On Raglan Sleeves and Baseball Tees

Flat-lay of Ebbets Field Flannels baseball shirt
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Next week is the start of the World Series, which — I’ll go ahead and show all my cards here off the bat — is about the only bit of baseball-related info I’m able to offer. I confess to knowing nothing at all about the sport (including what exactly a ‘World Series’ is).

I’ll hasten to add, however, that my ignorance doesn’t come from any kind of distaste or antipathy. It’s just that I wasn’t born into a baseball-loving culture. As a result, I’ve not had much exposure to the sport and have never gotten the chance to watch a game (Or maybe it’s called a match? A contest? A tourney, perhaps? I really couldn’t tell you).

What I have seen a lot of, however, is baseball-related clothing, all of which I’ve liked a whole lot. As evidence of this sartorial rather than sporty fandom, I have a shelf that’s currently creaking under the weight of an endlessly proliferating collection of baseball caps, many of them embroidered with the logos of current and former baseball teams. I’ve also had my eye on one of those vintage-looking baseball flannels for a good while now and I’ve even been tempted to join a softball league I sometimes see practising in my local park just to have a halfway legitimate excuse to wear said flannel. Plus, how could anyone not get behind a sport whose uniform still regularly includes old-timey pinstripes and leather belts? Some players even still wear knickers, for goodness’ sake!

There’s another garment associated with America’s Pastime that I’ve long admired: the baseball-style T-shirt. These shirts come in long, short, and — perhaps most often — ¾ length sleeves which are characterised by their raglan cut, which is to say they’re attached diagonally and are stitched on in one continuous piece running from the neckline down to the underarm.

Vintage baseball players
The raglan baseball shirt in action
Image credit: The Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

While today this style of sleeve is perhaps most widely associated with the baseball tee, its origins can be traced back to the Crimean War (a conflict that proved particularly productive in the realm of fashion, as it happens, since it also gave us the cardigan and the balaclava). 

The sleeve is named for Lord FitzRoy Somerset, the 1st Baron Raglan. He was a British military officer who got shot in the arm by a French sniper at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. The resulting wound was severe enough that much of his arm had to be swiftly amputated, although Somerset apparently had the presence of mind to demand the surgeon return the limb so that he could get back a ring given to him by his wife.

For several decades after, Somerset continued on in his military duties, although he struggled with the lack of movement afforded him by his military tunics. In 1851, however, a solution arrived courtesy of the newly-founded menswear outfitter Aquascutum (which I mentioned recently in connection with another of their notable contributions to military and civilian wardrobes in the form of the trench coat).

Aquascutum’s founder John Emery and his band of tailors set about designing an entirely new kind of sleeve to meet Somerset’s unique set of requirements. Sadly, Somerset wasn’t able to enjoy his namesake sleeve for very long since he lost his life in the aforementioned Crimean War just a few years later in 1855, although the rest of us have benefited from Aquascutum’s ingenious design since.

In the wake of his death, Baron Raglan’s sleeve has found a place on countless garments over the years. It’s particularly common in outerwear and knitwear, partly because of the extra room afforded by its cut, meaning it will more readily fit over whatever base layers one might have on. It’s also an easy and rather forgiving style since the lack of any rigid shoulder seam will readily accommodate a range of body types.

Then there’s the matter of comfort, which is the raglan sleeve’s raison d’être. It’s also what first got baseball players wearing them. The absence of a shoulder seam means that ballplayers can easily achieve the wide range of motion needed in playing the sport, whether it be while pitching, swinging, or catching.

Raglan sleeves as manifested in baseball shirts have the added benefit of allowing for bold colour blocking, which is why they typically come in contrasting colours inspired by a team’s desired combo. They’re also apparently cut at ¾ length to stop them from getting caught in a player’s cloves (Although I take this point as hearsay, since, again, I know nothing about the actual sport. If you told me its players wore actual mittens I’d likely believe you).

Young boy wearing a raglan sleeve baseball shirt
Image credit: The U.S. National Archives / No known copyright restrictions

From the baseball field (pitch? court? rink? who knows?) the sport’s signature tee found its way into everyday circulation, particularly among young people throughout the decades. If ever I picture a child in the 1950s or a teen from the ’70s, I inevitable see them wearing a baseball shirt. It’s for this reason that I somehow remember at least one member of the Stand By Me crew wearing a raglan sleeve shirt, though a quick Google search has just disabused me of that notion.

They are, however, well represented elsewhere in pop culture. Jeff Bridges alone seems to have worn the same shirt depicting Japanese baseball star Kaoru Betto in at least three films. Then, to name just a few, there’s Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Johnny Knoxville in Jackass, several characters in Richard Linklater’s oeuvre, and — as eulogized by Logan Mahan over at Inside Hook — Zach Efron in the High School Musical films. 

And speaking of things musical, raglan shirts have long been a favourite choice for music-based merch, perhaps for providing a natural frame beneath which to print a group’s logo or album art. It’s thanks to band shirts that raglan sleeves first worked their way into my own wardrobe. That and the suggestion that they’re particularly flattering to most men’s bodies since they tend to accentuate one’s shoulders and forearms. Whether specifically flattering or not, I can vouch for them being extremely comfortable, which is one of the reasons raglan sleeves, particularly in outerwear, have proven all the rage during the pandemic. Their unique combination of ease and versatility has turned raglans into a hot commodity at the minute and made them a style staple for the ages.