Written by: Christine Jackson (Rewire)
Date: March 20, 2017

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.

Mister RogersGenerations 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.

But why those sweaters and sneakers? Surely he could have led us into the fantastical world of make believe in his sport coat and loafers. He could have, but he didn’t want to.

Mr. Rogers’ sweaters were made by his mom

“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 putting on a sweaterThe 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.”

His sneakers were for sneaking

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. Each choice Fred Rogers made, he made to help his young viewers learn and grow.

Mister Rogers dancing

How Mr. Rogers wants to be remembered

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.