The letter jacket, or letterman jacket, is one of the most iconic pieces of American memorabilia that exists.
It is a sacred sports trophy, given only to those that have proven themselves in their field.
International superstars such as Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and James Dean have all worn the letter jacket and catapulted this all-American icon into a fashion piece of international renown.
The letterman jacket carries the prestige, authority, and style of the high school and university it represents. It is known the world over for one simple reason:
The letterman jacket is the bearer of the iconic varsity letter.
The act of being awarded a letter in sports implies that someone has been ”lettered”. This letter is always sewn onto a jacket known as the letterman jacket.
This article will explore how lettering came about, its history, and how you, too, can become lettered.
The Mythical Monogram
The varsity letter, the monogram. The monogram has been the symbol of athletic excellence for over a century.
A varsity letter is a single letter that is awarded to any student that has proved his worth to his team or represented his team in a significant manner. To be lettered implies the recipient has significantly contributed to their team’s success.
This is usually demonstrated by playing in a certain number of games, by scoring a certain amount of goals, or achieving a certain metric of athletic success.
Formally, universities and schools have awarded the varsity letter to a deserving student after they have demonstrated upstanding moral character and perform satisfactorily in academics as well.
A monogram, or letter, is issued to the student. The letter usually carries the initials of the institute and comes in the colors or themes of the institute it represents.
Initially, universities issued recipients the letter by itself. It would arrive in a patch be sewn onto the student’s jacket by either their parents or grandparents in the 1870s. Now, the jacket itself is issued with the letter already embroidered onto it.
The letterman jacket and varsity symbol are often synonymous, as the only purpose of the symbol is to be sewn onto the jacket.
This practice first originated at Harvard University of Cambridge in 1865. With opposing sports teams in different universities, there was a need for players to have a standardized uniform across different branches of their institute. An emblem or letter was needed to serve as identifications on uniforms.
The baseball team decided to sew a giant “H” onto the center of their sweaters, denoting them as the Harvard team. This gave birth to the first instance of the letterman sweater.
It was a symbol of pride and accomplishment. This was the first time varsity letters began to be used as awards.
The practice spread to the football team as well. Slowly, the other sports teams all began to use the letter as well.
The letters were distributed to everyone on the team, and only those who had proven their talent got the privilege to keep it. Most of those who kept it had participated in important games against notable rival institutes such as Yale and Princeton.
Benched players were asked to return their letterman jackets at the end of the season. They were awarded certificates of participation instead, to denote they had been part of the team but not quite accomplished as much as a letterman.
Other individuals that failed to meet other criteria were asked to relinquish their letters as well. The institute let the coach practice a lot of discretion when deciding who received letters and who didn’t.
This started a trend that spread to other sports as well. Slowly, letters began to be embroidered onto pullovers and cardigans as well. These pieces of clothing represented your position in the sports teams and were a trophy for everyone to vie for. The letterman items were also made of thick wool and sleeved with leather to help players brave the cold months as well. Students wore them outside campus to denote themselves as members of the universities they represented and reaped the social benefits of doing so.
Institutes also improved their image, in turn, by having the best students wear their initials and advertise themselves to the world.
Most high school and university students were awarded one letter in their entire career. Very rarely were multiple letters ever awarded. In the instances a student had proven himself excelling even among other lettermans, further embroidery was made into the fabric of the jacket.
Bars and stripes were added to denote more merits and accomplishments.
A star on the letterman jacket denoted that the wearer was the captain of their team.
The practice of awarding letters had become commonplace throughout America and spread to other fields as well. Slowly, academic fields were adopting the letterman jacket. Someone that excelled in debate club, for instance, was awarded a letterman jacket upon proving themselves against other rival school debate clubs.
Letters were now being awarded for participating in non-traditional fields such as STEM field clubs and robotics programs.
The varsity letter was now a status symbol. College recruiters knew what the letterman jacket meant. Interviewers knew what the letterman jacket meant. It was a wearable trophy and piece of memorabilia that represented prestige and accomplishment.
The costs of letterman jackets rose accordingly, reaching a high in the 1980s when they eventually began to stagnate.
Everyone was now vying to get lettered.
But every high school and university had a different criterion for getting lettered. The rules varied by sport and began to become formally written into the regulations of institutes.
The tradition that had once started in the best Ivy League universities in the world had eventually infiltrated the smallest campuses and high schools in America.
Celebrities began wearing the letterman jacket. It became a symbol of the college lifestyle.
Michael Jackson infamously wore a red varsity jacket with golden sleeves in his legendary music video, “Thriller”.
With the letter now reaching popular culture, businesses began capitalizing on the phenomenon.
Letter jackets were now mass-manufactured in satin instead of the regular wool and leather for cheaper production costs. These were more comfortable, and featured the same likenesses of famous athletes that wore letterman jackets.
The 1980s and 90s saw the letter jackets becoming commonplace among hip-hop artists and urban culture. It was now firmly embedded into the street culture of the United States.
What was once a wearable sports trophy now became ubiquitous in America. The letterman jacket was now something anyone could wear, regardless of athletic affiliation or prowess. The varsity letter had reached critical mass in popularity.
While the prestige of having a letter jacket never reduced, it was now less fashionable due to its ubiquitousness
The design had changed very little. What was a simple sharp pocket trim design remained unchanged for over a hundred years. Most letterman jackets carried the same 4 inch to 8 inch standard patch that held their respective monogram.
Then the hype finally began to subside in the 1990s.
A Guide to Getting Lettered.
While the criteria to earn a letter differ by sport and by institute, the same general rules apply across all of America.
The recipient is needed to have upstanding moral character, sound academic grades, and an athletic accomplishment that stands out above others.
The most common sports to get lettered in are football, basketball, baseball and soccer. In general, a player must play in at least half of the scheduled games in a season to be eligible. They must also have the approval of their coach and academic department. The requirements are always flexible, with the department heads always having the final say.
In sports like golf and tennis, the required participation is only for one half of all matches contested. An athlete can be lettered in multiple sports at once.
There is no short cut to being lettered. The best way is to stick to an athletic program and commit to it. Practice well, study well, and show up to all your events even if you don’t perform spectacularly at all of them.
The main philosophy that drives institutes to letter students is rewarding well-rounded students. Athletic programs are focused strictly on the accomplishment metrics in any given sport, such as a certain number of touchdowns, catches, steals, tackles, baskets, or wins.
Most high schools hold ceremonies and events that call teachers, coaches, students, and parents into attendance for the lettering. The awarding of a letter is accompanied by lots of ceremony and celebration.
The Bottom Line
Lettering is a rite-of-passage for students across America. It is an age-old tradition that serves the function of being a uniform to distinguish between players on a game field. It is a trophy that started among elite universities and eventually made its way down to the smallest high schools in America. Being lettered is a mark of accomplishment, a symbol of pride. It is an iconic piece of fashion that is now known the world over.