Fashion Magazine

Cosby Sweaters: The Fascinating History of This Iconic Trend

By Bridgetteraes @BridgetteRaes

Cosby Sweaters Between Cosby Sweaters and Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the ”it’s hip to be square” vibe has dominated the fashion world with a vengeance.   The comeback of this trend, while not particularly flattering or attractive, make sense, in a way, considering everything that was ugly in the 80′s seems to be returning.  If you lived through the 80′s once, you know it is a road not to be strolled down again.  Yet, for those who were either not born or were in diapers when the Cosby Show premiered in 1984, and ran until 1992, I guess the iconic acid trip, fruit loop looking knits frequently worn by Bill Cosby on the show would be something of a novelty.

But how did the iconic Cosby Sweaters come to be.  The story behind the sweater is actually quite interesting.  

The History of the Cosby Sweaters

According to Collector’s Weekly, when asked Bill Cosby didn’t remember and said, “We’re talking about the knit woolen things that look like the sheep were different colors or fell in some paint, right?”  Collector’s weekly went on to say that Cosby couldn’t remember when he first heard the phrase “Cosby Sweater” and had no idea why the style is such a phenomenon among young people today and said, “I have no idea, and I’m not going make up anything, but I think youthful people have a long time to live, so they can waste some time on something like that.”

Ah youth, always wasted on the young.

To get a better answer, Hunter Oatman-Stanford, writer of the original article in Collector’s Weekly turned to Costume designer Sarah Lemire, who worked with Cosby from his sweater vest Jell-O ad days to get the full scoop on the history of the Cosby Sweaters.  Lemire said that originally the costuming for Dr. Huxtable was going to be suits but quickly realized that Cosby, and therefore Cliff Huxtable, couldn’t be at ease wearing a suit and said,  “Bill basically likes to be comfortable, and in his real life, he’s in his sweats or his PJs.”

Cosby Sweaters

There really is something to be said about that as, those who remember from the show,  Cliff Huxtable had an important and impressive job as a doctor, but in his home life was a bit more passive.  His wife, Claire Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad,  was more of the drill sergeant, who was often seen reigning in not only her children’s but  her own husband’s antics.   The sweaters worn by Cosby did personify Cliff Huxtable’s more playful, sometimes childlike home-life persona; definitely more so than buttoned up suits would have.

Necessity is often the Mother of Invention

Yet, there is another reason why Cosby Sweaters were used as heavily as they were for the show, and this reason has everything to do with production.  Using Cosby’s incredible improvisational skills to build off the audience’s reaction, the program would film two separate takes and then choose the best shots from each take.  Lemire  said in the article that “Cosby often strayed from the script, following his gut if he thought it might get a better laugh. It was incredible and it came out of nowhere, and the director knew to grab that.”

As a result, the show often relied on close-ups shots of Cosby to catch the improvised moments.  However, these tight shots caused problems when matching scenes from the different takes and that slight difference in costume positioning would easily become a glaring mistake.

Additionally, as per the Collector’s Weekly article, Lemire said, “Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters.  As our bodies move around, the clothes are going to shift between the first and second take. If you have a jacket on, and the shirt collar’s in one spot, it’s going to slide off a little on one side or the other, or it might do something else that didn’t match. Sandrich was a real stickler for things matching, so we just did the sweater thing. I actually sewed his shirts to the sweaters so that nothing moved.”

Once, what we all know today as “Cosby Sweaters” were decided on as the show’s costuming staple, selecting a print was equally difficult.  Cameras read prints, patterns and textures differently  and even very common sweater stitches had a strobing or vibrating effect on camera.

Cosby Sweaters
Additionally, because the cast was so large, and several people could be on camera at once, because of director’s insistence that each character have their own look and didn’t want two characters wearing the same color for a scene, Lemire said that they started doing patterns to solve the issue.

Cosby Sweaters Collaborations

As a result, Lemire turned to the hot patterned knits trend of the 80′s, mainly Perry Ellis who was doing inexpensive, flatter knits and the other cast members colors would be chosen based on the colors found in Bill’s sweater that he would be wearing for a scene.

There were also smaller sweater collaborations, in particular, one with a Boston architectural student who sent Lemire photos of some pieces she knitted.  Lemire would design them and she would knit them.

Cosby Sweaters

Custom track themed sweater, conceptualized by Sarah Lemire and knitted by a Boston architecture student for an episode where Cosby runs track at the Penn Relays.

Yet, the most iconic Cosby Sweaters were created by Koos Van Den Akker who was famous for his collaged women’s wear sweaters, had a shop on Columbus Avenue in the 1970′s and had the well known KOOS label that sold in major department stores.  The sweaters not only incorporated color also had texture.  Koos Van Den Akker was actually discovered by Bill Cosby, not Lemire through a friend who gave Cosby a KOOS sweater right before The Cosby Show aired in 1984, which actually happened to be an oversized women’s sweater.  Cosby put it on, it looked great and he kept it on when he had to be on camera right away.  Yet, because the colors of the KOOS sweaters were often muddy in color, his sweaters were primarily used for the introductory credits than actual episodes  “I could do them in the opening titles, because that was done on film, and later transferred to tape.  So you see them in the opening titles more than anyplace else,” Lemire remarked in the Collector’s Weekly piece.

The funniest part of the Collector’s Weekly article was when Cosby was asked if he has any Cosby Sweaters stashed away.  Cosby didn’t know but joked that he’s sure  20 minutes after he dies Ebay will explode.

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