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Anna G. Larson, Published October 10 2013

Varsity revival: School pride gear makes high school comeback

Fargo - Jackson Ridl wears his school pride on his cardinal-red sleeve.

The Davies High School senior worked with school officials and classmate Sam Raun to offer students retro-inspired “sweatermans” this year.

The five-button cardigan-style sweaters are universally appealing and also help unite students in different school activities, Ridl says.

Traditional letterman jackets (also known as varsity jackets), he says, are often associated only with students in sports.

“It’s almost alienating between students to have letterman jackets because I feel like you have to be sporty,” Ridl says. “With these, it brings in more music students, theater students, orchestra students – all of that demographic.”

Students might feel uncomfortable wearing a letterman jacket before they’ve earned a letter (the single character sewn onto a sweater or letterman jacket), so Ridl considers the sweater a stylish solution because it looks equally fashionable with or without the Fargo Davies’ “F.”

The sweaters are also more affordable than letterman jackets. Sweaters cost $80, while jackets run $216, opening the door for more students to purchase a piece of school spirit, he says.

The cardinal red sweaters have subtle gold and white stripes near the elbows and gold-hued buttons. The specific look was chosen for its simplicity, Ridl says.

“I like it because of retro appeal. It’s warm enough to wear in the winter but not too thick so you can wear it in the spring and fall,” he says. “It’s more versatile than the letterman’s jacket.”

The “sweaterman” sweater’s roots date back earlier than the 1950s or ’60s, the time periods with which it’s often associated. The style of sweater was first manufactured at the turn of the 20th century, although there was not always a letter on it, says Ann Braaten, assistant professor and curator of the Emily P. Reynolds costume collection at North Dakota State University.

During World War I, the Shaker-style sweater (named for its knitted appearance) was issued to pilots because airplanes weren’t heated, Braaten says.

Other armed forces members were given the sweater during World War II, and the surplus was sold to the public, heightening its popularity, she says.

The sweater was eventually promoted as a garment for activities like hockey and football since it provided warmth and some padding.

Using a letter and colors to distinguish teams and groups dates back even further, to medieval and Byzantine times, Braaten says.

In Byzantine times, color identified the group a person belonged to, and in medieval times, it signified heraldry.

“It’s been carried through, using the sweater to identify teams. One way to do that was to pin on the name or emblem of the school,” Braaten says.

After World War II, students at NDSU wore letterman sweaters for activities like speech, band, sports and more, she says.

About 30 students have ordered the new Davies sweatermans, which can be purchased at the school’s store. Ridl is confident that more students will order the sweaters, and they’ll become a school pride staple.

“It’s really encouraging when other students are interested in your product,” he says. “The school was really receptive.”

A student at another local high school is hoping to mimic Ridl’s efforts and get sweatermans into her school. Shanley High School senior Katelyn Osland, who is also Ridl’s girlfriend, was inspired by his idea to bring back the sweaterman.

She favors the sweaters over letterman jackets for their “preppy, flattering” look, but adds that seeing the sweaters in local schools is about more than fashion.

“It’s really inspiring that a student can do that,” Osland says. “I think this shows perfectly that students can get things changed if they want to.”

After high school, Ridl plans to be an entrepreneur and says he’ll continue to wear his Davies sweaterman.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525