The Unexpectedly Snazzy Sweater Vest

Frank Sinatra wearing a sweater vest 1944
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Menswear has its fair share of classics and crowd pleasers; the garments that few people take issue with and most own or have at least worn in one form or another — the T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, suits, and sweatshirts of the world. 

Then there are those items that have a tougher go of things; the ones whose reputations are somewhat shakier. They are often a style of shorts, a dubious accessory, a medical necessity, or, more often than not, some kind of hat (cf. the fedora, flat cap, bucket hat, et al.  

In this latter category, we find the sweater vest. Let’s face it, the sleeveless jumper is hardly a crowd-pleaser. Like a Marmite of menswear, it tends to divide opinion and inspire impassioned and polarised responses. Fans of the style are all too familiar with these reactions, be they the excited compliments of a fellow enthusiast or the not-so-covert eye rolls of the detractors (Although perhaps that’s just me: I did once wear a sweater vest to a Pixies concert, so I guess I had it coming).

Sleeveless sweater devotees are numerous and, it has to be said, tend to be rather nebbish. They are a go-to garment in fiction and in fact for golfers, grampas, clueless dads, high school teachers, hipsters, normcore adherents, and nerds of every description. In film and TV, they have been the costumes of such memorable dorks as Steve Urkel from Family Matters, Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, Chandler Bing from Friends, Andy Bernard from The Office, Jonah Ryan from Veep, Cyril Figgis in Archer, Neville Longbottom of  Harry Potter fame, and any number of further fictitious highschoolers (magical or otherwise) awkwardly bound by the sweater vests that form part of their various school uniforms.

Vintage man walking in a sweater vest
Image credit: Municipal Archives of Trond / CC BY 2.0

This dweeby rep becomes more of an ironic twist when taking a historical view. The sweater vest first rose to prominence in the early twentieth century as a sporting garment that allowed for insulation from the cold all while granting a greater range of movement to swing a bat, a club, or a racket. One of the earliest proponents was the former Prince of Wales (then briefly Edward VIII and later the Duke of Windsor) who was a fan of wearing Fair Isle sweaters — both sleeveless and otherwise — while golfing, sparking a trend for them among his followers. Fellow world leaders Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover similarly made headlines for wearing sweater vests in the 1910s and ’20s respectively. 

One of the earliest instances in which the sleeves were lobbed off a jumper (as identified by Julia Felsenthal in a piece for Slate) was in 1907 when fourteen members of Michigan’s football team each got a sweater vest with an embroidered ‘M’ as part of their sporting kit. As it happens, more than a century on, the sleeveless sweater continues to be a regular fixture in football circles, particularly among coaches including Mike Ditka, Rex Ryan, and especially Jim Tressel, who is commonly known as ‘The Vest’ owing to his sideline style choices. 

Once these jumpers caught on outside of sporting contexts, they flared up every couple of decades in the fashions of the twentieth century. They were worn with suits and sport coats in the 1930s, partly as a cost-saving alternative to the three-piece suit during the Great Depression. A similar style endured as late as the 1950s and was reborn in the 1970s when sleeveless jumpers, long associated with Fair Isles and Argyles, got ever bolder patterns and pigments while being paired with wide collars and flared trousers. 

Vintage man wearing a sweater vest
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Of course, it’s a garment that has never really gone out of fashion perhaps because it has never been fully in fashion either. It’s also not quite as unanimously geeky as you might expect. Over the decades it has been a favourite of everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Princes Di and has often proven particularly popular among superstar musicians like Paul McCartney, Tyler, the Creator, Harry Styles, and BTS. There have also been other assorted onscreen appearances on the likes of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds, and even the eponymous argyle-covered Step Brothers.

When taking all of this variety into consideration, the sweater vest begins to defy categorisation. As Julia Felsenthal puts it: ‘Indeed, at first glance, the sweater vest seems riddled with contradiction. It lies at the intersection of practicality (it provides warmth to the core while leaving the arms unencumbered ) and frivolity (it is often used purely and impractically to jazz up an otherwise staid ensemble). The look is both boyish and grandfatherly, sporty and fusty, conservative and eccentric, old-fashioned and hip.’

It is a look, in other words, that is ripe for the taking. On this score, it’s also an appropriately undiscriminating garment and tends to look good on most people regardless of size or gender. Despite this ease of use, however, its effect can be striking. A bit of snazzy layering and a slightly off-beat silhouette can make a big difference in how you present yourself. 

Sweater vests have been a regular fixture throughout my life, initially as mortifying garments that haunted my early childhood and school-going years, and later as welcome and willing additions when I began visiting thrift stores and raiding the closets of older relatives. These days, I can’t seem to get enough of them and have more than once had to enact a culling policy. Personally, I like them looking as grandfatherly as possible and look forward to the day when I can relinquish all pretence of hipness and revert to my natural state, which is to subside on butterscotch and wear nought but sleeveless Fair Isles.

Vintage man working in sweater vests
Image credit: Archives New Zealand / CC BY 2.0

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