The History of Varsity Jackets

Scott Thompson
5 Minutes Read

Did you know that in 2011, Michael Jackson's red "Thriller" Varsity Jacket sold at auction for an incredible $1.8 million?

Traditionally synonymous with American jock culture, the Varsity jacket has infiltrated wardrobes worldwide.

Every designer under the sun has their version of Varsity jackets, from Alexander McQueen down to H&M and everything in between.

Their influence today has found them kicking off beyond the pitch and entering the catwalks of fashion hotspots around the globe.

Though seen just about everywhere today, what do you know about them? Do you know where they originated from or how they became famous?

As we take a closer look at the history of Varsity Jackets, you’re about to find out.

The word varsity came from the word university.

University sign

The word varsity is a shortening of the word “university.”

In North America, it relates to the leading team representing the high school or college in any given sport.

Interestingly, the word dates right back to the 19th century.

What does a “letterman” mean?

A person wearing a letterman jacket

When a sports student in high school or college reaches a certain level of participation within their varsity team, they may become a “letterman.”

Being a letterman means they will be awarded a letter or monogram patch. This is often something that represents the school or college itself.

For example, it could be the establishments’ initials or their logos commonly used.

This patch is attached to either a sweater or a jacket, which is why these pieces of clothing are also known as “letter sweaters” or “letter jackets.”

Varsity jackets, in general, are traced back to letter sweaters worn by athletes from the Harvard University Baseball Team back in 1865.

Having the letter “H” stitched into the center of your sweater was a mark of honor. Back then, it was incredibly prestigious, and you were seen to be in the elite few!

Some of the best schools will only reward students with patches if they are outstanding in other academic classes, and the badges display a well-rounded player.

The first known High School to be involved is believed to be Phoenix Union High School in Arizona, USA. In the 1911 yearbook, there is a class photo, and one student is wearing a letter sweater with a P badge embroidered on the left.

Interestingly, this concept also evolved to being awarded in other subjects, such as performing arts and other classes.

Letter jackets didn’t come about until the 1930s; the sleeves were leather, while the trunk of the jacket was wool-bodied. This resulted from athletes complaining about being cold in their letter sweaters.

Throughout the following five decades, varsity jackets were adopted in schools and colleges across the US, including some of the country’s most prestigious schools like Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth College, and Cornell.

Around that time, the term varsity jacket was also first adopted.

Varsity became a big-time player in the 1980s!

A cassette tape with the 80s written on it

In the early 80s, varsity jackets were recognized by American sports outside schools and colleges.

The early 1980s also brought us the first satin-style varsity, reducing production costs and making it useable in warmer parts of the country.

Some of the most successful designs came from Boston Celtics basketball and the Los Angeles Raiders football.

Celebrities have always been a catalyst for fashion trends to explode, and make no mistake about it; the varsity is no exception.

Most of us will recall Michael Jackson’s music video for his massive single Thriller. Throughout the cinematic horror video, he wore a red and yellow varsity jacket.

Bonus Fact: In 2011, that very jacket was sold at auction after some heavy bidding for an incredible $1.8 million!

Fashion designers also started taking an interest in the late 80s, and in 1987 American Fashion House Stussy produced varsity jackets using the old method of wool and leather.

One of the most iconic varsity jackets created is the Stussy 1988 Homeboy Varsity Jacket which in 2022 sets you back around a thousand dollars.

Princess Diana wore the Philadelphia Eagles’ varsity jackets.

A woman wearing a pink and white varsity jacket

One person you wouldn’t expect to see wearing an Eagles Varsity Jacket would be Diana, the Princess of Wales.

In 1991 and 1995, she was seen twice wearing this, and there’s a remarkable story behind it.

In 1982, Princess Grace of Monaco sadly passed away, and Princess Diana attended the funeral, where she met with a man named Jack Edelstein, the statistician for Philadelphia Eagles.

Princess Diana and Edelstein talked about American Football and the Eagles when the princess asked what colors the team used.

She told him they were her favorite colors when telling her it was green and silver. So when Edelstein returned home, he gathered some Philadelphia Eagles merchandise and posted them to her.

The varsity jacket in today’s fashion.

H&M store sign

These jackets were sidelined in the second half of the ’90s and early 00s, but they made a massive comeback in the latter 00s, with every major fashion designer providing their take on the varsity.

Too many to list here, but brands like A Bathing Ape, Alexander McQueen, Palm Angels, Saint Laurent, Burberry, and Amiri all have their takes on varsity.

But don’t be disheartened if those brands are not within your budget. With designers like Superdry, H&M, GAP, and Zara taking part in the craze, everyone has options.


Varsity jackets have been around since 1865, originating from America’s historic prestigious Harvard University.

Over the years, their use spread across colleges and high schools nationwide before being used by sports teams outside schools.

Celebrities peering in wore them to make statements, resulting in a fashion boom worldwide.

With fashion houses to suit all budgets offering their take on varsity jackets, there’s no reason for anyone not to own their very own.

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About The Author

Scott Thompson
Scott Thompson

I started my writing career working for the UK National Press, and now I'm a digital nomad going wherever the wind takes me. When not writing I’m usually found running super long distances and having a beer… not at the same time obviously.

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