Love All, Play: The Tennis Sweater Mounts A Comeback

art-13_blassAccording to a Style.com post on Monday, the tennis sweater is making a comeback. The post is about women’s fashion, however, and what’s more the evidence supplied is rather scant. That didn’t stop us from revisiting the topic, which we last looked at in July of 2013. Christopher Sharp to serve.

* * *

Late fall and winter evenings in 1989-1990 would find me lingering over a cup of coffee in the gothic dining hall that was a couple of paces from my dormitory. A large window overlooked a snow-covered hockey field that was barren and cold. The dining hall itself was intimate, with glowing ancient walnut paneling that had been harvested from the campus property earlier that century. You could hear the clink of dirty china as it was placed in the vertical metal tray keepers by departing students. The manager would come out and stand in the middle of the floor surveying his surroundings like a sea captain. He would light his pipe, check his pocket watch and on cue the doors would lock barring access from the outside and the vacuum cleaners would be dispatched. Those inside were allowed to remain.

To this day I can still see myself there. I am wearing LL Bean hunting shoes, Donegal tweed trousers that appeared fawn at a distance, but in reality were an artful mélange of flecked colors that only Ralph Lauren could render successfully. A Brooks Brothers buttondown was topped off with a wool tennis sweater trimmed in burgundy and navy. One might imagine for one moment that I had stepped off a Jazz Age ice pond. But I became enamored with the tennis sweater after it was appeared in the July 1987 issue of GQ, where it was featured in the “Elements Of Style” column.

A classmate of mine actually wore a sleeveless tennis sweater to play in, but it was the original cream-colored, cable-knit, long-sleeve jumper that I desired. The GQ article by Debra Wise stated that the sweater had been part of cricket dress since 1840, when Foster & Co. of London began selling them. The sweater pictured in the article was by Alan Paine. William Paine opened a tailoring shop in 1907 in Godalming. The Paine shop morphed into a sweater making enterprise when, Wise writes, “They found some old hand-frame knitting machines in the shops back room.” Nigel Paine credited the Duke of Windsor with popularizing the sweater, saying “The Duke would commission cricket sweaters in all his regimental colors.” On the American front, Bill Tilden contributed to its popularity. From the 1920s through the 1950s the sweater carried country club cachet.

This cachet may have led to cliché. Which is why I am thankful for not coming of age in the Internet world. We were sheltered from British voices telling us that the most beloved parts of their native kit were “twee,” or that “our jumpers should not trespass on another man’s colors.”  We were also safe from fellow American voices insisting that you had to have a superlative backhand and only wear it around the club. It was enough at the time that a handful of campus souls wore them. Some were born to wear them, others secretly picked it up from “The Official Preppy Handbook.” Mature men are allowed some self-indulgence when viewing their younger selves, so maybe I wore the sweater as a subconscious homage to an age of faded glory, and thereby reflecting back a romanticized vision of self.

gqtennisThe sweater is a classic with baggage, and I think that phrase is a fitting description of myself. The sweater worn in college and bought at the Brooks Brothers in Cleveland has seen better days, but we have not parted ways. It shares a trunk with three others, two are Alan Paine’s that are most likely the same vintage as the article I first read, brought to me by the miracle of eBay. They do not get a lot of wear and are more like silent sentinels against a hostile world.

I have heard that sweaters are getting a walk-on role with the younger crowd now, which has this old dog contemplating a new “jumper.” Perhaps this one will be in my school colors. — CS

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Top image, Bill Blass. The tennis sweater also appears in several cultural artifacts, including “The Official Preppy Handbook”:

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The movies “Making The Grade”:

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… and “Trading Places”:

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And was probably last seen on the professional tennis circuit around the time of these guys:

tennis Borg and Ashe sweaters 1975

35 Comments on "Love All, Play: The Tennis Sweater Mounts A Comeback"

  1. By 1990 the cachet had made it all the way to the suburbs of California, where I got mine. Seeing if my old man can dig up the photo…

    Oh, and I didn’t take up tennis until much later.

    And bravo Chris on a wonderful piece of personal and cultural nostalgia banged out on short notice.

