sweater

leanonscope

Vintage Varsity: Lettering in Style

letterman

Before David Letterman, there was THE Letterman.

My own history with varsity style involves a lot of very un-varsity moments.

I would eventually experience great disappointment in discovering that the only part of this movie that applied to my freshman year at college was the nerdiness.

I would eventually experience great disappointment in discovering that the only part of this movie that applied to my freshman year at college was the nerdiness.

First, when I was a little kid, there was varsity-superhero Letter Man, a favorite regular on the PBS show, Electric Company. His sport: ripping the letter from his sweater and applying it to spoiled words – thus restoring “custard” to those who’d been forced to eat mustard. Kids learned to read. The word/world was saved.

Then there was “Lambda Lambda Lambda,” the fraternity in which a gaggle of outsiders found comradery, legitimacy and pride in Revenge of the Nerds.

Moving on, there was my big opportunity to earn a letter in high school. No, not in football. In the National Speech and Debate Organization. I would go on to win second place in state, but stupidly, I turned down the letter.

That move would go on to haunt me for decades.


varsityusageThe unfortunate mistake I made had nothing to do with the prestige of lettering, seeing as how my award-winning speech about drawing Beatles caricatures afforded me all the prestige I needed. Rather, I lost the opportunity to bag one of those cool sweaters.

Until this year.

The usage infographic on the right testifies to the return of the term “varsity,” in modern parlance. This is especially fortuitous because it coincides with the availability of varsity apparel for style-dorks. The monopoly on this classic piece of Americana, previously held by the sinister jocks (Alpha Betas and their cronies), has been broken.


vintagevarsityBefore I tell you where to nab a great varsity sweater and what to wear it with, a little history. First, the word varsity is derived from the word “university,” and simply reflects an outdated pronunciation. The tradition of the letter goes back to the second half of the 1800s, when Harvard used them to mark uniforms, and would award the lettered jersey to the captain of a successful team at the end of the season.

Ten years before this, a successful British military commander during the Crimean war made popular a button-up woven garment. His name?  James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan.

These historical events, combined with the roaring twenties and the rise of college culture, lead to the proliferation of the varsity sweater across America, and that leads us to today, where I have a few to many of them in my closet, and yet, weirdly, not enough.


kippersweater

Americana Overdrive

How to rock a varsity sweater

While you could wear a varsity sweater as a layer piece over whatever you wanted, I’d like to suggest that the fun multiplies with additional vintage style elements – many of which are as common as a pair of dark, indigo jeans, with a generous cuff, and even a bow-tie or newsboy cap. 

On the other hand, if you’re concerned about looking too costumey, have a peek at my How Much Flair infographic, which will guide you in upping your style-game without going overboard.


Look 1: Americana Overdrive

This look (above) pairs a great varsity sweater by the progressive clothing company Kipper Clothiers with a denim tie and a gingham shirt: Americana layered on Americana. This sweater is beautifully made, soft, and stylish. Grab a pair of incredibly cheap, but incredibly styley PF Flyers to complete the look.

Note: if you want to layer this many patterns, stick to a tried-and-true color palette: red, white and blue.


greensweaterandplaidvintagevarsityLook 2: Two Layers of Vintage

norristhrash

Stay Fly Thrash: Advanced Style Swerves

This sweater lacks the typical letter of a varsity cardigan but hey, notice the stripe on the sleeve? That’s Thom Browne’s nod to the varsity stripes – which, incidentally, stand for how many years you participated in the sport. In this case, the sport of styliness. On the left, the sweater is paired with a gingham shirt, an idea I shamelessly ripped off from StayFlyThrash, who pulls off advanced style swerves that require a PhD in cool. Somehow, the strong colors work, and pull the look off the college campus and push it into post-modern fashion-zone.

On the right, paired with Chuck Taylors, plaid pants and a bow-tie,  I’m ready for a Gatsby party. (On the rare occasion when there isn’t such an event happening in San Francisco, one is happening in my head).


leanonscopeE-bay Pullover

This sweater came from eBay, and it’s a success story in the power of the saved search.

I’m a big fan of Andre 3000s now defunct label, Benjamin Bixby (wherein he combined his middle and last name with vintage prep style).

This sweater probably retailed for the cost of a semester at an ivy-league college, but I paid very little for it.

On eBay, you can ask for an alert if a particular item is posted. 6 months ago, I saved a search for Andre 3000’s finest, received a notification a few weeks ago, and put in a low, low bid.

