Patches and Pins and Warm Wintery Things

by Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism

Laughter, warm cup and a cozy letterman announce the arrival of the cooler temperatures.  (image: Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Laughter, warm cup and a cozy letterman announce the arrival of the cooler temperatures. (image: Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism)

With the fading of the leaves and the arrival of winter in Shanghai, citizens of the city are starting to embrace their warmer items of apparel. From among these items emerges an iconic style of outerwear that has endured the comings and goings of fashion trends. It spans the space between fashion statement and treasured souvenir. It is both practical and symbolic. It is the embodiment of tradition that has traveled the oceans and taken root in many cultural settings.

 It’s known as a letterman jacket.

 The reasons for wearing a letterman vary widely. Irrey Zhang, Concordia’s secretary, has her very own and she describes possessing it in superlative terms: “It’s an honor to have it,” she says. Ms Zhang’s jacket acquisition was inspired by the Olympic year in Shanghai, 2008. In her eyes, this type of jacket is “closely related to sports,” and also, “shows school spirit.”  

Does this mean that the letterman jacket is strictly an athletic item? Irrey recalls that back in 2008, “only varsity athletes had one.”

Digging deeper into the student perceptions of letterman jackets reveals a diverse opinion. A group of underclassmen all to graduate in the year 2022 shared that they feel the letterman is “overrated.” One student added, “I don’t care who wears them,” referring to the debate about letterman jackets being socially tied to sports. “So long as that person isn’t a freshman!” mentions one in a blunt tone.

Adding depth to the discussion, visiting APAC dancers from Shanghai American School Puxi, were consulted for their opinion. They began by saying that they themselves did not own a letterman, and that in their school those that do are, indeed, athletes. “It’s a big deal,” said a member of the visiting delegation. “Even although it can be bought by anyone, it is understood to be a varsity athlete thing.”

Concordia senior student Melissa T. fills in another perspective from her region of America. In Allen, Texas, the letterman jackets are stoic grey with only the added patches showing any hint of color. The jackets also have custom stitching on the back connecting the wearer with a specific school activity. Within these schools students only got a letterman toward their senior year, explains Melissa, and it is seen as a status symbol. Melissa interprets the reason for the relaxed timing norms of the jackets at Concordia as being possibly linked to the transience of the community.  “One of the reasons that anyone can get one in this school,” she feels, “is because you never know which year you’re going to move.”

This heap of bags and jackets outside the HS art room shows the popularity of letterman jackets and their accessorizing patches and pins.  (image: Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism)

This heap of bags and jackets outside the HS art room shows the popularity of letterman jackets and their accessorizing patches and pins. (image: Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism)

While there are no expressed rules concerning the buying and wearing of a letterman jacket, many perceive a clear set of social norms through the haze of unspoken traditions. The fact that “anyone is able to purchase the letterman jacket, taints the value of it,” insists one Concordia student who wishes to remain anonymous. This student has noticed the increase in lettermans without pins or patches and she is not pleased with the loose allowances. “Getting my jacket and being able to put the pins on it is a memory that produces such joy for me,” she explains. “Since anyone can get the jacket without having met any prerequisites it muddles that memory of joy.”

Regardless of your intention for purchasing the letterman representing one’s school community remains an undeniable outcome. With one’s name sown on the front and graduation year stitched on the shoulder, the jacket is a snapshot of a time and place. The pins and patches infuse the letterman with valuable memories and proud accomplishments. All of this is embodied in the thick, weighty feel of leather and melton cloth.

The pins that adorn Grace X’s letterman proudly declare her accomplishments.  (image: Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism)

The pins that adorn Grace X’s letterman proudly declare her accomplishments. (image: Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism)

The appearance of letterman jackets is distinctive and iconic. Their obvious bulk commands attention. In Ms Zhang’s words, they’re “big, like they were made just for a man.” The journey of letterman began with Harvard’s letter sweater in 1865, which might explain their bias toward masculine design. The sweaters seemed to bear the clear intention of being earned, along with the patches and pins. The design was, in fact, the idea of a Harvard baseball player, intentionally offered as a way of dividing the elite players of the team by sewing on an H for Harvard. This idea has certainly become a fashion icon that is recognized the world over.

To this day, we’ve seen the trend of the letterman make its way to the schools of Shanghai. And as winter temperatures set in for another season, we are sure to find the familiar navy-and-white letterman jackets all around us as we go about our day. Whether earned for sports, arts, or just simply bought as a fashion statement, the letterman loudly declares that we’re a part of a community we can be proud of.


 Abigail W., Concordia Applied Journalism

As a proud South African, I'm living my life in Shanghai, China while soaking up the culture and beauty around me. I love art, along with the art of story telling, and seeing things out of the box!