No garment has made a soaring high fashion jump as the sweatshirt has in the last couple of years. Thanks to Balenciaga, Kenzo, and Isabel Marant, it suddenly became okay to shell out up to four digits for a clothing item that we had associated with being rather ordinary, mass-manufactured, what can be described as the t-shirt’s less cool sibling.
The simple, loose, collarless pullover, made of fluffy woven cotton, was first produced by Russell (later rebranded as Russell Athletic), a company founded by Benjamin Russell in Alexander City, Alabama, in 1902. It was plain and grey, and designed to serve as a woman’s undergarment. The shirt soon became popular with athletes, after Russell’s son requested the garment be made into uniforms for his college football team.
In 1919, Champion (then operating as Knickerbocker Knitting Company) developed — and later patented — a flocking process that enabled raised lettering to be printed on fabric, thus allowing for the personal “branding” of the shirts by sports clubs. Champion was the official clothier for the USA Olympic team, leading up to WW2. The hooded version made its appearance in the 1930s, also designed by Champion.
The ubiquitous athletic garment didn’t take off fashion-wise until Steve McQueen made it cool in The Great Escape (1963), wearing it under his motorcycle jacket (with cool cut-off sleeves to boot!). Kenzo should thank him.