Oi Polloi

Films and Things: Sweatwear

Published: Thu Aug 26 2021

The sweatshirt and its hooded cousin are true menswear hall-of-famers, and like most canonised clobber, they’ve largely transcended their original purpose, becoming something distinguished in their own right. They’ve also cropped up on the silver screen a fair few times too.

But what was the sweatshirt’s original purpose? What were the cultural/social/political/spiritual forces that transformed these slabs of cotton into what they are today? And why should you care? I’m glad you asked, dear reader. Take my virtual hand (not in a weird way) and let’s examine the history of sweatwear through the lens of kino.



Kicking this list off with The Freshman, a stone-cold classic of the silent era that you’ve definitely seen because you’re not a dullard, right?

Mean-spirited jibes aside, The Freshman follows bright-eyed go-getter Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) and his desperate attempts to become cock of Tate College.

Picture the scene – it’s 1920s America, you’re Benjamin Russell Jr., a hotshot football (of the American variety, not the good kind of footy) player for the University of Alabama, and you’re sick to the back teeth of coming out in hives every time you spend an afternoon tossing around a pigskin, thanks to the woollen jerseys you have to wear. How do you escape this itchy prison? You go to your clothing manufacturer father of course, and ask him to re-appropriate the thick jersey cotton he uses to make women’s union suits into a lightweight, crew-necked garment that’s simultaneously thick enough to keep you warm and soak up buckets of sweat, but comfortable enough to still excel at football in. Lo and behold, the humble sweatshirt is born.

Admittedly it doesn’t look like the comfiest thing in the world, but I can only imagine all those football players chaffed up to their ears must’ve thought it was a real breath of fresh air.

Needless to say, these caught on like cotton-based wildfire, and soon, Benjamin Russell Jr. was supplying sweats to campuses across America through the newly-formed, sportswear-focused arm of his dad’s company, Russell Athletic.

The Freshman offers us 21st century humanoids a chance to see what one of these early sweatshirts might’ve looked like in action. Admittedly it doesn’t look like the comfiest thing in the world, but I can only imagine all those football players chaffed up to their ears must’ve thought it was a real breath of fresh air.


Next up, we’ve got The Panic in Needle Park, a smack-fuelled odyssey through New York’s seedy and frequently-documented 70s underbelly.

Like most films about hard drug use, The Panic in Needle Park is the depressing tale of addicts Bobby and Helen, who hustle in an around ‘Needle Park’ (the then-nickname for Sherman Park in Manhattan). As their love intensifies, so does their drug use, leading them to fall into a harrowing cycle of crime, deceit and betrayal.

But let’s not get hung up on woeful stories of life-ruining addictions, shall we? Flash forward ten years on from Benjamin Russell Jr. and his sweats – warehouse toilers in upstate New York are finishing shifts with frozen necks left, right and centre. Employers are obviously concerned about how workers are supposed to pack boxes with frost-bitten isthmuses, so they plead en masse to sportswear manufacturers Champion Knitting Mills Inc. to sort their employees out with Champion’s patented hooded sweatshirt, which was already a fixture on campus sidelines across the land.

Champion gladly obliged, and over the following decades, the hoodie had replaced the overalls and five pocket jeans as the garment of the working stiff. By the 70s (coincidentally, when the sweatshirt was still in the midst of its prim-and-proper collegiate heyday – more on that later), the hoodie had spread its cottony talons outside of the factory, and had become go-to tackle for the everyday punter, from aspiring-boxers to street hustlers… which is how we arrive at The Panic in Needle Park.

Now, I’m not a drug addict myself (cinema is my intoxicant of choice, thank you very much), but I can imagine the unfussy warmth of a hoodie is probably pretty essential when you spend your days toing-and-froing from various dingy flats, your evenings in central booking and your nights getting your head kicked in by the pusher man.


Really can’t think of a segue here that isn’t crass or tasteless, so I’ll cut the unnecessary chat and just say here’s John Belushi in the National Lampoon’s raucous Animal House.

A yarn choc-a-bloc with pranks, antics and general tomfoolery, Animal House concerns itself with the Delta Tau Chi fraternity and their efforts to avoid expulsion from the prestigious Faber College.

