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The Fashion World Has No Excuse, But There’s a Good Reason Bill Cosby Wore Crazy Sweaters

The story behind Bill Cosby's sweaters has a lot more to do with television production than fashion

Bill Cosby is known for a great many things. He was a stand up comedian, the star and producer of The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, host of Kids Say the Darndest, and purveyor of fine, fine sweaters. It’s the sweaters we’re going to talk about today. Where did they come from? Why did he wear them? And why on earth are they back in fashion today? It turns out, the sweaters have a lot more to do with television production and technology than they do with style.

Collectors Weekly called up Cosby to ask him about the sweaters, and he said this:

“We’re talking about the knit woolen things that look like the sheep were different colors or fell in some paint, right?” Cosby says over the phone. “Isn’t that what you’re talking about?”

Precisely, Bill. Those sweaters are now in vogue again, it seems. At fashion week, many designers rolled out sweaters that Cosby himself would probably have drooled over. Cosby himself has no memory of any sort of just-so-sweater story, but Collectors Weekly found out from his costume designer, Sarah Lemire. The producers of the Cosby Show wanted to capture Cosby’s energy and experience as a standup. He was really good at improvising and getting the audience going. So what they did was actually record two separate takes, and pick from the best ones. The problem is that matching between different takes can be tricky. The crew relied on close up shots of Cosby to mask the fact that he was in a slightly different place. And what’s both a great way to distract viewers from the background, and to keep the shot consistent? Sweaters! Collectors Weekly writes:

“Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters,” says Lemire. “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.”

Eventually the sweater took off, and Cosby’s wacky sweaters came from thrift stores, fashion labels—all over the place. In fact, some labels like KOOS  and the designer Koos Van Den Akker became regular Cosby sweater contributors and are still known for that work today. Van Den Akker, in fact, owes much of his fame to Cosby, who in many ways discovered him. Collectors Weekly recounts:

Van Den Akker admits that this first garment was just an ordinary, extra-large women’s sweater he had hanging in his show room. “She just took it off the rack, this big women’s size, and took it to Bill. He put it on, and it looked great, and he had to go on camera right away so he kept it on, and that is how it began.”

Eventually, Cosby went to Van Den Akker’s shop himself to seal the deal. “You know Betsy Ross?” asks Cosby. “She said to George Washington, ‘Let me make you a flag or sew you a flag,’ or something. Well this is how Koos’ sweaters started with me. He said, like Betsy Ross, ‘I will make you a sweater.’” Besides the eye-catching patterns, Cosby was delighted with Van Den Akker’s inventive collages of high-quality fabrics, including wool, silk, leather, and camel hair. “And in those days you also got shoulder pads, for free,” Cosby adds.

Today, the Cosby sweater is back in vogue. Which is somewhat mysterious to Cosby himself, who has a drawer of the classic sweaters but isn’t totally sure why everyone else seems to love them so much. Times on television have changed (no more free shoulder pads, sadly) but the Cosby sweater seems to have taken on a life of its own.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Q&A: Jayson Musson Breaks Down Coogi Sweaters
Your Guide to Selecting the Best (or Is It Worst?) Ugly Christmas Sweater

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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