There is perhaps a no more typically American mid-century look than a young man in a Shetland crewneck pullover. At least among the movers and shakers of the culture at the time. The 35th president of the United States John F. Kennedy, was the embodiment of this look and influenced the style of at least two generations of postwar men in America and around the world. Kennedy came to represent the ‘American look’ vigorous, athletic, classy, with a character grounded in Protestant self-reliance and Puritan morality (although Kennedy himself fell far short on that score). He was a striving third-generation Irish Catholic who rose to the top of the American establishment, and came to represent its ideal.
19th century workmen in their woven wool tops
1914 University of Michigan football player
The Shetland pullover has its roots pre-nineteenth-century woven woolen fisherman’s and workingman’s garments woven from heavy wool with natural water-repellent sheep’s oil that would keep a man warm and dry in rainy and cold conditions. In the 1890’s the American collegiate athletic culture adopted the heavy dark blue woven wool pullover as a warm-up garment and coined the name ‘sweater’. It’s comfort, warmth, and stretchiness worked for active outdoor sports; rowers, runners, football players wore them and the school’s initial could be woven on the front or applied as an embroidered patch. Men on campus began to wear their ‘sweaters’ off the field, and a classic uniquely American style was born. As the sons of American establishment adopted the formerly peasant garb it became the symbol of a gentleman.
Kermit Roosevelt (son of Teddy) at a Harvard football practice soulofgolf.dagwoodgolf.com
A Rockefeller heir in his crew sweater
1907 crew team in their sweaters
Princeton tailgating 1920’s style in letter pullover. I’m not sure what the bulge in his right pocket is but I suspect a flask
Turn of the century college men in their sweaters
Legendary 1920’s baseball stars Babe Ruth & Ty Cobb in Yankee team cardigans
Then as now America was a sports-mad culture and professional athletes wore bulky cardigan sweaters with team emblems on the breast. The vigor of sport was essential to the identity of the young American man and nothing expressed it better than the sweater. By the 1920’s young men increasingly gravitated to the sport of golf where another icon of twentieth century style – King Edward the VIII king of England & Duke of Windsor set the style of wearing a Shetland Fair Isle-pattern pullover with matching knitted socks and baggy ‘plus-four’ trousers. The look combined elegance with sporty comfort and had a huge impact on men’s casual dress of the 20’s and 30’s in Britain and its former colony and New World power, the United states.
The look that launched a thousand golfers – Edward the 8th, The Duke of Windsor in his ‘Fair Isle’ pullover
1920's sweater ad
Professional golfers Bobby Jones (on left) and Walter Hagan (on right)
By the 1930’s the college field sweater style had evolved into a more elegant university look and Shetland and cashmere crewneck and v-neck pullovers had become a staple of the ivy league East Coast establishment look. The ‘best and the brightest’ from the top schools and the most prominent families with all the right connections (like Kennedy) dressed this way, and guys that wanted to make their mark in society copied them.
This 1930’s ad shows the look from which the JFK style sprang
Late 50’s Brown University maybe?
American class – two Vassar coeds in the 1950’s
Early 60's - the game
‘The clean cut’ frat types on campus in the early ‘60s
Sneakers and sweaters
Early 60's sweater ad
No one ever looked better turning a pair of skis than 1952 Olympic gold medalist Stein Ericson. 10 years younger than JFK, he was usually photographed in a Norwegian pullover.
By mid century the crewneck sweater also came to represent a more creative alternative to obligatory establishment suit and tie as writers, artists, and musicians adopted the look. Book jackets featured novelists such as John Cheever and John Updike in their lambswool pullover crewneck as the cool outfit of the American intelligentsia.
Young father & mid century novelist phenom John Updike sporting the classy creative look
Classic mid–century chronicler John Cheever outdoors in the fall
A young Miles Davis in the studio. In the pre hippy 50’s and early 60’s many avant garde jazz musicians wore the ivy league style
A young Julian Bond, product of the George School and civil rights leader rocking his button down, crewneck, and corduroy jacket
British pop artist David Hockney sports a cable knit crewneck and a pair of ‘Le Corbusier’ glasses
A 1960’s Mick Jagger looking characteristically seductive
A young David Bowie in a lambs wool sweater with a ‘shag’ haircut
The elegant 1960’s Republican New York mayor, John Lindsey at home
Mid century conservative thought leader and WASP intellectual William F. Buckley on his boat
Gianni Agnelli chairman of Fiat and one of the mid 20th centurie’s most stylish men favored the American look – Oxford cloth button down shirts, crewneck sweaters and his signature style of wearing his watch buckled over his shirt cuff
Yalie George HW Bush in a shaggy dog crewneck
Today’s version – Anderson Cooper in a grey Shetland. With his close cropped grey hair, lithe physique, and aristocratic background, Cooper is kind of a 21st century JFK type
All of the luxury wools come from animals with fine hair. Cashmere comes from goats in Asia, Alpaca from camel–like animals in the Andes, and Shetland from a sheep that comes from a sub-arctic archipelago of islands off the north coast of Scotland. Because of the cold, the sheep bred in this part of Scotland have the finest and softest wool--especially the wool around the neck. Shetland sheep also produced wool in a variety of natural shades which lent it to naturally-patterned knits without dying. Fair Isle is one of the Shetland islands and also refers to a knitting technique that results in a distinctive pattern. Shetland sheep have now been bred around the world so that all Shetland wool need not come from the Shetland islands. Scotland however does have the top reputation in the world for woven and knitted wool.
A key element of the beauty of Scottish sweaters is the rich tradition of natural materials used to dye the wool. Madder roots and safflower for reds, weld for yellows, cochineal insects for pinks. The results is a lustrous range of colors that cannot be matched with synthetic dyes. Different color wools can be blended in the spinning process to produce heathered and marled toned yarns. The classic Shetland sweater is hand brushed after knitting to produce a soft shaggy finish.
Classic 'Shaggy Dog' plain Shetlands from bastion of the Ivy League J. Press
Casual Kennedy Style
Young JFK & Jackie in the 50’s.V-neck pullover and black high tops
Newlyweds – JFK in shaggy crewneck Shetland, Ray Ban Wayfarers, and baggy chinos
The reference said honeymoon but I’m not sure – Kennedy looks older. Driving an MG in v-neck
Great picture of a young JFK that I never saw before having fun on the tennis court at his father’s house in Palm Beach
Classic JFK sailing in Hyannis Port
JFK sockless, in weejuns, chinos, and a Shetland crewneck
Bobby Kennedy & family sporting a pullover with embroidered slippers and khakis ( a more aristocratic look than was typical for him)
Barefoot catboat sailing
Yachting - JFK wearing a nautical navy blue cardigan with his chic wife
To get a new authentic Made-in-Scotland Shetland sweater you need to spend around $165, and second-hand on eBay or in consignment shops prices typically range from $30-$80. The good news is that these sweaters last forever. Despite their softness they are quite strong you will easily get ten years wear out of one. Retailers that sell authentic Shetlands unchanged from JFK’s time include Ivy League bastion J. Press and their ‘Shaggy Dog’ sweater, and O’Connell’s in Buffalo, NY. I’ve included links to their sites next to this article. I also have a link to Shetlands current for sale on eBay.
So if you think you might want to add a Shetland crewneck to your wardrobe, check them out. You don’t have to have gone to Dartmouth, worked for the CIA like pappy Bush, or have just published a groundbreaking novel like John Updike. You don’t even have to be a WASP (Kennedy wasn’t) you just have to want to look great and feel really good doing it.
the following sources were helpful in composing this article: