The high-school movie stereotype of sport-crazed meatheads versus brainy bookworms is a tale as old as tertiary education itself. Jocks and nerds have their differences, but one thing these campus subcultures have in common is an excellent sense of style.
We’ve written about how dressing like a nerd became cool, and while the preppy uniform of the jocks may not be under the fashion spotlight in quite the same way, the look (like the people who sport it) is always popular.
If there’s one garment that sums this up perfectly, it’s the varsity jacket. This collegiate classic is rooted in Ivy League cool and, when styled correctly, can make a powerful teammate: an all-American testament to colourful, confident youth culture.
Here we delve into the minutiae of college culture’s most iconic piece of outerwear. Including where it came from, how to style it and which brands are worth handing your hard-earned cash over to.
What Is A Varsity Jacket?
Also referred to as a “letterman jacket”, this button-through outerwear essential is so-called for the large cloth letter traditionally sewn to the chest. These letters were/are indicative of the wearer having played a sport for a varsity team, and would typically be the first initial of the player’s school.
This dates back to 1865, when jackets and sweaters bearing the letter ‘H’ were first awarded to Harvard University’s school baseball team. It has remained a tradition ever since.
The varsity is commonly confused with some other jacket styles, particularly the bomber jacket and the souvenir jacket. This is due to it sharing a collarless design and elasticated hem. However, the varsity jacket differs from the other two in that it has a button-through front as opposed to a zip, usually features two or more contrasting colours, and is traditionally made up of a wool body with leather sleeves.
Today, however, the term “varsity jacket” is used more loosely to describe any sporty, button-up, collarless jacket, and can be made of anything from jersey cotton to suede. Traditional college examples also tend to have an oversized, unflattering fit, where more recent designs boast a slimmer, more shapely cut.
Why You Need One
Well, it’s a bona fide classic. The varsity jacket is a piece of outerwear with a rich history and good looks on its side, making it an easy sell for anyone looking to expand their jacket collection (most men, in our experience).
Provided the colours aren’t too garish, it’s also surprisingly versatile. Remember, this isn’t so much sportswear as it is formalwear for students. The varsity jacket wasn’t designed for diving around on a muddy field – more for attending award ceremonies and team functions.
Yes, there’s an argument that it’s a young man’s game. You might find it more difficult to wear once you hit your mid-thirties, but Jeff Goldblum and Jay-Z don’t seem to struggle, especially in muted black-and-white versions.
The jacket has also crossed over into the world of streetwear in more recent years, meaning it’s fair game to wear one with anything from a hoodie and Air Jordans to a polo shirt and chinos. How many garments can you say that about?
How To Wear A Varsity Jacket
That brings us to our next point. One thing that seems to put a lot of men off investing in a varsity jacket is how seemingly tricky it can be to style in a way that doesn’t leave you looking like an extra from American Pie.
First and foremost, fit is crucial when it comes to making a varsity jacket look good. It should be slim, while leaving enough room underneath for a hoodie or crewneck, and the hem should sit no higher than the hips – another detail that sets it apart from its cropped cousin, the bomber jacket.
It’s always best to err on the right side of classic when experimenting with a new look, so go for a throwback two-tone style with a solid body and contrasting sleeves, or just full block colour. Stick to monochrome to play it safe, but feel free to go more colourful, provided the rest of your outfit is nice and subtle.
In terms of legwear, jeans or chinos will both work well. Stick to dark colours and either straight or slim cuts. Then simply cuff the legs to your preferred height and team up with some classic all-American footwear. Think Chuck Taylors for casual or loafers for preppy.
The Best Brands For Varsity Jackets
From the best of the high-street courtesy of Zara to the streetwear stylings of Supreme – these are the best labels to check out when it comes to buying a varsity jacket.
For a sporty, streamlined take on the varsity jacket, look to Oregonian sportswear giant Nike for some of the finest options. The Swoosh’s modern versions deploy contemporary fabrics and design motifs, without veering too far away from the classic design.
Nike’s offerings are definitely better suited to streetwear- or athleisure-type outfits, though. So if you were looking for something to wear with your khakis and boat shoes, you might want to consider taking your money elsewhere.
Polo Ralph Lauren
You can’t have preppy, Ivy League style without a hefty dose of Polo Ralph Lauren. The New York outfitter has long been the go-to for well-fitting collegiate staples, and varsity jackets are no exception.
The label’s Iconic Letterman Jacket features patched and embroidered detail, leather sleeves and a wool body. However, it will set you back well over a month’s rent and we think the brand’s cotton versions do the job just as well, while being a little easier on your wallet.
At well over a century old, Champion is easily one of the most experienced sportswear brands on the face of the Earth.
The American stalwart of track and field has long been the label of choice when it comes to sourcing well-made and classically styled sporting goods. Plus, in more recent years it’s developed a strong presence in the streetwear scene, meaning not only are you getting a slice of sporting heritage, you’re upping your street cred, too.
Golden Bear is to the varsity jacket what Rolls Royce is to classic cars. Yes, it costs an exorbitant amount, but it’s the best and, let’s face it, you want one.
Those who can afford the lofty price tag from this storied American brand will be rewarded with durability, construction and fit that is second to none. Granted, this isn’t your cheapest option, but when you take into account that a Golden Bear jacket is likely to last you a lifetime, the high prices begin to make a bit more sense.
Spanish fast-fashion behemoth Zara has garnered attention, not all positive, for the unimaginable speed at which its well-oiled supply chain operates. No longer has a piece been paraded down a Fashion Week runway than its hanging proudly on Zara’s rails.
Still, look past all the high-end copycats and you’ll find a range of stylish basics, perfectly suited for building the foundations of a well-equipped wardrobe. Take the retailer’s varsity jackets, for example – clean, nicely cut and priced with affordability in mind.
You probably know Schott as the brand that makes extremely desirable leather jackets. However, when it comes to outerwear, the New York label has its fingers in many pies.
One such pie is the varsity jacket. Schott’s offerings ooze good-old American charm and come in a range of team colours so that you can show your allegiance. Or, you know, just find the perfect shade to go with your sneakers.
As far as cheap, cheerful and convenient go, there are few brands better equipped to suit your needs than online retail force BoohooMAN.
The trend-led varsity jackets on offer here boast all manner of embroidered motifs, prints and quirky detailing. Plus, they’re nice and easy on the old credit card, which is no bad thing if you’re on a college student’s budget.
This youth-culture staple has become something of a cornerstone in the label’s seasonal drops, having been reimagined countless times and often with the input of high-profile collaborators. But, while that’s all well and good, getting your hands on one isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Resale prices are par for the course, but if you’re dead set then websites like StockX and Grailed can help you in finding the best deal.