Remember when you first saw Mr. Rogers zip up his fire-engine red sweater toward the end of his opening theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
When his show first aired in February 1968, Rogers had initially donned a button-down sweater. But he switched to zippers the following season because they made it easier for him to perform his minute-long routine of changing from work to casual attire.
During the opening to almost all of the show’s 895 episodes, Rogers would arrive “home,” remove his sport coat and pull out a cardigan from his closet. After zipping it up over his shirt and tie — in perfect sync with the line, “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day” — the host would then remove his loafers and lace up a pair of blue canvas sneakers.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers used his time on public television to teach children about self-esteem, getting in touch with their feelings, and being a “good neighbor.” His outfit changes provided young viewers with a sense of routine, letting them know they could relax for the course of the show.
Portrait of Fred Rogers Credit: Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images
It may, therefore, come as a surprise that the cardigan was likely invented for the battlefield. Its creation is often credited to the 7th Earl of Cardigan, James Brudenell, who wore an early version of the knitted wool garment to keep warm during 1854’s infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, a failed offensive in the Crimean War. Despite his military failure, Cardigan returned to a hero’s welcome among an unknowing and eagerly receptive public, which helped popularize the jacket among Brits and Europeans.
Fred Rogers was the host of the popular long-running public television children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Credit: Deborah Feingold/Corbis Entertainment/Corbis via Getty Images
“For as long as I can remember she made at least one sweater every month,” said Rogers, adding that she would also make one for him every Christmas. “She would say OK, now what kind would you want next year? I know what you want, Freddy, you want the one with the zipper up the front.”
Now displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the sweater was one of many in Mr. Rogers’ wardrobe, most hand-knitted by his mother, Nancy McFeely Rogers. Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
They weren’t all red, though. Founder of The Neighborhood Archive blog, Tim Lybarger, documented every color of sweater worn by Mr. Rogers from 1971 until the show’s final episode in 2001, noting that he wore cool greens, blues and even gold in his early years before transitioning to warmer tones.
Rogers was no stranger to more formal looks, either. He wore a dark blazer to defend public television at a Senate hearing in 1969, and sported a cream-colored suit during an appearance on “Sesame Street” in 1981.
Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures’ “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Credit: LACEY TERRELL
And that’s how a simple sweater, which started life as a warrior’s uniform, evolved into a fashion statement symbolizing compassion and goodwill.