Here, I pair it with the ubiquitous dark denim, a used newsboy Goorin Brothers cap,  and some PF Flyers, for an old school look. By the way, the whole outfit cost me under $80. Take that, Yale. I learned my economics on the internet.


ragnbonewsuit

fullonsuitSuitable for Anywhere

Here are two ways to pair vintage varsity with a suit. On the left, a vintage tweed suit pairs beautifully with the Kipper Clothiers cardigan.

My advice: make sure the colors compliment each other, and avoid too smooth a suit; you want something with texture to balance the cozy sweater.

On the right, the varsity look lives only in the sleeve of this dress shirt from Gant. I waited until this shirt was languishing on the clearance rack and got it for a third of the price.

Incidentally, buttoning the top button (otherwise known as an “air tie“) helps to keep the look streamlined and casual – even while earning As for awesome.


gabiinstylgram

Letters for the Women’s Team

In case it wasn’t clear how much I love the vintage varsity look, maybe this will convince you, and maybe it will give you some ideas of your own: I poked around online and found a bunch of Rugby by Ralph Lauren cardigans for someone special.

Gabi (said special person) wears a lot of great dresses, often with strong, primary colors. I wondered: how would those dresses pair with a vintage-style varsity sweater? Answer: amazing.

The Rugby label is now defunct, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t available. Head over to your favorite online auction and offer a bid and see if you can’t bag a once-super-expensive sweater for much less.

The sweater lends the outfit a cuddly, sporty aesthetic, and she pairs it beautifully with some Chuck Taylors, Clark’s Boots, or a pair of vintage heels.


troublephoto

Sweater by Ralph Lauren Rugby, socks by Happy Socks, and hat by Goorin Brothers. Pair with a wool tie and a collared shirt and wear it anywhere.

Dress Up, Dress Down

In an earlier post of Dress-Up/Dress-Down mashups, I got pretty nerdy on the subject of mixing formal and informal elements, creating great art, architecture, and style.

Whether you decide to hunt for a varsity cardigan or not, I hope this post gives you some ideas for adding together sporty and dressy elements.

GQ can keep their $400 “sportscore” designer sweatpants. I’d rather pull my influences from a style that never goes out of style.

varity

Top Five Ways to Rock a Sweater… without looking like a slob.

“Put a sweater on, your mother’s cold.”

Once upon a time, a sweater was something I might don, at my mother’s behest, only because it was drafty in the living room, and no one important was going to see me in it.

The warm garment of choice was a hoodie sweatshirt. Sweaters were for, well, dorks.

Then, five years ago, I was in Berlin, at one of the most infamous nightclubs in Europe. And lest you think I’m boasting, let me clarify: the bouncers at the door of this exclusive club glanced at me as if I was floatsam that had washed up on their beach, and it wasn’t worth their energy to throw me out.

I tucked my favorite sweatshirt behind a rusty pipe for safekeeping, and five hours later, the hoodie was gone. (Again, not because the garment was so cool that some tattooed, pierced Berliner needed it for his collection. It was probably used to mop up spilled Club Mate.)

My girlfriend was sympathetic to my loss but she surprised me, saying: it didn’t look that good on you, anyhow.

A bit of wisdom from the official spokesperson of the cardigan sweater.

A bit of wisdom from the official spokesperson of the cardigan sweater.

* * *

This was the dawning of the age of the sweater. It’s the sweatshirt’s older, classier, and more versatile cousin. And when selected carefully, it becomes an essential component in your style.

Here’s how to wear a sweater without looking like Mr. Rogers…or like a slob.


bill

This perfectly fitting garment is a hybrid – crossing the sweater, jacket, shirt nexus. That’s why it pairs so well with a hoppy IPA.

Rule 1: It’s gotta fit.

Like all garments, the difference between a styley sweater and a “put a sweater on, your mother’s cold” sweater is fit. A sweater’s seams should trace the outside point of your shoulder, and it should conform to your body, without being tight. In other words, it’s not a sack. It should confirm to your torso, not hug it, and not bury it.

Rule 2: choose one based not only on how it looks on a hanger, but how it looks with the rest of your clothes.

A sweater isn’t just something to throw over a T-shirt, although that’s one of its many duties. It’s also a layer to pair with a nice shirt and tie, for date night or for drinks after work. In a lounge full of blazer-wearing other dudes, your carefully crafted sweater-tie combo will catch eyes. From there, your scintillating personality will have to seal the deal.

chris

The tie says: classy. The sweater says: snuggly. That’s a killer combo.

Rule 3: the thickness of the threads is inversely proportionate to the sweater’s formality.

I call this the thickness-formality principle. It’s been written about in many academic journals. Trust me.

What does this mean to the non sweater-pundit? If you pair a sweater with a fine weave with a white shirt and knit tie, for example, it’s biz-casual. And very styley. If you work in a creative field, you can wear it to a meeting with a client to go over some ideas. And afterwards, celebrate with a barrel-aged Manhattan.

