweater Becomes a Jacket

In the early 1900s, the prestige of the Letterman sweaters remained as strong as ever, but it was time for an upgrade. Instead of a wool sweater, the Letterman became a jacket. The wool jacket with leather sleeves was more substantial than a sweater and still distinguished the outstanding players on the team. For more than half a century the Letterman sweater existed alongside the Letterman, or varsity, jacket. 

Letterman jackets are synonymous with the 1950s. *weheawrtit.com)

The 1950s Letterman

Throughout the first half of the 1900s, Letterman sweaters and jackets were popular among the male athletes, but in the 1950s, they became a fashion trend. The Letterman sweaters were a classic and iconic fifties teen trend for both boys and girls. Girls wore them over their pedal pushers or poodle skirts. Boys wore them with their blue jeans to show their school spirit. 

Every high school girl wanted to wear her boyfriend's varsity jacket. (pinterest.com)

Varsity Jackets and Courting

In fact, a high school or college boy often loaned his sweater or jacket to his girlfriend as a symbol of his love and commitment. And the girl proudly wore it as a public display of her relationship. The jacket showed the whole school that she belonged to her boyfriend. The boyfriend secretly hoped for an amicable break up…a scornful ex-girlfriend may slash his varsity jacket to shreds. 

Girls basketball team, circa 1970s. (washingtonpost.com)

Varsity Jackets and Title IX

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, a law that bans discrimination against female athletes and sports. With that, more and more female high school and college athletes demanded that their performances be recognized with symbols of achievement, such as varsity letters. Female basketball, volleyball, softball, and field hockey players, as well as cheerleaders and track stars, were presented with varsity letters to wear on their own Letterman jackets. 

Varsity jackets...not just for sports anymore. (danrodgerssportinggoods.com)

Still Going Strong

The Letterman tradition remains strong in high schools and colleges across the country. In fact, the varsity letter is no longer strictly reserved for athletic achievements. It is possible to earn a varsity letter in band, choir, robotics, academic excellence, sports, and art. The exclusiveness of the varsity jacket may be expanding but the motivation behind it—achieving excellence—remains the same. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.