OF ALL THE alliterative icons born in 1926—Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Hefner and Killer Kowalski—the most enduring is surely the sweatshirt. And though it turns 80 this fall, the sweatshirt can't be said to have gone gray, because the classic sweatshirt has always been gray, an American original worn to death by countless other American originals, from Rockne (Knute's gray one is in the College Football Hall of Fame) to Rocky (who wrote ITALIAN STALLION on the back of his).
If you have a favorite sweatshirt—and you almost certainly do—thank the late Bennie Russell, a University of Alabama football player who had the courage to wear women's underwear in the autumn of '26, long before fellow 'Bama footballer Joe Namath put on panty hose. Tired of sweating and chafing in his wool practice jersey, Russell asked his father, Ben—a manufacturer of ladies' undergarments—to make him a jersey from the same thick, absorbent cotton then used for women's long johns. At the Russell Manufacturing Company in Alexander City, Ala., a millworker called this monochromatic dream coat a sweatshirt, the ingenious offspring of Ben Russell, an Edison with a sweaty son.
"There aren't many pieces of iconic clothing," says Alex Hodges, vice president of marketing for Russell Athletic, as the company is now known. "Jeans are one. The sweatshirt is another."
Its entire history is one of XL-ence. The two Americans most associated with genius—Albert Einstein and Bill Belichick—are otherwise linked only by their fondness for sweatshirts. President Bush expressed disappointment that the Patriots' coach came to the White House in something other than his signature gray hoodie, whose jagged, cutoff sleeves owe a debt to Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. When Einstein was named TIME's Person of the Century, he appeared on the magazine's cover in the Garment of the Century, a sweatshirt, with a pen clipped to its crew neck.
October 22, 2006
The actor Walter Matthau was a sweatshirt come to life—rumpled, warm, crusty—which may be why he played both Einstein (in the film I.Q.) and Oscar Madison, whose gray sweatshirt in The Odd Couple also served as a hand towel before he'd greet visitors.
Indeed, in movies and TV, the sweatshirt is almost always shorthand for sportswriter (Oscar), sports promoter (Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike), sports fan and every other walk of slobdom. In Animal House professional student Bluto Blutarsky's college sweatshirt read, simply, COLLEGE.
It's the college sweatshirt to which most of us are attached, whether or not we went to college. In polling athletes about their favorite sweatshirts, Russell found no one more loyal than Jay Buhner, the former major leaguer whose ancient gray hoodie, decorated with dip stains, bears the faded logo of the Texas Longhorns. "It's so old and ratty that it's just hitting its prime," Buhner said. "Every stain has a story."
Some athletes need reminding that the sweatshirt, while a wardrobe staple, is not a wardrobe unto itself. Two decades ago Dino Ciccarelli pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure after a neighbor complained that the Minnesota North Star was outside his house wearing only a sweatshirt.
That incident happened in 1987, the sweatshirt's annis horribilis and the year the FBI released the Unabomber sketch, whose sweatshirted (and sunglassed) subject launched a million tasteless Halloween costumes. Even today, professional poker player Phil Laak, who always wears a hoodie and shades at the table, is universally known as the Unabomber.
Humphrey Bogart once said of Hollywood, "I came out here with one suit, and everybody said I looked like a bum. Twenty years later Marlon Brando came out with only a sweatshirt, and the town drooled over him." Even so, the sweatshirt isn't sexy. SI will never publish a Sweatshirt Issue. If the sweatshirt makes any statement at all, that statement is "I'm not trying too hard" or, more accurately, "I'm not trying at all. I dress in the dark." So why do we love it so?
Adam Sandler asked that question in a musical tribute to his favorite sweatshirt: "What is it about you that makes me so jolly? Is it your 50 cotton or your 50 poly?"
My favorite sweatshirt, stolen from my brother, read KENNEDY HIGH SCHOOL HOCKEY, and tied at the waist with a skate lace. When my wife cruelly consigned it to a Dumpster, I knew that I'd never find another like it. It was my Holey Grail.
But I'll keep searching. And so will you. According to research by Russell Athletic, 90% of U.S. citizens now buy new sweats of some kind every year. Eighty years after Bennie Russell's epiphany, we have witnessed the fleecing of America.
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The history of the sweatshirt is one of XL-ence. The two Americans most associated with genius—Einstein and Belichick—are otherwise linked only by their sweatshirts.