WAM’s Iconic Jersey Exhibit Explores Baseball’s Most Fashionable Garment and its Design History

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“It’s laundry. We’re screaming about laundry," said Jerry Seinfeld on a Letterman appearance from the early 90s.

Seinfeld was, of course, referring to sports fans and their undying—and often irrational—love for their favorite teams because while the faces and names change every year, the team stays the same. But even those caps and jerseys—the laundry, spoketh Jerry—gives folks a sense of belonging. Or, as former relief pitcher-turned-poet Dan Quisenberry once wrote in his poem “Switch Hitter” from the collection On Days Like This, “I want a hat that tells me who I belong to.”

A jersey is never really a jersey because when you put one on, you’re not just casting your lot with the local ball club, you’re embracing a particular aesthetic, and that encompasses a lot of who you are.

“I think a lot of people just sort of put on a jersey, and they don't realize they’re donning 170 years of design history,” says Dr. Erin Corrales-Diaz, the Worcester Art Museum’s (WAM) curator of American art.“ I'm trying to get people to take a step back and take a whole new look at the garment in a different light.”

W. A. Goodman & Sons, Houston Astros Jersey, worn by Joe Niekro, 1983, polyester, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, B-50-83. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum/Milo Stewart Jr.

Corrales-Diaz recently organized the museum’s latest exhibition, The Iconic Jersey: Baseball x Fashion, an exploration of a staple of American fashion and design. The opening also coincides with the city’s newest AAA affiliate from the Boston Red Sox, the Worcester Red Sox (or Woo Sox). Outside of the baseball hall of fame or any other sports-adjacent museum, it's the first time there has been an exhibition that focuses on the art and design of the baseball jersey. As a person who's seen Bad News Bears In Breaking Training well over 30 times, I can tell you with every ounce of my being that those Astros uniforms from ad agency McCann Erickson are indeed a chef's kiss.

Runaway x G Yamazawa, Heart Mountain Jersey, 2017, double knit heavyweight polyester. Courtesy of Runaway LLC

“There's artistry in the every day, you know? Design matters, design is important, and I think for many folks, you can go your entire day without really critically thinking about how design interacts with you. With this, we’re arguing that fashion is design.”

The exhibit gets broken up into three sections. “The Modern Jersey” traces the evolution of the garment, particularly as baseball sought a more uniform look. Sure, you’ll see pictures of the straw hats, ties, and the Harvard club bibs—really—but you’ll find catalogs and design pamphlets from teams, as well as Pantone chips (incidentally, Pantone Process Black is the most commonly used color) and fabric samples, giving viewers a peek under the hood at how the uni-sausage comes to life.

Composed by Henry von Gudera, lithography by John H. Bufford, The Base Ball Quadrille, 1867, colored lithograph, American Antiquarian Society. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Swatches aside, however, it's hard not to give a little more weight to the 1908 jersey worn by then Boston Red Sox player Jesse Tannehill, as the collared lace-up jersey showcases an early piece of branding—a red stocking that reads “Boston.”

“It's an early logo, and you don't see that much in early 20th century jerseys. That’s more mid-20th century,” says Corrales-Diaz. “This was a moment of rebranding for the Boston Red Sox. The team debuted this really wonderful icon that has the red sock and then Boston in this great block script. You know what it is exactly, and it's using just the visual shape of the sock to convey that. It's just so incredibly forward-thinking in terms of how logos can get used on a baseball uniform.”

Wright & Ditson, Boston Red Sox Uniform Shirt, worn by Jesse Tannehill, 1908, wool flannel, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, B-176-61. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum/Milo Stewart Jr.

And, like so many uniform changes that have come since, no one liked it. But, as Dr. Corrales-Diaz found, when you show it to a contemporary audience, it absolutely resonates. “It's something that people gravitate to because we can appreciate that level of design, along with its simplicity and economy,” she adds.

“Experimental Design” takes center stage in the second part of the exhibit. Yes, you’ll find those glorious shooting star pullovers from the 70s Astros. But there’s also a satin jersey, one in particular from the Boston Braves, worn as night games were getting played more often and intended to enhance spectator visibility (they only lasted two seasons). You’ll also see a Kalamazoo Lassies uniform from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League worn by Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez meant to highlight the impractical nature of playing ball in a dress. If you’ve seen A League Of Their Own, you know they’re more about ginning up femininity, and no one wants to play baseball with bare knees.

Aside from these garments that stray from the game's tradition, particularly as you reach the 70s, you see a thoughtful design process that’s happening, something that goes beyond the utility of the garment. Synthetic fabrics, aka, double knits gave designers a new lease on uniform aesthetics, as did color television, opening up the technicolor flair of the times.

MIZIZI, Ghana Baseball Jersey, Polyester, courtesy of MIZIZI International, LLC. Courtesy of Kwesi Yanful (@kwesithethird) with Creative Direction by Temi Thomas (@Temithomas_)

Lastly, things take a decidedly modern twist with “Off the Field.” Not only do they explore the meaning of fandom, but they look at the jerseys created in the worlds of fashion, streetwear, and luxur
y design.

It's almost hard to grasp in this day and age that you couldn’t purchase a jersey until the 1970s, and you can see the painstaking detail that baseball fan Larry Wentz went to in recreating them from Hanes t-shirts for his kids. Using just magic markers and acrylic paint, they look like folk art relics from another era—they’re also pretty adorable.

But now, we see the jersey begin its pop culture ascent. You’ll find designs from the likes of Supreme and Louis Vuitton, Moschino, MIZIZI, Gucci, and designer Amy Page DeBlasio, in addition to a replica of Elton John’s infamous Dodger uniform from when he played Chavez Ravine in the 70s (and used in the film Rocket Man—this one just so happens to have Swarovski crystals weaved into it).

What’s more, diehard fans have a whole range of options when it comes to what jerseys they want to purchase—whether it’s a particular player or the various decades and designs that they can choose. And those decision points say an awful lot about who you are.

“If you're going to wear a Stan Musial jersey from 52’ or 53’, you're making a declaration,” says Corrales-Diaz. “When you put on a garment, whether you're a fan or not, you're declaring who you are to the world and who you want to be. If you buy a jersey with the Houston Astro’s tequila sunrise, you’re talking about modernity. If you wear a Mitchell & Ness Stan Musial button-down, you’re saying something about adherence to a long-standing tradition. Certain teams change their logos, and they're designed quite a bit. Others don’t, but it all goes back to design.”

“That’s what so interesting about hip-hop culture,” she adds. “In some cases, you're donning a jersey because you're from Atlanta, and you want to rep Atlanta. But in other cases, it just looks cool. It matches your outfit. So, in fact, the team has nothing to do with it. It's purely the design of the garment.”

Tabitha Soren, Carl Yastrzemski, Red Sox, 2014, unique tintype. Courtesy of the artist.

Aside from jerseys galore, you’ll also find several tintype photos from Tabitha Soren (yes, that Tabitha Soren from MTV; she’s now an incredible photographer) and lettering images and sketches for the Milwaukee Brewers logo back in 1993 from designer and sports branding expert Todd Radom. In addition to curating the exhibition, the museum also released a scholarly catalog from Corrales-Diaz featuring everything on display and plenty of anecdotes.

So, the next time you’re heading to the ballpark, and you throw on that Michael Jack Schmidt throwback, or even a Miami Marlins' J.T. Realmuto or Giancarlo jersey from the dreaded 2017-2018 seasons—even though we know those were beautiful uniforms—remember that you’re not just wearing the design history of the game. You're peacocking your own thoughts on graphic design.

The Iconic Jersey exhibit runs at the Worcester Art Museum from now until September 12th.