Fred Rogers, America’s favorite neighbor
Pittsburgh, late 1960s through early 2000s
Series: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Air Dates: February 19, 1968 through August 31, 2001
Created by: Fred Rogers
I’ve written plenty about characters and figures who may have influenced my fashion sense and lifestyle, but today I want to recognize someone who (I hope!) had one of the most significant impacts on my personality during my formative years. Fred Rogers was born 93 years ago today on March 20, 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, just about an hour east of where I currently live. For more than thirty years, he celebrated acceptance, inclusiveness, curiosity, emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, and love as the warm host of the Emmy Award-winning series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, filmed at WQED Studios in Pittsburgh.
Nearly two decades after he died in February 2003, Mr. Rogers remains an American icon, particularly celebrated here in Pittsburgh, where the Heinz History Center hosts the most expansive collection of artifacts from the show, including a life-size figure of Fred wearing his iconic sweater, sneakers, and tie, with even more housed around the city at locations like the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh International Airport.
More evidence of Mr. Rogers’ cultural impact across the country? Even the Smithsonian National Museum of American History hosts one of his screen-worn sweaters, donated by Fred himself in 1984.
What’d He Wear?
Throughout his life, Fred Rogers maintained his weight at 143 pounds, a number that he saw “as a destiny fulfilled,” as he told Esquire writer Tom Junod that “it takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you’.”
Fred’s self-disciplined routine of daily swimming and efficient sleep allowed him to remain at this weight and, thus, cycle through the same sweaters worn over the show as he progressed from middle age into his early seventies.
From the start, Fred began each show by changing out of a blazer, sports coat, or suit jacket and zipping into a cardigan sweater from his closet, signaling to his young audiences they were being welcomed to relax and feel comfortable for the next half-hour.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was first broadcast late in the afternoon when adults came home from work, so his idea was that he was coming home from work but was going to spend time with the ‘television neighbor,’ AKA the child watching, and wanted to make it a more casual time,” explained Margy Whitmer, a producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in an interview with Rewire.
When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered in 1968, Fred’s cardigans were originally of the more traditional button-front variety, but the time it took to fasten them on live television led to his switch to zip-up cardigans, always zipping up straight to the top and then down a few inches to show more of his tie. Though the stitch patterns frequently varied on the body and sleeves, these acrylic cardigans were almost always detailed with short ribbed collars, similar to those on MA-1 bomber jackets and varsity jackets, with ribbed cuffs and hems.
Famously knitted by his mother Nancy McFeely Rogers until her death in 1981, Fred’s sweaters were made in a range of colors including green, purple, blue, gold, gray, and even black, though it’s likely the bright red cardigans that are most frequently associated with Mr. Rogers. Despite this association, The Neighborhood Archive creator Tim Lybarger’s comprehensive research suggests green was actually Fred’s most frequently worn color.
It was while wearing a differently styled gray sweater—lacking the collar and trimmed with black piping—that Fred explained to his audience in the 1980 episode “Mister Rogers Makes an Opera” that his mother knits his TV sweaters, highlighting “the beautiful work that she does… each stitch she makes with her hands” on his cable-detailed salmon, green, tan, and blue cardigans.
“It’s a lot of practice… a lot of work. She makes sweaters for many different people, but that’s one of the ways that she has for saying that she loves somebody. She uses needles and yarn and her own hands to knit the sweaters,” he elaborates, before taking the audience on a tour of Bob Trow’s knitting mill.
“For as long as I can remember, she made at least one sweater every month,” Mr. Rogers recalled in a 1999 interview with the Archive of American Television, adding that she would also make one for him every Christmas. “She would say ‘Okay, now what kind would you want next year? I know what you want, Freddy, you want the one with the zipper up the front.'”
For the final decade of the show’s run, the production faced an issue as zippered cardigans had long fallen out of fashion and the yarn on Nancy’s hand-made cardigans was wearing thin. Series art director Kathy Borland explained to Smithsonian Magazine that she eventually chased down a postal carrier in a similar sweater to ask if she could jot down who made the sweater.
Once she started buying these white cotton sweaters from this new source, Borland would stir them with rich-colored dyes in an industrial soup pot, with assistant art director Catherine McConnell using a permanent marker to appropriately color the fabric flanking the zipper. Following more modifications—specifically, removing part of the collar and waxing the zipper—the dyed cardigans were ready for Fred.
Mr. Rogers typically wore white or pale blue cotton shirts, detailed with gold-pinned collars and double (French) cuffs held in place with gold links. Each outfit was completed with a necktie, often striped but occasionally patterned in a plaid or scattered motif that was always tasteful, never distracting. His gold-finished lavalier microphones were fastened on the right side of his ties, almost possible to be mistaken as a high-placed tie clip.
