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Mister Rogers Used His Sweaters and Shoes to Send a Message

The new documentary about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood highlights the pranks and political statements behind the man’s clothes.

Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fotos International/Getty Images

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What Fred Rogers wore on the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was in many ways just as important as the life lessons he imparted to viewers. In the new documentary about his lifeWon’t You Be My Neighbor — we see how the shoes and sweaters he changed into each episode brought his crew together and how he used footwear, and even his own body, as a force for good.

Mister Rogers debuted in 1968 and appeared on public television until 2001. Rogers died from stomach cancer two years later. A father of two in real life, he presented himself as a parental figure on the show, and he used his clothes to do so. During each episode, he’d change out of his suit jacket and dress shoes into his cardigan and sneakers, much like a parent returning home from work might do to enjoy some leisure time with his kids.

“He changed to his sweater, sang the same welcoming song and sat on the bench to change to his sneakers,” explained Hedda Sharapan of the Fred Rogers Company in 2014. “This predictability offered a sense of security. Through your rituals and routines, you’re offering that to children, too.”

This security was especially important given that some of the children who watched his show over the span of three decades did not have parents around or parents they could count on to come home every day at the same time and be glad to do so.

The cardigans Rogers wore were a way for him to pay tribute to his own parent. His mother, Nancy Rogers, was an avid knitter. Rogers remembered her knitting at least one sweater a month.

“She would give us each a hand-knit sweater every Christmas,” he said. “Until she died those zipper sweaters that I wore on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother.”

Today, one of those sweaters, a bright red cable knit number, sits in the Smithsonian. It’s now part of the “T is for Television” exhibit that will be on display through September 4. This year, the Senator John Heinz History Center, in Pittsburgh, where Rogers lived, opened an exhibit featuring his clothes along with set staples from the show. And a multimedia exhibit at the Fred Rogers Center, in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, also includes pieces from the Mister Rogers wardrobe.

Mister Rogers’ red cardigan sits in the Smithsonian museum.
A cardigan Fred Rogers donated to the Smithsonian.
Jaclyn Nash/National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution

It’s likely that the children who grew up watching Fred Rogers will always associate him with the cardigan, but the children’s television pioneer also used his shoes to make a particularly poignant point. Mister Rogers began during the civil rights movement, when blacks could be brutalized for swimming in “whites only” pools. The Won’t You Be My Neighbor film includes some of this footage and discusses how it unsettled Rogers so much that he decided to use his show to make a statement about racial equality.

During one scene, he’s soaking his feet in a wading pool in his backyard. He asks Officer Clemmons, played by black actor Francois Clemmons, to take off his shoes and join him. He didn’t utter a word about racial intolerance or civil rights, but Rogers got his point across.

More often than not, the shoes on the show were used for laughs. In one outtake, captured in the documentary, Rogers reaches for his shoes, tries to squeeze into them, but can’t. His feet won’t fit. He gives the crew an amused look, and they burst into laughter. These sorts of pranks — swapping his shoes out for a smaller pair or stuffing socks into them to make them too tight — happened all the time on set. Other times, Rogers would open his closet door to get his trademark sweater, and a crew member would jump out to startle him. A Presbyterian minister, Rogers never swore when these shenanigans took place, but his amusement at them showed how good-natured he actually was.

Fred Rogers was by no means perfect, though. He may have embraced his zany crew and opposed racial segregation, but the lifelong Republican wasn’t so open when it came to Francois Clemmons’s sexual orientation. Clemmons is gay and wanted to wear an earring on the show and more expressive clothing, he recently told Vanity Fair, but Rogers reportedly forbade him to do so or to visit gay clubs. He feared any scandal related to Clemmons’s sexuality could cost Mister Rogers sponsors. Still, Clemmons said that he regards Rogers as a father figure, one who nurtured him more than his own parents did.

Rogers had his quirks as well as his shortcomings. He maintained a weight of exactly 143 pounds during the last 30 years of his life. His crew remembered his “weird” fixation on the number 143, which he also referenced on his TV program. Apparently, each of those numbers corresponds with the number of letters in the words “I love you.”

“It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you,’” he said. “One hundred and forty-three.”

Be it through his self-presentation or the lessons he discussed on his show, getting this message across to his young viewers mattered to Rogers above all else. He wanted all children to know that they deserved love just as they were.