  2. Was unaware it had ever left. 😉

  3. My first was in fall 1963 and was by Alan Paine of Godalming, made in England with burgundy/navy stripe but no stripes on the sleeves or waist. It was the same as Brooks offered under the Broiks label. It started out cream in color but evolved to a color similar to washed Adler/Wigwam lambs wool socks, which were worn with it & Penney loafers. That first sweater, which I still have, lasted many years until replaced with an identical sweater around 1980, then in 1986 I added the sleeveless version. Today Smart Turnout offers an excellent wool version and the cotton or cotton/linen/cashmere blends offered by RF L capture the spirit of my original sweater, especially the cotton/linen darker cream sweater RL offered at RL Factory Stoes in the summer of 2013 which I wore to an event at my 50th Reunion.

  4. Sorry for the typos but an edit feature is not offered as far as I know. The last sweater was purchased at RL Factory Store in Summer 2014 not 2013. In the mid 1980s Gordon of New Orleans offered sleeveless versions in dark green & brown and also offered a grat leather bomber jacket but that company has disappeared all with Lord Jeff which in the mid 1960s offered a very nice navy tennis sweater.

  5. Last summer Cable Car clothes in San Francisco had some nice ones. Very authentic. Very heavy.

  6. Charlottesville | March 11, 2015 at 3:31 pm |

    Thanks, Christopher and Christian. I have a cream version in lamb’s wool with burgundy and navy trim, bought at BB circa 1980, I think. It, alas, is too small for me these days, but I have a more recent version in cream linen, which is cooler and looks great with white flannel or linen trousers.

  7. Found an Alan Paine, navy and burgandy one last year at a thrift store – only it’s cotton, not wool. Was there a changeover year or were both wool and cotton ones being manufactured at the same time? It’s a bit big one me so if anyone wants to do a trade for a smaller size, let me know.

  8. Bags' Groove | March 11, 2015 at 4:20 pm |

    By Jove, I’m awfully sorry chaps, but calling these “tennis” sweaters is just not cricket!

  9. Vern Trotter | March 11, 2015 at 4:24 pm |

    I have several of these; my girlfriend bought the latest one for me from J Press a few years ago. It has the maroon/navy stripe which is one of the Guard’s stripe from England. Maybe the Grenadier, I forget.

    Nearly every time I wear it here in Manhattan, I get stopped by a Brit, somewhat irritated, asking why I am wearing it or if I served in the Guard. It is causing me some angst. I am thinking about asking that Agony Aunt type columnist in the Sunday Times about how I should react! Has anyone else had that happen?

  10. @Bags

    Yes, it’s very American. Kind of like calling a jumper a sweater!

    Ha, gotcha!

  11. Vern,

    No “Brit” would ask if you had served in the “Guard” — because it’s Guards. Plural.

    And I doubt that any Englishman in New York – and I was that man once – would be irritated by your woolie, nor ask the question in the first place. Really.

    I think the Agony Aunt’s advice would be “get real, dude”.

    Nice jumpers though.

  12. A tennis sweater in the dining hall during “late fall and winter evenings”? Did anyone ask you if you were lost?

    I did feel a twinge of nostalgia for the “clink” of actual glasses and dinnerware: I was in college during that weird time which started with glass and china during my freshman year, and ended with paper and plastic, the whole place looking like a mall food court by the time I graduated. This same time period started with DOS, and ended with Windows!

  13. Bags' Groove | March 11, 2015 at 5:21 pm |

    “…the sweater had been part of cricket dress since 1840, when Foster & Co of London began selling them.”

  14. There’s an apocryphal story that rugby was initiated in the nineteenth century by a boy playing football (soccer) at Rugby who had the cheek to pick up the ball and run with it. Even more hidden in the mists of the time: Bags was there and registered his objection to it.

  15. Bonner of Ireland. Cream Shetland wool. Yes, shetland. Maroon and navy stripes. I add it to a blue OCBD-khakis-(old) penny loafers combo. If only to remember the 80s. Yes, some parts were, for a few, worth remembering. Somebody put on Hall and Oates.

  16. Bags' Groove | March 11, 2015 at 6:34 pm |

    Just spreading a little sweetness and light, RJG, but some blighters seem to take it seriously. Anyone for tennis?

  17. Picked one up at a RL store during my holiday shopping this past winter. Don’t know if that means the tennis sweater is making a come back, either, but there you are. Very nice article.

  18. Bags — Wouldn’t mind playing tennis, but all I’ve got is one of those old wooden rackets, and even more rickety legs.

  19. NaturalShoulder | March 11, 2015 at 10:46 pm |

    I wore one in college in the late 80s/early 90s. The sweater was cream colored with a navy stripe. I think it was purchased from Marshall Fields in Chicago which now, sadly, has been turned into Macy’s.