Fred’s trousers ranged from traditional gray flannel and navy wool to dark brown and khaki, typically flat-fronted and worn with a belt. These trousers had side pockets, button-through back pockets, and were usually plain-hemmed on the bottoms in accordance with prevailing trends throughout the show’s long duration.
After hanging up his jacket and zipping on his cardigan, Fred would take a seat while still in mid-song to progress to the next phase of getting comfortable, removing his dress shoes—either lace-ups or loafers—and tying on a pair of sneakers. These casual shoes were always laced in white on navy blue canvas uppers with white rubber outsoles. “Rogers’ famous sneakers became his choice in footwear after he found that they allowed him to walk quietly behind the scenes of the live television productions,” according to a “Pioneers of Television” profile by PBS.
A fan in the r/TheChurchOfRogers subreddit shared exhaustive research and eventual confirmations from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh proving that Mr. Rogers wore both the Converse Skidgrip and Sperry Cloud CVO deck sneakers, the latter differentiated by the white contrast stitching present on their uppers.
The Sperry seems to have been Mr. Rogers’ shoes of choice for the first two decades of the show, gradually switching to the Converses with their solid blue uppers by the end of the 1980s. Throughout the series, he wore thin dress socks, typically in navy blue, black, or dark brown, depending on what tonally coordinated with the rest of his outfit.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated offshoot of Fred’s shy puppet character Daniel Striped Tiger, debuted in September 2012. “We were trying to incorporate important iconic elements from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood into… Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and so having him wear an updated iteration of the sweater and sneakers was one charming way to do that,” said Margy Whitmer, one of the show’s producers of the decision to dress Daniel Tiger in a red hooded sweatshirt and sneakers in addition to the wristwatch that Fred’s puppet had worn in the original series.
In addition to the more than 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood produced between 1968 and 2001, Fred Rogers’ legacy remains accessible thanks to a plethora of exhibits, books, and productions celebrating his work, most recently the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the 2019 feature A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks and directed by Marielle Heller, dramatizing Rogers’ interviews with Junod (reimagined as a journalist named Lloyd Vogel and played by Matthew Rhys.)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘s costume designer Arjun Bhasin recreated some of the signature sweaters that Fred’s mother had made for him, choosing to focus on the iconic red sweater. She explained to The Hollywood Reporter that “I felt very much like we had to honor his legacy and be true to the show as much as possible,” by employing a hand-knitter from the New York theater and seeking the exact shades of dyed wool. In addition, Fred’s widow Joanne Rogers provided Hanks with some of Fred’s actual ties to wear on screen.
Fred Rogers’ signature sweater and sneakers have kept his comfortable sense of on-screen style in the public eye for decades, and the below sources were extraordinarily helpful when researching this piece:
- “Remember when Fred Rogers swapped his sport coat for a knit cardigan?” by Jessica Rapp for CNN (link)
- “This Detail About Mr. Rogers’s Sweaters Will Seriously Warm Your Heart” by Samantha Sutton for InStyle (link)
- “How to Dress Exactly like Mister Rogers” by Nick Riccardo for Medium (link)
- “Every Mister Rogers Sweater Color, Visualized” by Shaunacy Ferro for MentalFloss (link)
- “The Importance of Sweaters and Sneakers in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” by Christine Jackson for Rewire (link)
- “The Behind-the-Scenes Quest to Find Mister Rogers’s Signature Cardigans” by Cristina Rouvalis for Smithsonian Magazine (link)
- “Mister Rogers’ Style in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ Starts With a Sweater” by Cathy Whitlock for The Hollywood Reporter (link)
How to Get the Look
Mr. Rogers would encourage you to find your own routine that makes you comfortable, whether that’s slipping on your favorite sneakers and a bright cardigan sweater that was hand-knitted with love, or something else!
- Rich-colored acrylic or cotton zip-up cardigan sweater with short ribbed collar, raglan sleeves, ribbed cuffs, and ribbed hem
- White or light blue cotton shirt with pinned collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Gold collar pin
- Gold cuff links
- Classic-patterned tie
- Solid flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark leather belt with single-prong buckle
- Navy blue canvas deck sneakers with white laces and white rubber outsoles
- Dark socks
- Gold wedding ring
In partnership with The Fred Rogers Company, Sun Valley Alpaca Company produces a Mister Rogers Sweater Collection with detailed reproductions of Fred’s screen-worn cardigans in several different varieties and colors.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the series, streaming free at the official Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood website for all to enjoy.
Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.