The Ultimate Guide To Men’s Varsity Jackets
From Ivy League sports teams to luxury fashion runways, the varsity jacket is an emblem of collegiate Americana that keeps on reinventing itself.
If the denim jacket is the rugged working-class poster boy of Americana, then the varsity jacket is its middle-class cousin from the good side of the tracks. Today, it’s an oft-referenced streetwear piece found in the collections of pretty much all the major fashion houses, but its genesis was in the collegiate halls of American higher education.
The silhouette is, for all intents and purposes, an MA-1 bomber. But the aesthetic couldn’t be more different, with the MA-1 military style having none of the playful colours or indeed the soft tactile fabrics typically used to create a varsity jacket.
The original varsity jackets were also known as ‘Letterman jackets’ since most featured an embroidered letter on the left chest to signify the initial of the college the wearer represented (this was obviously not lost on modern brands). They’re still a tradition in American colleges today, but the ones you’ll find on the rails are typically high-end renditions of the classic, constructed from high-end fabrics such as suede, leather, virgin wool and cashmere.
Now an essential part of the contemporary streetwear uniform, here’s everything you need to know about this preppy icon.
Types of varsity jacket
The traditional varsity jacket was generally constructed from a thick wool cloth in the body with contrast leather sleeves. Key details included the letter patch on the left chest more often than not, as well as a ribbed collar, cuffs and hem (often featuring one or two contrast white stripes), and slanted pockets in the typical bomber jacket style. Winter styles came lined and padded. Nothing fundamental has changed over the years.
Contemporary renditions stick closely to the same blueprint, but have elevated the varsity jacket with multiple logo patches, additional leather or suede trims and high-quality fabrics such as calfskin.
Most wools, even the luxury styles, will feature a polyamide blend to give the jacket a slight stretch. Given the real estate on the rear of the jacket, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a label that doesn’t use it for additional branding in the form of graphics or logos.
The best men’s varsity jacket brands
Swedish label Axel Arigato was founded in 2013 as a luxury sneaker brand and instantly made a splash with its minimalist low-fi kicks. With footwear success in the bag, it has since expanded into garments, with a streetwear-heavy collection of sweats, hoodies and everyday essentials.
The varsity jacket slides straight into the Arigato aesthetic, which is why it’s produced a number of different styles this season. Constructed from a wool blend, with PU sleeves and applique ‘A’ patches, they’re a modern nod to the original Letterman styles, and come in at an affordable price point, too.
The legacy that the late Virgil Abloh left behind seems to be in safe hands under the art direction of Ibrahim Kamara, who has continued Abloh’s creative work with aplomb.
The luxury streetwear brand regularly features contemporary varsity jackets in its collection (indeed Abloh was a fan of wearing them himself). Off-White never fails to disappoint with its graphic treatments and branding twists, so expect to find interesting patch lettering and multiple logo motifs on its varsity jackets.
Aimé Leon Dore
Iconic brands usually take decades to earn that status, but Aimé Leon Dore has somehow managed to achieve cult status in a fraction of that. Founder Teddy Santis has nailed the contemporary preppy look, combining streetwear with traditional collegiate clothing in a genre-bending melange of coolness.
Naturally, the varsity jacket plays an integral role since it traverses both streetwear and preppy tribes. If you’re ever in doubt about how to style a varsity jacket, ALD lookbooks offer all the inspiration you need.
For a brand that has never had much of an interest in the preppy aesthetic, Saint Laurent sure does produce a number of varsity jackets. Of course, they’re all given a super-stylised Parisian makeover, invariably in black and with chic leather detailing.
Offering a sophisticated twist on the traditional form, they’re designed to be worn with the brand’s trademark all-black vibe. Saint Laurent calls it a ‘Teddy’ jacket, but it’s a varsity jacket by any other name, just don’t expect any letter patches.
Founded by Carol Lim and Humberto Leon in 2002, Opening Ceremony is a much coveted streetwear label. Now available exclusively online at Farfetch.com, the label has always produced perennial varsity jackets in quite traditional styles, complete with logo patches and faux leather sleeves.
If you’re looking for something classic in shape with a modern seal of approval that isn’t going to require remortgaging, then Opening Ceremony is a great shout.
