Bill Cosby and his fictional family dominated the sitcom world in the 1980s. Their 202 episodes of The Cosby Show ran for eight seasons. The show’s impact on American culture is hard to overstate. TV Guide credited the show with reviving the sitcom genre. The Cosby Show was one of the first shows centered around an African-American family, and even had an effect on the fashion world. Bill Cosby’s character, Cliff Huxtable, wore sweaters, and not just any sweaters, but garish ones. The sweaters were often multi-colored explosions of strange patterns and abstract shapes, which suited the quirky Dr. Huxtable well, but were a major departure from the generally buttoned-up wardrobe of the typical television protagonist of the day.
The “Cosby sweater,” as the style would soon become known, became a trademark of the show and of the comedian himself. And it was something which almost never happened.
The Cosby Show‘s camera direction required for a lot of close ups and, given the nature of television production, a lot of takes. But having Cosby wear a traditional sports coat and collared shirt caused a problem: collars move. As Smithsonian magazine explained, re-adjusting the collars after every take to keep them in the same place to provide consistency would be impossible, so the directors went with a total wardrobe overhaul. Cliff Huxtable became a sweater-wearing doctor. (Eventually, the wardrobe crew would sew Cosby’s shirts and sweaters together, to minimize movement even further.)
The designs for the sweaters, as Collectors Weekly explains, were similarly unintended — at first. A designer working with the show, Koos Van Den Akker, was asked to get a sweater for Mr. Cosby and spotted a women’s sweater in a larger size and handed it over. Per Van Den Akker, “[Cosby] 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 [the trend] began.”
From the Archives: Television Dreams: The advent of color television may have caused us to dream in color.
Related: The Cosby Show, the complete series, on DVD.