According 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.
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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.
The 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”:
The movies “Making The Grade”:
… and “Trading Places”:
And was probably last seen on the professional tennis circuit around the time of these guys: