It’s a scene you’ve watched a thousand times.
Mr. Rogers steps through his front door with a smile and a song, shrugs off his work jacket and puts it on its hanger in a closet. From a hanger to the left he pulls down a cardigan, puts it on and zips it up over his shirt and tie. Still smiling and still singing, he sits down to swap out his loafers for well-loved but not worn-out sneakers.
Generations of children have been invited to be Mr. Rogers’ neighbor, but not before he had changed into the sweater-sneaker combo that became iconic enough to earn a spot in the Smithsonian. Even the newer animated spin-off of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” incorporates the look. Daniel Striped Tiger now wears the red sweater and sneakers in every episode.
“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, a former producer of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and a producer for “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” “It’s a way for those parents who grew up with the program to remember watching ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ to relive childhood memories; think about the values Fred espoused and encourage them in their own children.”
But why those sweaters and sneakers? Surely he could have led us into the fantastical Neighborhood of Make-Believe in his sport coat and loafers. He could have, but he didn’t want to.
“He changed to his sweater, sang the same welcoming song and sat on the bench to change to his sneakers,” wrote Hedda Sharapan, director of early childhood initiatives at The Fred Rogers Company, in a March 2014 post on FredRogers.org. “This predictability offered a sense of security. Through your rituals and routines, you’re offering that to children, too.”
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a world built on both familiarity and formality. Mr. Rogers was an adult, and we were to see him as such. He didn’t share a studio with an audience of children or don a crazy costume. Instead he was fatherly. He spoke directly to each child on the other end of a TV screen with care and respect. And he switched from his work jacket to a cardigan to show them it was time to relax and share a moment together.
“‘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,” Whitmer said. “So the change from the more formal suit coat and loafers into the more casual sweater and sneakers worked to send that message.”
The zip-up cardigans Mr. Rogers donned each episode not only separated the world inside his home from the one beyond, but were a comforting symbol of his own past.
“My mother, for as long as I could remember, made at least one sweater every month,” Rogers told EmmyTVLegends.org in 1999. “She would give us each a hand-knit sweater every Christmas. Until she died those zipper sweaters that I wore on the ‘Neighborhood’ were all made by my mother.”
Even after Rogers’ mother’s passing, the show kept up the tradition of the zip-up cardigan.
“Over the years those sweaters wore out or were donated to charity events. One is in the Smithsonian along with a pair of his sneakers,” Whitmer said. “When his mother passed away, the collection began to dwindle and we had to start buying them. Not an easy challenge in the 80’s and 90s. It certainly wasn’t in style! But we found company who made cotton ones in a similar that were similar, so we bought a bunch and dyed them.”
His shoes, while not quite as sentimental, also served a double purpose. When the trolley rolled into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Mr. Rogers stepped behind the scenes to construct that quietly pleasant imaginary world. He brought Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII and their many friends to life without children ever noticing. The work shoes he wore had too heavy a step for behind-the-scenes work, but canvas tennis shoes allowed Mr. Rogers to walk around backstage maneuvering puppets without a sound.
When the show ends and our time with Mr. Rogers is over, so is his time in his cardigan and sneakers. The sneakers go back by their bench and the work shoes are put back on. The cardigan is returned to its hanger and the jacket goes back on Mr. Rogers. The show ends as it began, with a smile and a song.
Each movement, sound, story, sweater and canvas sneaker was chosen with a purpose. They were chosen to make children feel safe and comfortable and listened to. Every choice Fred Rogers made he made to help his young viewers learn and grow.
In the same 1999 interview in which he discussed the meaning behind his sweaters, Rogers said he’d like to be remembered “for being a compassionate human being who happened to be fortunate enough to be born at a time when there was a fabulous thing called television that could allow me to use all the talents that I had been given.”
He is remembered for his kindness and compassion, and he is remembered for his presence on the television screens of decades of families. But in all those memories, whether he’s singing or sharing a story or watching the trolley go by, he’s wearing a zip-up cardigan and sneakers.
Christine Jackson is a Missouri-based writer and editor who loves the arts but never seems to write about them. Her holy trinity includes the St. Louis Blues, David Bowie and whoever invented iced coffee. You can find her on Twitter sharing snarky quote tweets @cjax1694.