While Stadium Goods is best known as a sneaker emporium, the brand recently released its very own collection of streetwear. This included a dedicated capsule of varsity jackets, made with a definitive nod to the letterman classics of old.
There are nine jackets in total, six of which feature a chenille ‘S’ patch on the chest, a wool body and leather sleeves. Further details include lettering at the rear and a graphic panther motif in some cases.
In short, the capsule is excellent, and the perfect marriage of traditional aesthetics and contemporary cool.
Billionaire Boys Club
In Billionaire Boys Club, Pharrell Williams has found the ideal conduit to channel his own excellent brand of style, aided and abetted by the supremely talented Nigo.
Ever since 2003, the pair have been producing super-cool streetwear capsules, and affordable ones at that, too. They’ve put together an excellent array of varsity jackets under the BBC and Ice Cream labels, mostly constructed from wool blends or polyester, hence the lower price points.
While not everything that Philipp Plein creates appeals to everyone (his particular brand of luxury is not for the shy and retiring to say the least), the German designer is no stranger to contemporary varsity jackets, regularly featuring them in his collections.
Naturally, they’re not short of branding, but if logomania is your thing then Plein will be right up your street.
Iconic, creative, avant garde – words that definitely describe Swedish brand Acne Studios, whose unique brand of contemporary cool always seems to be one step ahead of the fashion pack. It uniquely combines high fashion with streetwear tropes and classic tailoring, offering collections that never fail to surprise.
Its love of traditional menswear silhouettes extends to the varsity jacket, of which it has produced one style in two colourways this season. It’s constructed from a wool blend, including the sleeves, and is refreshingly devoid of any logo treatments.
The dropped shoulders and loose fit makes it a stellar addition to your wardrobe.
Founded by Charaf Tajer, the designer has brilliantly fused his French-Moroccan heritage into one of the most sought-after brands in recent years.
It was the silk shirts that catapulted Casablanca into fashion’s consciousness, but more recently Tajer’s collections have included, among other gems, contemporary varsity-style jackets.
Much like his now-iconic shirts, they’re rendered in silk and feature that instantly recognisable Casablanca print work.
How to wear a varsity jacket
The varsity jacket is such an iconic piece that it lends itself really well to a variety of different menswear aesthetics.
You can play it safe and wear the more traditional Letterman styles with a preppy fit of jeans or chinos, and layer the jacket over a simple tee or crew neck sweater. Or, for an edgier streetwear look, opt for distressed baggy jeans and a pair of chunky sneakers.
But where it gets really interesting is when you style it with smarter attire for a more contemporary Ivy League aesthetic – Aimé Leon Dore’s lookbook is precisely what we’re talking about here. Clash some genres by wearing it over a fine cashmere turtleneck with a pair of smart pleated trousers and suede Chelsea boots, for example.
Alternatively, layer it over a striped rugby shirt with a pair of track pants and low tops. The jacket is so unique and invariably colourful that it ties all the elements of a look together.
The history of the varsity jacket
The 1985 cult classic The Breakfast Club (1985) – written, produced and directed by the legend that is John Hughes – is brilliant for a number of reasons, with one being the varsity jacket worn by a young Emilio Estevez. But the origins of the varsity jacket date back a lot further.
It’s thought that the first ever varsity ‘letters’ were worn by the Harvard University baseball team in 1865, designated to the best players by the team’s coaches in the form of sleeveless woollen vests with the letter ‘H’ emblazoned across the front. Bizarrely, it took almost a decade of the Harvard baseball team strutting about in their kit before the football followed suit, adopting a Letterman program on sweaters in order to reward and highlight the team’s most accomplished players.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the wool sweater evolved into a more substantial jacket, taking its design cues from the flight and bomber jackets of the military. It was generally constructed from a wool body with leather sleeves, and a popper front fastening.
By the 1950s, the varsity jacket had become a sought-after piece of fashion with teenage boys and girls. In fact, it was seen as the height of teen romance for a boy to loan his girlfriend his hard-earned Letterman, besides announcing to the entire school that they were an item.
Yet it wasn’t until 1972, and Congress’s passing of Title IX – a law that banned discrimination against female athletes – that girls were able to receive their own Letterman jackets in recognition of sporting achievements.