How To Wear A Vest: A History And Style Guide
It’s the ultimate in versatile mid-layering. The men’s vest formalizes a suit, dresses up a sport coat, or stands on its own over a long-sleeved shirt. Vests run the gamut from casual fleece to formal wear, from the insulating gilet to the sportsman’s hunting vest, and many other sleeveless styles. But not every vest should be paired with every outfit: each has its own place in your wardrobe.
What Is A Vest?
Broadly, a vest is a sleeveless garment covering the upper body. The word also has different connotations in English—in the UK and Commonwealth countries the word “vest” describes a tank top shirt, whereas the sleeveless upper body garment Americans call a vest is known in those parts as a waistcoat; you’ll note Barbour of England’s use of this moniker.
The term “vest” comes from the Latin vestis (clothing), thence to the Romance languages, where the French veste means “vest or jacket” and the Italian vesta means “robe or gown.” The Online Etymology Dictionary attributes the popularization of the men’s vest to King Charles II, who insisted it be worn in the court where proper attire had gone off the rails:
"The King hath yesterday, in Council, declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes… It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift."
[Pepys, “Diary,” Oct. 8, 1666]
Prior to this the vest could be seen in Persia’s court of the Shah Abbas. And while the vest and the waistcoat are essentially the same garment, in today’s currency the English waistcoat has distinctly formal overtones its American counterpart resists.
Some Common Types Of Men's Vests And Waistcoats
The Sweater Vest or Wool Vest
It’s the singular men’s wardrobe piece that holds equal sway with U.S. Presidents, athletic coaches, and the couture-conscious of all ages. A sweater vest is precisely what its name implies: an item of knitwear that is similar to a sweater, but missing its sleeves. It also sports a V-neckline more often than not. A classic style in the US, UK, and beyond, the sweater vest and the men’s wool vest each combines comfort and style in a garment you can take anywhere, and bestows upon its wearer an individuality that is sometimes missing in other men’s apparel.
There are many variations on this style, from Merino pullovers to button fronts, zips, and more. Cardigan vests are popular, but a pullover V-neck sweater vest is a staple in most men’s wardrobes.
The Travel Vest
Travelers, photographers, and outdoorsmen all appreciate the performance of a quality travel vest. These garments are built to endure the rigors of travel with convenient pockets and clips to stash your travel necessities without sacrificing the handsome appeal of a well cut vest. For adventures in warm climates, a travel vest is a must.
Quilting has existed for millennia, but the quilted jacket as we know it has its roots in 1960s England. The lower profile diamond quilted vest is a lightweight garment with a distinctly polished look. Alternately, the quilted vest can be packed with lofty down for warmth. Either version delivers versatility in a piece of outerwear appropriate for any casual wardrobe.
Oxford defines a gilet as a light, sleeveless padded jacket. And while a “gilet” is a type of vest to be sure, it’s most often designed and worn as outerwear. Its antecedent is the jerkin, a garment worn by 15th century European peasants—a sleeveless jacket typically made of leather. In the 16th century the aristocracy commandeered the jerkin and added padding; Henry VIII was a fan and appears in portraits wearing it. But in Italian, gilet means waistcoat, a more refined, fitted version of the jerkin that came into favor thereafter among the upper classes.
Gilets are typically heavier weight or at least designed to withstand elements. Barbour introduced the quilted gilet in 1978, but a variant already existed for hunting, shooting and fishing; the gilet’s distinct advantages were ease of movement combined with insulating warmth. The modern gilet, or “bodywarmer” as it is sometimes known, has retained these two practical qualities in a multitude of appealing styles.
Popularized by outdoorsmen, the fleece vest is the perfect casual complement for any cool-weather adventure. The grid fleece vest style has become a staple for many a man’s wardrobe in recent years and goes perfectly with khakis and a long-sleeve checked shirt.
For trips to the range or adventures in the field, the shooting vest delivers the functionality that sportsmen demand, in an authentically classic style. The shoulder patch is the vest’s most identifiable aesthetic, where extra fabric provides a little cushion for shotgun recoil, but has also become an important fashion detail in its own right. A proper shooting vest boasts all the requisite pockets for convenience in the field, paired with rugged construction that withstands burrs and thorns.
Ways To Wear A Vest
While a backless tuxedo vest won’t go with much besides a tuxedo jacket, even a dressy vest can be nudged into a more relaxed demeanor. And although it is in the sweater vest’s nature to relax, it willingly dresses up when you ask. A few possibilities:
- Most men’s sweater vests feel right at home with a sport jacket. Pair one with dressy trousers and chinos alike; choose a dressier shirt to wear underneath.
- You can also pair a vest with your favorite jeans; the vest will become the focus of your outfit, so make sure it fits perfectly. A crisp, white button-down shirt will polish this look. If you wish to remain completely casual, choose a plain or graphic tee, taking care to avoid an oversized shirt or a plunging neckline: neither works with a men’s vest.
- For a professional look, wear a tie with your vest. But be advised a business-on-top look does not work with too-relaxed bottoms.
- The gilet can be layered over nearly anything: try a plain sweatshirt, a knit shirt, a denim shirt, or even a lightweight jacket. Avoid wearing a patterned gilet with a patterned shirt, which looks silly.
How To Fit A Traditional Button-Front Vest
Look for these benchmarks in a well-fitted vest:
- It should be long enough to cover the waist (hence “waistcoat).
- No part of the shirt should be visible between the trouser belt and the vest.
- The sides and back should be cut a little higher than the front.
- The vest’s shoulders should lie flat against the body.
- If it is worn with a suit, the vest’s V-shaped opening should be narrow enough that the suit’s lapels won’t hide it.
- The bottom button should be left open.
Make sure your shirt fits nicely, too: an improperly fitted one will “balloon,” spilling out from underneath the vest or puckering at the shoulders.
A men’s vest can serve as a functional outer layer, or refine a look. Worn without a suit coat or sport jacket, it can be dressy without taking itself too seriously. Wear it as a casual topper or take it outdoors. However you choose to wear it, you’ll be hard pressed to find a men’s garment more adaptable than the vest.
Shop Men’s Vests
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