But if you pair the same shirt and tie with a chunkier sweater, then it’s better for sipping pretzels and bier after work. With the shirt and tie, you’re the best dressed, most relaxed alta in the garten.

The take home: mashing up fancy and casual is a recipe for a funky, styley look.

Rule 4: No holes. No wrinkles. No pilling.

Your sweater isn’t a sweatshirt, and while it gets more character from being beaten up, it’s not the kind of character you want when you’re going styley.

Once a sweater starts pilling — (those little fabric nubs, satisfying to pluck off, akin to popping bubble wrap) — it’s over. You can keep it at home for lounging and wear it to the laundromat, but it won’t do much for your style. (A word to the wise: higher quality sweaters will pill less and look good for longer. Meaning: buy fewer, better. That said, there are ways to treat pilling, after the fact).

sweater-vest

When rocking a sweater-vest, make sure it is slim-fitting, and make sure the shirt under it is also slim fitting. Otherwise, you’re going in the middle-school geek direction.

Rule 4: Try a sweater vest. Seriously.

A sweater vest, if it’s slim and a simple design, looks amazing. It’s reminiscent of styley dudes as far back as the 20s, and has never gone out of style. Pair it with a wool or knit tie, a chambray shirt, and a blazer for a knockout look. Then, if the office is sweaty, take off the jacket, roll up your sleeves, and you look like you’re ready to get down to business – styley casual business!

joe

A sweater with contrasting sleeves is great for bigger dudes, as it helps bring your body definition. The contrasting stripe is also good for bigger dudes because it looks awesome.


Rule 5: A good cardigan will raise your game.

A sweater with buttons broadcasts a styley, relaxed look. It’s a little preppy, a little sporty, and even a little badass, depending on what you do with it, the design, and the weave.

  • Leave it open, pair with a plaid shirt.
  • Wear it with a t-shirt and a cool hat.
  • Button, and wear with a tie.
  • Roll up the sleeves.
  • Wear it with slacks or dark denim.

But warning: cardigans are like tattoos. After you get your first cardigan, you’ll find an excuse to find another.


drawingcardigan

Cardigans are like tattoos. Addictive. But easier to remove.

Ultimately, figuring out how and what to do with a sweater is a little bit of an art. My first suggestion is to skip expensive sweaters at department stores, and hit the resale stores. For whatever reason, sweaters are abundant at resale stores, and since they’re easy to try on (no need for a changing room), you can burn through the whole rack in 10 minutes.

I guarantee: you’ll no longer associate sweaters with drafty rooms. You’ll associate them with drafting tables.

And lounge tables.

And dinner tables.

And tons, TONS, of compliments.

Mash It Up: Cold, Warm – Low, High

Cozy top. Cold toes.

Cozy top. Cold toes.

Two equal and opposite rules apply in all areas of the aesthetic.

  • Observe the categories.

  • Mash up the categories.

catipol

Wisconsin Captiol Building (Madison) Observes the Categories

Part of what makes this building attractive to the eye, for example, is the purity of the design. To a student of architecture, sure, the neoclassical design contains elements of various historical periods. But to my rather untrained eye,  the constancy, the balance, and the univocality of the building is what pleases my eye.

[That, and the fact that this building is about two blocks from the Great Dane;  this beacon of democracy actually resuscitates fond memories of undergraduate drinking and the eating of too many onion rings.]

CJM

The Contemporary Jewish Museum, SF, Mashes Up the Categories

On the other hand, this building, located in my second-favorite city, intentionally blends straight lines with shocking angles. A re-purposed electrical station is mashed up with an avante-garde Borg-like cube.

museum

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Western Wing: Resistance is Futile

It’s not as pretty. But it’s more fun to look at. While it’s clear that the first building is a place where committees argue over policies, the second building intrigues us,  makes us wonder what’s inside.

From Buildings to your Style

don draper

When putting an outfit together, you can observe either principal. Honor to the rules, perfectly. That’s what people mean when they say a suit (or someone’s taste) is flawless. He is or she is a vessel for age-old awesomeness to reside within.

Mash It Up

On the other hand, you can mash it up. As I mentioned last week, you can wear a tie to the park. If you do it right.

You can wear a snuggly-looking sweater with summery-looking chinos. fullsizeredpants

sweaterntieredpantsprofileA tie, cut from rough-textured canvas can sport classic, almost stuffy patterns – like paisley.

harris tweedSneakers can be made from Harris Tweed.

And altogether, you get a Libeskind-esque mash-up of old, new, high, low, serious, fun,

And all around awesome.