What is a Tennis Sweater?
First of all, we should define what we consider to be a classic tennis sweater. It is a white, ivory, cream or off-white cable-stitch knit pullover with a v-neck that is made of heavy cotton or wool. It features one or more colored bands along the v-neckline and optionally bands on the sleeves as well as the lower waist.
The History of the Tennis Sweater
Although there is quite a substantial number of vintage pictures and fashion illustrations featuring the tennis sweater, there seems to be hardly anything written about this extraordinary garment and its origins. In the early 20th century, knitwear was restricted to sweaters, swimwear and
underwear. Even then, sweaters were predominantly worn by blue collar working class men who appreciated the warmth and flexibility of sweaters.
While we know for certain that the polo shirt originated on the center court, it is questionable whether the knitted cable stitch v-veck tennis sweater was actually invented on the green lawns. Much rather, there are a number of different theories.
The Cable-Stitch V-Neck Sweater for Wintersport
Some people claim the classic cable knit tennis sweater as we know it today was originally invented on the slopes in ski resorts on either side of the pond in the early 1920’s. Considering the bulky nature of the cable-stitch, as well as the heavy wool yarns, this sounds perfectly possible. While it seems the deep v-neck would have exposed the wearer’s neck, it was probably worn with a turtle neck underneath for added warmth. When combined, you would see patterns and colors of both sweaters.
The Prince of Wales & His Golf Sweater
Another theory claims that the sweater was, in fact, popularized on the links. In 1923, an American playing at the English Golf Amateur Championship was spotted wearing a wool sweater with a neckline that was knitted in a thick ribbed stitch. According to a survey conducted in 1924 by the American magazine, Men’s Wear, 48% of the sweaters seen on golf courses were brown while 20% where in fact tennis-sweater-white.
But by the late twenties, the v-neck sweater was, by far, the most popular sweater style on the links. However, the Prince of Wales favoured a sleeveless, v-necked cable-stitch sweater for golf that sometimes featured a bit of color along the V. Since he was the male fashion leader of the day, this kind of pullover was soon adapted on golf courses all over the world, particularly in Great Britain as well as the US.
The Cricket Jumper & Squash Sweater
Also, we were able to find numerous pictures of cricket players, like the Australians, Sidney Burnes and Alex Fairfield, who also wore the cable-stitch V-neck pullover with colored bands around the neck. Even today, a number of suppliers still offer the off-white tennis sweater under the name cricket sweater. Moreover, it seems like squash players used to wear this kind of sweater as well.
The Tennis Sweater & Its Origin
The earliest picture I could find that showed something like a tennis sweater on an actual tennis player is the following photograph of Malcom D. Whitman (1877-1932), who won the Men’s Single United States Open Tennis Championships (today known as the US Open) in 1898, 1899 and 1900. This picture was taken in 1902, and shows Mr. Whitman holding his racquet, dressed in a white shirt and a heavy knit sweater with a wide crew neck and a v-shaped band. It was paired with light colored flannel trousers and dark shoes.
Although the sweater features neither a cable stitch nor a v-neck, it looks remarkably similar to a tennis sweater today, particularly due to the two v-shaped bands reaching from the middle of his chest to his shoulders. Considering this, I think it is a fair claim to call it a tennis sweater.
We do know for certain that tennis players wore actual tennis sweaters, as we know them today, by the early 1930’s. They gained a lot of popularity, especially in the mid thirties
with young players who enjoyed a more casual look. Also, the manufacturer, McGregor, supplied the US Olympic athletes with white, sleeveless tennis sweaters for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932.
Despite the fact that the sweater was originally used during warm up and sometimes also during the game, the young crowd now chose it instead of a blazer, and wore it loosely hanging around their shoulders.
Later, film stars like Cary Grant or Robert Taylor helped to maintain the popularity of the Tennis Sweater.
The Tennis Sweater Today
Today, the tennis sweater is certainly not dead, and every year just before The Championships, Wimbledon, Ralph Lauren introduces a new version of this all time classic. Other brands like Lacoste and J. Press usually have a few models in their collections as well.
Where to Buy a Tennis Sweater?
Other than the aforementioned brands, probably the largest ready-to-wear selection of tennis sweaters is currently stocked at Smart Turnout London.
In case you know someone who loves to knit, you may want to acquire a knitting pattern of your choice from the Knitting Lady. That way, you can create your very own bespoke tennis sweater.
Alternatively, you may want to place an order with Luke Eyres from Cambridge, England for a custom circket sweater or slipover.