Loungewear is more central to everyday life than ever before. With the pandemic confining most of us to our homes, sweatpants and slippers have become the order of the day, all day. And while I’ve taken to wearing sweats myself, I continue to think of them as something best worn inside my house. But there is one item of loungewear that I wear with proud abandon in public: the sweatshirt.
Its history can be traced back just shy of a hundred years to 1926, courtesy of the Alabama-based Russell Manufacturing Company. Up to that point, Russel had been making knit underwear for women and children, but Benjamin Russell Jr., the son of the company’s founder, came up with a new idea.
In the 1920s athletes off the field wore itchy woollen sweaters, typically in grey, that didn’t retain their shape well and were slow to dry. As a football player himself, young Benny was keenly aware of such shortcomings. So he approached his father with a proposal for a garment that would solve these problems. The idea was to modify the design of one of their women’s union suit tops to make a new kind of shirt for men. Four years later in 1930, Russell began producing sweatshirts.
Despite its inauspicious moniker (which was coined by an anonymous Russell employee) the sweatshirt was a big hit. It’s little surprise that heavy and uncomfortable knitted sweaters rapidly became a thing of the past as sportspeople discovered this advanced new design. Since sweatshirts were made from cotton rather than wool, they were softer, more durable, and easier to launder than their predecessors. The collarless crew neck also incorporated a v-shaped notch intended to help collect sweat and control stretching due to heavy use over time.
Russell started by distributing their product to local football teams. But after their initial shipment sold out instantly, they began marketing to athletes of all kinds with much success. Within a decade the sweatshirt had become ubiquitous enough to birth Russell Athletic, which would replace the former underwear business, and by the 1960s Russell was the biggest manufacturer of sports apparel in the U.S.
Concurrent with Russell’s dominance in the American sportswear market, sweatshirts found their first home off the track and field. In the 1960s they became part of preppy style thanks to college students incorporating them into their insouciant arsenal. They also had a starring role on the back of Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape (1963). McQueen sported them off-screen too, along with the rakish likes of Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, and Dustin Hoffman.
The designer boom of the 1980s would come to define the sweatshirt as a streetwear staple, and the pandemic will no doubt cement it as a defining garment of the work-from-home era, but the crewneck sweatshirt remains equally popular among fans of classic menswear. It’s a wardrobe workhorse: simple, versatile, and hard-wearing. It’s also among those rare and desirable pieces of clothing that can not only weather a beating but improve because of it, being for sportswear what, say, denim is to workwear or khaki is to milsurp.
This wide-reaching popularity means that you can find sweatshirts at just about every price point. You can also still buy Russell tops, which are among the more affordable options around. I bought one at the start of the pandemic and it could reasonably charge me rent at this point.
So, regardless of budget and battering, know that you can always look anything but shabby in a sweatshirt.
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