We’ve already established that the sweatshirt was a mainstay on campus sporting grounds right from the jump, but it took until the mid-to-late 50s for the sweat to make its way up to the dormitories and the classrooms. As they became more commonplace, savvy faculty members of various Ivy League universities saw an inexpensive opportunity to not only connect their institutions with potential pupils (or, more importantly, their parents’ cheque books), but instil school pride in the student body as well. The answer was simple – print their names and crests on sweatshirts and dole them out to students on the cheap. Obviously.

Anyone who’s stepped foot in a ‘second-hand’ shop between now and the 80s will know this collegiate style of sweat has gone on to become a kind-of cottage industry, with brands, shops and musicians all riffing on the crests and slogans of Ivy League universities, and has arguably become the definitive signifier for Ivy League clobber, just pipping madras shirts and penny loafers to the punch.

This brings us nicely to Animal House, which takes place circa 1962 AKA the golden era of collegiate gear. It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen this, and I don’t remember enjoying it a whole lot, so I’m not entirely sure why Belushi’s sweat is emblazoned with the word ‘College’ instead of ‘Faber’. Perhaps it’s a critique of how once-storied and idiosyncratic college cultures had become generic and homogenised by the time the film was made? Or one of the many bits that flew over my head as a young teenager? My money is on the latter.


Alas, we’ve arrived at the part of the story when everything goes a bit south for our comfy protagonists. If Martin Scorsese’s gangster flicks are to be believed, there’s no such thing as a rise without a fall, which is perfectly illustrated by the hoodies’ appearance in Pusher, a pulse-pounding crime thriller from all-round mad head Nicolas Winding Refn.

Pusher chronicles a few stressed-out days in the life of Copenhagen-based villain Frank, a drug-dealer who runs afoul of a drug-baron after a heroin deal goes about as smoothly as they usually do in these types of films.

In the late 90s/early 00s, public opinion started to sour on the poor hoodie, especially over here in Blighty. Gone were the days when the hoodie was associated with sporting pursuits and the Ivy League – it was now the emblem of the disaffected, anti-social droogs who were ‘terrorising’ the country with petty crime. You could accuse me of grasping at straws here, but this association might have had something to do with the rising popularity of a scary genre of music known as ‘hip-hop’ that was clearly keeping politicians and journalists up at night.

If Martin Scorsese’s gangster flicks are to be believed, there’s no such thing as a rise without a fall, which is perfectly illustrated by the hoodies’ appearance in Pusher.

All sorts of horrible terminology abounded during this time (‘Chavs and ‘Asbos’ being two particularly grim phrases) but the one that was pushed the hardest by the mainstream media, and consequently, the one that stuck in most people’s heads, was ‘Hoodies’. Even the mere utterance of the phrase struck fear into the hearts of suburbanites and pensioners up and down the country.

The moral panic reached fever pitch when certain shopping centres and townships declared themselves ‘Hoodie Free Zones’, a move endorsed by egg-target-extraordinaire John Prescott. In the opinion of this humble writer, this whole hoodie hullabaloo was a bit pathetic.

Pusher indirectly pays lip-service to this fear, as most of the more unsavoury characters can be seen at one point or another sporting the garment while they cut about the mean streets of Copenhagen engaging in a litany of crooked activities.

At least they look dope while they’re doing them though, right?


Finally, let’s put this list to bed with another frenetic, cardiac-arrest-inducing thrill-ride – Good Time, directed by the brothers Safdie.

Another New Yorkian underworld fable, Good Time follows Connie Nikas, a sociopathic bank robber, and his attempts to break his younger, mentally-disabled brother Nick out of the slammer, all while evading the coppers himself.

And with that, we’ve arrived at the present day. Like I said in the opening paragraph of this hastily-cobbled-together list, the sweatshirt and the hoodie have become their own thing entirely, influenced, but not necessarily characterised by, the positive and negative parts of their histories. This isn’t me just being an airy-fairy dweeb either – you can see the collegiate influence in the likes of Beams and Adsum, the stripped-back, the sportier side has been honed in on by Norse and Carhartt… even the negative associations have been nodded at, leaned into and spun into something affirmative.

But anyway, how does everything we’ve learnt on this sweatwear journey relate to Good Time? Well, not a lot truth be told. It’s just a good film with great garms I wanted to post some pictures of. Not everything in life has to have a purpose. Get used to it.

Right, that just about does it for this sweatwear-centric edition of Films and Things. If your thirst for sweatshirts and hoodies has somehow not been quenched, take a look at our selection below. In a bit!