Gilet All Day, Every Day

Pablo Picasso wearing a gilet
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Every couple of months someone writes an article about the demise of the suit and tie as office wear. Coverage of this particular topic is nearly prolific enough at this point to constitute its own subgenre of menswear writing. But what seems to get much less attention is the unlikely garment that has, in essence, come to replace the business suit. Whether you know it as a vest or a gilet, these days it means business and is here to stay.

Walk around just about any major business district at lunchtime and you’ll inevitably find yourself awash in a sea of sleeveless, zip-up fleeces and puffers. In fact, the Instagram account Midtown Uniform, which currently boasts some 175 000 followers, was born from precisely this experience. It tersely but astutely describes in its bio the full look in question: ‘button down. vest. slacks.’ Enough said.

It’s an aesthetic that rings as true in Midtown Manhattan as it does in Edinburgh, Scotland where I live. What is so striking about encountering this look in the wild is the fact that just a few years ago these exact people would have been wearing the self-same business suit whose aforementioned extinction has been so widely reported. If given the opportunity a decade ago to predict what would replace the suit and tie in The City, I don’t imagine many people would have gone with an outdoor utility garment as the most likely candidate.

Of course, as with so much societal finger-pointing in our time, if you’re looking for someone to blame, simply turn to the tech mavens of Silicon Valley. As a way of distinguishing themselves from the suited money men of Wall Street, these West Coast entrepreneurs opted for a more casual, practical, and egalitarian look that seemed much more at home on the trail than in the boardroom. Quickly, however, the aesthetic began to trickle down throughout the corporate world, from Sun Valley billionaires to garden variety work dads, to the point where the gilet has become shorthand for ‘business’. As evidence, just look at the costuming decisions in any show about big business made in the last decade (e.g. Silicon Valley, Succession, The Dropout, Industry, and so on).

In this context, Patagonia has long been the gilet du jour, to the point where the brand has ceased making branded corporate gear for companies that don’t share its values. Other trendy outdoor brands like The North Face and Arctyrex have begun creeping into the fold too, however, as well as considerably more expensive but still appropriately demure-looking options from Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana as modelled by HBO’s infamous Roy clan. 

Business man wearing a Patagonia gilet
Image credit: Anh Henry Nguyen on Unsplash

Writing about the rise of the business vest a few years ago in Esquire, Jake Flanagin speculates that the garment took off in this context because of two somewhat opposing impulses within this corporate crowd. One is a desire to fit in. Financial institutions used to have famously draconian dress rules where stepping out of line might be met with mockery or chastisement, so finding anything deemed appropriate must feel like an all-too-welcome form of camouflage. The other, oddly, is precisely a desire to stand out. As Flanagin puts it, ‘zipping into a Patagonia vest is less about blending in, and more about signalling one’s belonging to an elite, rainmaking trade’.

Lest we feel tempted to dump all of the blame on the business bros of the world, however, it’s worth pointing out that the gilet didn’t necessarily have the best reputation before they came along. In Britain, wearing a Schoffel-style gilet tends to signal a certain Defender-driving, fox-hunting, upper-class sensibility. Similarly, there appears to be a comparable preppy sleazebag vibe that exists among the old-money country club set across the pond. Then there are all the beleaguered sports coaches, the exasperated environmentalists, the early-morning dog walkers, the rain-soaked mountain climbers, and so on — none of whom generally scream ‘chic’. 

The term ‘gilet’ — which came to English in the late seventeenth century from French via the Spanish ‘jileco’, itself deriving from the Turkish ‘yelek’, all of which meaning ‘waistcoat’ — has attained a further political dimension in its native country for its association with the gilet jaunes (yellow vest) movement, which wears high-visibility vests in part for its association with the working class. In fact, for about as long as ‘gilet’ has existed in the English language, there has been some version of the garment that has been connected with blue-collar workers and fighting grunts. The mediaeval tabard was typically worn for warmth by peasants or by soldiers in battle. The later tight-fitting jerkin left the arms free to manoeuvre while still offering some degree of protection from arrows. Similar sleeveless garments have been used all the way through to the infantryman of WWI and the tactical vests of the present day. Of course, the upper-class equivalent has also existed for a long time, stretching back to the likes of Henry VIII and the countless cod-piece-clad princes and waist-coat-wearing fops to follow. 

It isn’t all bad though. In our own time, some trendier incarnations of the gilet have worked their way into the fashion crowd. I bought one myself a few years ago from — gasp! — Patagonia (although aesthetically mine is more like a Marty McFly-style body warmer than a Jeff Bezos-esque tech vest). I find it’s among the garments I wear most often in the autumn and spring. As another Esquire piece put it: 

‘What gilet-haters don’t appear to understand, or perhaps just choose to ignore, is the practicality on offer here. For a 4-6 week window between October and November (and again in early spring), a gilet can do things few other items of clothing can. Namely keeping you warm but not too warm, regulating your body temperature indoors and out. The wardrobe equivalent of an efficient aircon unit. To wear a thinner coat doesn’t cut it. To wear a bigger one would leave you bulky and sweating. The much-maligned ‘bodywarmer’ (get it?) is actually a work of quiet genius.’

It’s also easy to slip on and off, it gives you a warm place to put your hands and to store your bits and bobs, and it can add interest and some colour to what could otherwise be a dull jeans-and-sweater-type combo. Plus, with ever more attractive versions coming to market all the time — don’t let that ubiquitous slate synchilla variety tell you otherwise — there’s no reason why you can’t dress to impress with a vest on your chest.

Man wearing a body warmer
Image is my own / All rights reserved