  20. There’s a difference between tennis and cricket, but not so much of a difference between tennis sweaters and cricket sweaters. But thanks to cricket — and the fact that on this side of the ocean we aren’t cognizant of (much less respectful of) the notion that the colors on one’s cricket sweater are more or less meant to be worn only by those whose college sports them — one can collect “tennis” (i.e., cricket) sweaters from Walters in Oxford or Ryder & Amies in Cambridge in all sorts of color combinations. And, if you don’t wear them in Britain, no one will think you’re putting on airs (and you won’t be!).

  21. “…others secretly picked it up from ‘The Official Preppy Handbook.'”

    I was pleased to note that Mr. Sharp has confirmed the fact that for many of us TOPH was a helpful guidebook, rather than a work of satire.

  22. In the movie “The Way We Were” 1974, they wear tennis sweaters to play tennis; and in the flashbacks to the
    mid 1930s Hubbell wears some interesting patterned sweater vests, cords and other collegiate old style clothing.

  23. There is a RL connection to “Trading Places”, the two “preppy” girls at the tennis club were two of RL’s most prominent models. Also, I’m guessing that from right to left, 1 and 3 in the “Trading Places” image are RL sweaters. The deeper V is the give away.

    Bag’s Groove

    This is for you from O’Connells,

    Wool Cricket Sweater – Cream with Navy & Brugundy
    Knitted cricket sweater handmade in England and knitted from soft pure wool for a comfortable feel and fit. A classic knit jumper complimented with richly colored stripes. Household Division colors – Burgundy and Navy.

    • 100% new wool – not scratchy, quite comfortable.
    • Cable knit, long sleeve.
    • Hand wash only.
    • Made in England.

    😉

  24. Bags' Groove | March 12, 2015 at 1:05 pm |

    Ryder & Amies cricket pullies are a positive bargain by comparison, MAC, but you may get asked exactly when you “went up” to Trinity, Magdalene, etc. A leaf out of Terry Thomas’s book comes in helpful in such tricky situations.

  25. “Terry Thomas,” Bags? Who’s that?

    Oh! Perhaps you mean Terry-Thomas?

    Gotcha!

    But seriously, I won’t mind your quaint Briticisms and colourful spelling conventions if you’ll cut us colonials a little slack 🙂

  26. Bags’ Groove

    Checked out the Ryder & Amies site, great prices. Also, seems like I’ve attended at least three British colleges and am a retired member of the Household Division. Not a problem here in the USA, my transcripts are sealed. It’s all the rage.

    Terry- Thomas! A delight on film.

  27. Bags' Groove | March 12, 2015 at 4:48 pm |

    Henry, I know you colonials use our quaint Briticisms when we’re not around; but it’s only natural for you to want to.
    The hyphenated TT always seemed to be missing a Christian name, but what does an ambitious actor do with a name like Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens?
    MAC, what’s a few coloured stripes between friends…and sealed transcripts?

  28. Charlottesville | March 12, 2015 at 5:45 pm |

    It is perhaps interesting to note that, according to the IMDB article linked to by Henry, Terry-Thomas died at a nursing home in Godalming, where Alan Paine made cricket sweaters for the late Duke of Windsor.

  29. Nice job by both Borg and Ashe to coordinate the stripes on their sweaters with the underlying shirts.

  30. Have an Alan Paine one bought 35 years ago and a William Lockie cashmere one bought 2 years ago. Both with regular blue and red stripes on cuffs, neck, and waist.

  31. Forgot, also a very cool Fila – Borg tennis v-neck wool tennis sweater. Made in Italy and bought new by me.

  32. Roy R. Platt | March 13, 2015 at 11:17 am |

    Anyone who is worried about wearing colors that they imagine might annoy someone else can order whatever colors they imagine might not annoy anyone else……

    http://www.rochfordsports.co.uk/index.php

  33. @Roy – does Rochford manufacture Smart Turnout’s cricket sweaters? Website offers 1-3 sweaters; have you or do you know anyone who has ordered just 1? Thanks.

  34. Briticism? Criticism!

    Nonetheless, I did use to like asking my neighbours in Lyon, wearing ties bought at Daniel Hechter or Trois Quartiers, in the 1980s, how they had enjoyed their time at Kings or Trinity. There are several lawyers in Lyon and Paris wearing Pembroke ties to which they are not strictly entitled..

  35. Peter Schmader | January 6, 2016 at 12:55 am |

    Bunce, not Brooks, in Cleveland

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