How The Pullover Sweatshirt Became an American Staple

Did you know that the first college crewnecks were invented by a football player? Or that the term “crewneck” came from oarsmen who would wear this collar style in the 1930s? The pullover sweatshirt has become an all-American staple, but its origins and history are even more fascinating than we could’ve expected. Read on to learn about how the pullover sweatshirt came into being and find out just how cool your hoodie really is! 

Definition of Crewneck 

A lot of people use the term “crewnecks” to refer to pullover sweatshirts without a hood. However, the term actually pertains to a neckline style, and can refer to both sweatshirts and T-shirts. A “crewneck”, by definition, is a round, collarless neckline. The first known usage of the word was in 1939, and referred to sweaters with this neckline that were worn by oarsmen, aka “crew men.” The term had nautical origins, even though the T-shirts and pullover sweatshirts had been worn for several years before that. 

The Origins of the Crewneck Tee

Slightly before the invention of the sweatshirt, the crewneck T-shirt was born. Here’s a brief history of the tee we now know and love. 


During World War I, American soldiers saw their European counterparts in breathable, cotton undershirts. The U.S. had been using wool garments, which were hot and scratchy, so the Navy decided to use cheap, white T-shirts as undergarments to soak up sweat. They were first referred to as “gob” shirts, since gob was a popular term for sailors in the Navy.


Later, the term “T-shirt” came because the shirt looked like the letter T when laid out flat. They started out white, but sailors soon started dyeing their shirts brown with coffee grounds for better camouflage. Later, the Marines issued standard, green military T-shirts, which are still used today.


Check out this Forbes article: The T-Shirt Turns 100

 

Repping your school

The “modern” tee was developed in 1932 by the University of Southern California’s football team. The Trojans asked Jockey International, Inc. to develop undergarment T-shirts for their players that would absorb sweat and would prevent chafing from shoulder pads. Jockey International made the crewneck T-shirt, and they became so popular on campus that other students were stealing them.


To prevent theft, the athletic department started printing “Property of USC” on each shirt. However, what was meant to deter thieves quickly became a fashion statement around campus! The crewnecks looked a lot like how our school spirit T-shirts look today.

Today’s Tee 

Towards the end of the 1930s, Fruit of the Loom started manufacturing crewneck t-shirts for the public— but the style was still more common for athletes. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it became fashionable to wear “sporty” clothing like T-shirts. Tie-dye T-shirts were popular in the 1960s, and the graphic tee became a staple in the 1970s. 


T-shirts have changed over the years, but the crewneck tee is — and probably always will be — a beloved favorite by all for its versatility, fashion, and functionality. (Not many other clothing pieces keep you warm while also looking and feeling great!)

The Origins of the Sweatshirt

That sweatshirt you love so much for repping your favorite team at the big game actually started on the football field! Benjamin Russell Jr. was a football player for the University of Alabama. He was tired of the itchy and hot wool jerseys that the team had to wear during practices and games. In 1926, he told his father that he wanted to find clothes that were cool, comfortable, and breathable. Benjamin Russell Sr. turned this dream into a reality; Russell Athletic was born in 1930, along with the very first “sweatshirt.” 

The “V” of the College Crewneck

The first sweatshirt was quite similar to what we think of as a college crewneck now. It was collarless, with a small V-notch just below the chin. This triangular piece of cotton found on all crewnecks actually has a purpose. It is a utilitarian feature that reinforces the collar with an additional layer of webbing material. This helped catch sweat while preventing the collar from stretching out, even after years of wear. 

The Term “Sweatshirt” 

Why is this article of clothing called a sweatshirt? The “sweat” originates on the football field, since these cotton jerseys were designed for athletes to sweat in. They were originally — and still are — used as comfortable athletic gear. Now, pullover sweatshirts are used for everything from showing off your favorite collegiate team to staying warm or just making a fashion statement. 

 

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Why We Love College Crewnecks

Crewnecks are fashion for the masses. No matter what your style, a crewneck goes with every wardrobe. It’s the most versatile garment on the market. The pullover sweatshirt is breathable in the summer, but provides warmth in the winter. It can be dressed up to be business casual, or dressed down for a simply-relaxed layered look. It can show off your college team, your favorite band, a funny saying, or just a solid color that flatters your look. Crewnecks have even become the top-seller spirit clothing for incoming college freshmen and one of the most popular graduation gifts for alumni. 

What About the Hoodie? 

About a decade after the Russell crewneck, Champion Products developed a thicker sweatshirt with a protective hood. Champion figured out how to sew thicker fabrics, so they were able to add a hood to the beloved sweatshirt. (Fun fact: Campus Colors offers NCAA-branded Champion products!) 


There were two initial purposes of the hood: 

  1. To protect working-class laborers from the elements, especially tree trimmers and cold-storage workers, and
  2. To keep high school and collegiate athletes warm and dry during bad weather.

Football and track athletes especially loved the early hooded product. The popularity of the hoodie grew when athletes gifted their sweatshirts to their girlfriends as a sign of “going steady” and also lent them to their friends to keep them warm. 


In the 1970s, the hoodie became a symbol of rebellion. Petty criminals like graffiti artists and muggers used hooded sweatshirts to hide their faces. Even skate teams would wear them so they could skate where it wasn’t permitted. 


In 1976, the movie Rocky with Sylvester Stallone changed the game for the pullover hoodie. Rocky’s gray hoodie became a symbol of hard work and persistence, especially for young athletes. Men’s pullover sweatshirts exploded in popularity as teens were looking to emulate their favorite star. 


In the 1980s and 90s, sweatshirts hit the fashion scene. Rappers started wearing them in music videos, and designers put them on the runway. This put the sweatshirt in everyone’s home, and now everyone has either a hoodie or a crewneck— for most of us, it’s our go-to comfort item. Women’s pullover sweatshirts especially blossomed as fashion designers convinced ladies of the functionality and timelessness of this sporty style.  

What’s Your Crewneck Style? 

Today’s college crewnecks tend to be long-sleeved, collarless pullover sweatshirts with tighter elastic cuffs. A crewneck can be worn any time of year, and it looks great on everyone. Hoodies are another iconic staple that reflect versatile attitudes: rebellion and boldness, or hard work and an athletic and persistent mindset.  


Pullover sweatshirts are a part of American culture, especially athletic culture. Though styles are constantly reinvented, classic college crewnecks have never — and probably will never — go out of style. 


What kind of sweatshirt is your favorite? Are you a fan of wearing the hoodie or the crewneck to rep your college team? 


Browse our sweatshirts here to find quality, NCAA-licensed products to rep your team. Treat yourself to a new pullover, now that you know its awesome origins!