A History of the Pullover Hoodie

Woman wearing hoodie walking on beach

We grab them on a cold evening to feel our warmest. We don them on the sports field or after the gym to stay warm. More recently, they’ve taken on a political tilt, representing rebellion and power. They’re hooded sweatshirts, and they have a more storied history than most of us are aware. We value them for comfort and admire them for practicality, but how did they come to the status they occupy in our society?

The hoodie’s story begins in 1920 when Russell Athletics created the first sweatshirt. Designed as an alternative to itchy wool sweaters worn on the football field, these crewnecks marked the starting point from which their hooded counterparts were to evolve. A decade after Russell’s debuted, Champion Products developed a thick sweatshirt with a protective hood, born after the company discovered a way to effectively sew thicker fabrics.

These hooded pullovers were sold to two distinct markets. The first was to laborers in need of protection from the elements. Cold-storage workers preferred the warmth they provided to that of long johns, the previous default cold weather solution. Tree surgeons appreciated them for their extra warmth as well as their ability to shield them from the elements when they worked in inclement weather.

The second population that latched onto this unique new garment included high school and collegiate athletes. Originally the first market for Russell’s crewneck version, football and track athletes appreciated the hoodie’s ability to keep them warm and dry during bad weather on the field during games. These athletes helped the hoodie’s rise in popularity, first by sharing them with their girlfriends as a sign of devotion, and then encouraging friends to wear them around campus.

Young man wearing orange hoodie

By the seventies, hoodies had become popular in several different segments of society. In New York, they were a preferred piece of clothing for burgeoning graffiti artists, seeking to create art while obscuring their identities. Hoodies kept them warm and hidden while painting at night, but also invited the watchful and judgmental eye of local police and wary authority figures.

Also under the watchful eye of these figures? “Stick-em-up” kids—muggers who would wear hoodies to hide their faces as they scanned attentive crowds (often gathered to watch break dancers, themselves hoodie devotees for the warmth they provided before hitting the floor) for gold chains, purses, wallets, and other desirable items.

This was the start of hoodies as emblematic of trouble and illegal activity, an image that had even taken hold three time zones away, in California. Santa Monica’s Z-Boys, a surf and skate team that changed the face of both sports, donned hoodies as a way to take their skating to places it wasn’t typically permitted, like parking garages and drained backyard pools.

Between the Z-Boys and NYC’s b-boys, hoodies were gaining a reputation for rebellion. However, in the suburbs and less cosmopolitan areas, hoodies came to mean something completely different with the release of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. The titular boxer and his ever-present gray hoodie came to stand for a tough work ethic and a “never give up” attitude. In this way, the laborers for whom hoodies were first designed were honored as their ilk came to rediscover the garment.

Man wearing wool hat and grey hoodie

The eighties and nineties brought divergent rises in the image of the hoodie. Rap groups like Cypress Hill and the Wu-Tang Clan adopted hoodies as part of a gritty and rebellious image, perpetuating their connection with distasteful behavior. At the same time, designers like Norma Kamali (the first to show hooded sweatshirts on the runway), Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren brought hoodies to a more affluent and upscale place, giving them a place in the average suburban home. This schism in markets meant that most everyone owned or wanted a hoodie, but the reasons differed starkly, depending on who you were.

In 2012, the hoodie returned to the national spotlight after the brutal murder of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman. In both his 911 call and subsequent testimony, Zimmerman cited Martin’s hoodie and the suspicion it aroused as a viable cause for his actions. In defiance of Zimmerman’s assessment, the hoodie took on a new role: that of activist garment, as men and women of color across the country sought to reclaim the hoodie.

For such a simple item of clothing, the hoodie has had a complicated and varied history. From working class shield from the elements, to symbol of rebellion, to affluence, and finally to an emblem of activism, the hoodie can be any or all of these things to its wearer. If you’re interested in incorporating a hoodie into your wardrobe, whatever the reason, we urge you to get in touch with our representatives. We’re happy to help however we can!


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