They're Too Cool for Just School

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With their leather sleeves, collegiate colors and embroidered mascots, letterman jackets long have symbolized school spirit and athletic ability.

They're traditionally awarded to students for success on the playing field, but these days even those who didn't make the team are wearing the classic jackets--the vintage ones once owned by jocks whose glory days are long past.

"Often there's no way of knowing which high school the jacket even came from, but people wear them just because they like the look," said Donna Saucedo, owner of Gasoline Alley, a vintage-clothing store in Orange.

The comeback of swing dancing and its attendant affectations (smoking cigars, sipping martinis, wearing retro clothing) has people in their teens and 20s snapping up letterman jackets and collegiate sweaters worn by youths in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. For people of all ages, they conjure up crisp fall days at football games, old-fashioned loyalty to school and the romance of letting your best girl wear your jacket around campus.

Saucedo's son David, who lettered in football, wrestling and baseball during his four years at El Modena High School in Orange (class of '97), gave some of his letterman jackets to girlfriends, although he still has one jacket to show for his prowess on the field. The jackets are status symbols, she said.

"The students will wear the jacket even if it's 100 degrees out," Saucedo added.

Those who didn't qualify for a letter in school still want the jackets because they like the colors and the collegiate style. To keep up with demand, Saucedo orders reproductions with insignias from fictitious schools, such as Rydell High from the movie "Grease."

"A lot of guys like to be John Travolta," she said.

Occasionally, people over 30 will search vintage stores for a letterman jacket to replace the one they wore in high school.

"It's reminiscent of their youth and the good old days," said Saucedo, who has received calls from all over the country from former jocks. Sometimes they get lucky and find one from their alma mater.

At Tippecanoes, a vintage-clothing store in Laguna Beach that usually carries half a dozen letterman's jackets and collegiate cardigans dating from the 1940s to 1960s, one man found a jacket from his Arizona alma mater.

"He swore it was from his high school," said Chazz Wergeles, co-owner of Tippecanoes. "He even recognized the student's name on it."

Wergeles searches estate sales, swap meets and garage sales for old letterman's jackets and sweaters; the ones from Harvard, Yale and other ivy league schools are hardest to find and most sought-after by his customers. "I doubt they all went to Yale," Wergeles remarked.

Although school colors and letters offer clues as to which school the jacket came from, often there's no sure way to tell if it's really from one's alma mater.

"We have to try and guess. A lot of them come from local Southern California schools, but some come from back East," Wergeles said.

Other jackets can be traced to a school and even the original owner. They'll have a mascot embroidered on the back and the owner's name stitched somewhere on front or back. They'll have little patches that signify which sport the student played, and the class year stitched on the sleeve. Some still have pins for achievements such as most yards scored or most tackles made.

They're like looking at a scrapbook of a stranger's past.

"It's fun to think about the people who wore them and where they came from," Wergeles said.

He found a 1950s jacket from a high school in Davenport, Iowa, with the owner's name, school letters and patches for cross country, football and track.

"In the pocket there was an old clipping of when he broke the 1953 track record. Someone probably kept the jacket in an old cedar chest. It had all his pins. It looked like a general's jacket," Wergeles said.

Vintage letterman jackets range from $40 to $250, and varsity sweaters from $25 to $50.

Some schools sell letterman jackets that differ slightly from the genuine ones issued to students. At the USC Collections in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, alums can find a cardinal red letterman jacket with interlocking S and C stitched in gold on the chest for $199.95 (the jackets issued to students have different lettering).

"Everyone buys them--old alumni, Trojan fans, younger people. I wish the vendor would make them in children's sizes, because we get a lot of requests," said Lucy Quintana, manager of USC Collections. "They're quite the thing to wear. They're so traditional, so collegiate."

The letterman jacket has been a school tradition since the 1930s, according to Jim Richardson, a graduate of Tustin High School (class of '64) now living in Phoenix. Richardson helped his 17-year-old son Jamie create the Leather Sleeves Newsletter Web site, which is devoted to the history and lore of the letterman jacket (http://www.goodnet.com/~jeriii/sleeves).

"It started when my son was a freshman. He was awarded a letterman jacket in swimming, and he asked his dad, 'Why am I getting a wool jacket with leather sleeves in Arizona?' " Jim Richardson recalled.

Since then, the Richardsons have tried to track the history of the jackets, digging through old yearbooks from schools across the country and contacting colleges and jacket manufacturers. Leather-sleeved jackets probably originated in the late '20s, they say, when baseball players began to wear them; school teams began awarding athletic letters on jackets a decade later.

Once worn exclusively by men, letterman jackets are now issued to female athletes, and they've expanded to areas beyond sports. At some Orange County high schools, students qualify for a jacket if they play in the school band or get good grades.

"They're a badge of honor that shows their accomplishment. My son tries to wear his as much as he can," Richardson said.

Schools award students either an embroidered letter or, in a cost-cutting measure, a certificate that they present to a vendor that allows them to buy the letter themselves for about $20.

"Most stores won't sell the letter without the certificate," said Stan Beatty, owner of Sunbird Embroidery in Anaheim, which puts letters on jackets and sweaters. "Schools want it to be a reward for some accomplishment."

Students foot the bill for the jackets, which can easily run $300 or $400 if lavishly embroidered with multicolored mascots and lettering. Beatty's basic model starts at $189; the fee includes the school letter, year, the name stitched in one color and three lines of embroidery.

"The jackets are going up so high in price, the less affluent students can't afford them," Beatty said.

Others want them at any cost. Lettermen jackets still carry so much prestige, students have tried to buy current ones to wear to school even if they didn't earn a letter, said Saucedo, whose husband orders and embroiders new lettermen jackets for students at Dave's Baseball Cards and Sport Apparel in Orange.

Some students will want a jacket, Saucedo said, even if they "didn't . . . make the varsity team."

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