Fashion Internet Rabbit Hole: Cosby Sweaters

Bill Cosby and his array of famous sweaters throughout years of filming ’The Cosby Show.’
Photo: Courtesy of Bill Cosby’s Facebook

Oh man, so there’s this new and wonderful time-suck on the internet that’s a bracket of all the Cosby Sweaters where readers can vote on which kaleidoscopic woven fever-dream they like best. The first round features all the crew necks, from baller-ass intarsia hearts, black-and-blue chiaroscuro, swiss darning to some very admirable appliqué and cord work.

Hovering over the thumbnail enlarges each sweater and inevitably Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable is doing something emo or hilarious because he is the best TV dad in the universe. While the poll (which starts tomorrow) is clearly a traffic driver to shill Bill Cosby’s new book and features mislabeled categories (I’m pretty sure those aren’t cashmere), it’s still pretty fun. The best bit, however, is then taking it upon yourself to fall into the internet K-hole that is the following constellation of Cosby Sweater related searches.

Obviously, there are the classics like the Cosby Sweater Project on Tumblr. It’s a painstakingly collected episode-by-episode, season-by-season chronicle of the best sweaters accompanied by a detailed drawing of the design. Once you have a reignited appreciation for just how intricate each nubby canvas is, then you should absolutely revisit this exhaustive Collectors Weekly rundown of how the Cosby Sweater’s iconic aesthetic came about and why.

ICYMI: In the article from earlier this year, Hunter Oatman-Standford, talks to Bill Cosby and his longtime costume designer Sarah Lemire. OK, so this is where things get nerdy (and I’m trying my best not to straight scrape this article because it is RIFE with GOLDEN quotes) but it’s super interesting to consider Lemire’s decision-making process.

The Cosby Show was a multi-camera show and the director relied on a ton of close crops that could capture Cosby’s hysterical rubber-faced expressions as he flexed his improv skills. When you’re zoomed in that tight, continuity issues with the clothing would crop up in editing—a tie would be askew in one take and straight in another—a busy sweater with a lot of moving pieces would make those shifts less noticeable.

Bill Cosby looking strapping in a signature sweater.
Photo: Getty Images

Plus, Lemire reasoned that it would be super stuffy and not at all in keeping with character for Cliff to be wearing a suit around the house and to his credit, Cosby liked the idea of his character showcase a personal style that pushed the envelope beyond the preppy boilerplate. “I wanted to get away [from] the blue blazer look, with the khaki pants and the penny loafers.”

Another challenge that had to be considered was that the Cosby family was HUGE. Patterns made the permutations easier than having to repeatedly select a palette of seven different solid complementary colors. Special consideration had to be made for some inlaid patterns, however, since the multi cams made certain smaller designs “moiré” or vibrate like a bad tie on a morning show. The article goes on to debunk the myth that Cosby Sweaters are Coogi Sweaters (they’re not! Who knew?) but it also introduces the Danish designer Koos Van Den Akker, the man behind a great many of the one-of-a-kind creation.

So this dovetails neatly into a Vice video on the New York-based designer who had been trained at Christian Dior. In the segment, we’re invited into his work space. Koos is wearing perfect-circle glasses and a work apron and is a total kook (no shots). He lays gems like: “There’s a thin line between ’absolutely awful’ and something of genius,” but somewhere at the 9-minute mark he sounds like a crotchety misogynist: “I don’t like women. I don’t like fussing with them. I think they need a psychiatrist more than they need a designer.”

He walks us through his process and equates his methodology to painting. It’s not just stitching flat patterns together in a 2-D collage, much of Koos’s best work features a gonzo pastiche of layered textures created by the bits of wool arranged on top of a typically solid, jersey base.

While the Cosby Sweater is a pop culture icon and everybody knows what you’re talking about when you reference it, Koos reminds us that back in the early ’80s, when he had first conceived of the look it was insanely cutting-edge stuff. “When you look at this now, it’s familiar but when I did this there was nothing. People were freaked out, they were like, ’What the f*** is that? I was totally original.”

This would be the perfect time to end your Cosby K-hole with the one-two punch of daisy-chaining all 7 opening credits of the 8 seasons (there was some rights-clearing drama with the mural in one of the seasons which resulted in a repeat). And then being so drawn in that you fire up your Hulu Plus to binge-watch whole chunks of shows. Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, fin. Feel free to jettison most of this information when you need the mental real estate for something useful. You can thank me for murdering your productivity later. Happy ID4!

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