In Depth: The Sweatshirt

In Depth: The Sweatshirt

In Depth: The Sweatshirt

The sweatshirt - two sleeves, a crew neck and some jersey cotton - it’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? But like all great design, this seemingly simple creation didn’t just materialise out of thin air - and whilst it sometimes feels like the sweatshirt has always been around, it was actually the product of necessity, designed with a very clear purpose in mind.

As you’d maybe expect, the sweatshirt started out as sportswear. Back in the early 20th century, breathable synthetic fabrics were still the stuff of science fiction, and most sporting pursuits were carried out in thick wool jerseys. This was less than ideal, so after much chafing, a young quarterback by the name of Benjamin Russell Jr decided to set-to and make an itch-free training jersey.

As luck would have it, Benjamin Russell Sr happened to own a large clothing mill in Alabama, so the father and son duo had all the machinery and material they needed to create a new classic. Keen to make something both comfortable and tough, they took the shape from the top half of a union suit (those all-in-one undergarments favoured by prospectors and pioneers in the late 19th century), and combined it with some heavy jersey cotton, and in 1926, the sweatshirt was born.

Paul Newman sweatshirt

But before we go any further with the sweatshirt’s story, now's probably a good time to step back a bit and look at what else was going on at the time. The early 20th century represented a bit of a boom-time for sports and recreation. Previously the concept of leisure was very much an upper class phenomenon, but by the 1880s things were changing.

In Britain, the introduction of the Saturday half-day and the formation of countless sporting clubs meant that things like kicking a football or smacking a tennis ball were no longer the sole preserve of the minted elite, whilst in America, the influx of European immigrants brought with them a more relaxed attitude to Sunday - out with the puritanical ‘sabbath’, and in with fairgrounds, saloons and baseball. College football flourished, and by the 1920s, as more and more people moved to the cities, crowds had grown rapidly.

What did this mean for sweatshirts? Well, it meant that there were already customers crying out for them. With more people playing football than ever before, the sweatshirt could gain traction like never before, and these loose, collarless cotton jerseys quickly caught on amongst college teams.

Even students who weren’t athletically-inclined could get in on the act - campus book-shops sold sweats emblazoned with the college’s name, helping the humble sweatshirt take its first step off the football field and into everyday life.

Buster keaton sweatshirt

By the 1930s more and more companies started making sweatshirts, often working in conjunction with colleges and high school sports departments to help refine their product. Some added raglan sleeves for added arm movement, whilst others incorporated a ‘v’ insert in the collar to stop it from becoming mis-shapen in the hustle and bustle of a football game.

Meanwhile, in the freezing cold warehouses of America’s East Coast, workers were struggling to work in sub-zero temperatures, and called on the help of the sportswear world to make them something that’d ward off Jack Frost. The answer? The hooded sweatshirt. The loose shape of a sweatshirt was ideal for the intensive lifting, whilst the addition of a hood provided the extra warmth that the workers were sorely in need of.

Not only was the sweatshirt (and it’s younger hooded brother) a hit in both the sportswear and the work-wear worlds, but they were also used by the US military - who bought them by the boatload to be worn during arduous barrack-based training sessions.

Military sweathsirt

Between the college quarterbacks, the warehouse workers and the GIs, the sweatshirt had infiltrated three pivotal corners of American life, and from there, things spread fast, helped no doubt by the countless film, television and magazine appearances throughout the 60s and 70s. There was Steve McQueen’s ‘Cooler King’, attempting his Great Escape over a barbed-wire fence, wearing a DIY short-sleeved sweat… the black and white photos of Mohammed Ali’s training regime… and let’s not forget Rocky Balboa’s endless layers of grey marl.

Muhammed Ali sweatshirt

The advent of hip-hop (which borrowed heavily from sportswear), the jogging craze of the 80s and the general 'casualisation' of society (less suits, more comfort) accelerated things further, and today, just shy of a century since it was created, the sweatshirt still remains as useful as ever - comfortable, hard-wearing and no-nonsense. Whether you’re training for a boxing match, or just heading into town on a summer evening, a well-made cotton sweat is still hard to beat.

This season Nigel Cabourn and his team have created a range of sweatshirts and hoodies for the Army Gym collection. Made in Portugal from fleeceback jersey cotton, they each take classic details from vintage design, and bring them up to date with a relaxed shape perfect for modern life.