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Fashion The rise of the sweater vest and five ways to style it

Dec. 7, 2020
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Everyone loves a good comeback story, and when it comes to fashion trends, it can be hard to know which style movements will make a strong return. Since its first arrival in the 1900s as a staple sportswear piece for men, the sweater vest came and went, inspiring new styles and new interpretations. Whether it’s partly due to the embrace of playful fashion during quarantine, the timeless need for easy but chic layering pieces, or a desire for ‘90s-esque nostalgia, the sweater vest is back with a vengeance.

Sweater vests were born out of functionality—think dickies (removable turtlenecks) or fingerless gloves. All three offer smart, practical designs, but haven’t always been considered “cool.” The sweater vest, in a way, was always meant to be worn casually, but it’s still regarded as nerdy, stuffy, and overly formal. 

With its roots in athletics, the sweater vest slowly evolved through the years into a more relaxed piece of knitwear for high-end politicians to wear for outdoor activities. This led right to the anti-sweater-vest propaganda that has plagued society throughout the years. Think back to any sitcom from your childhood and you’ll remember that the nerdy character was always ridiculed for wearing a dreaded sweater vest—take Cody from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody sporting a sweater vest to distinguish him as the “geeky twin” or Freddy from iCarly being ridiculed for wearing a vest obviously picked out by his mother. Besides, sweater vests were representative of a posh, private school-chic style à la Vivienne Kensington in Legally Blonde. In other words, rarely have sweater vests been considered cool or even alternative.

The comeback of sweater vests was gradual. The cyclical trend started turning heads back in 2017, as The New York Times and other publications firmly announced to “not to tell grandpa” that the sweater vest was returning to men’s fashion. Big name designers like Alexander McQueen and Dior Homme were releasing their own take on our granddads’ go-to. And after Harry Styles strutted a chic yet playful sheep-patterned vest in 2019, there was no turning back. 

Celebrities and luxury designers are one thing, but younger generations at large are another.  More recently, smaller, youth-focused designers have introduced their takes on the sweater vest. Brightly colored floral prints and trendy silhouettes (see: Kin & Tam’s Tulip vest, House of Sunny’s neon green sweater that turns into a vest) started hitting our social feeds as Fashion TikTok effortlessly began pairing the once preppy, proper piece with tennis skirts, jewel-toned dress pants, and even midi dresses.  

Gen-Z TikTok creators are now sporting a trend that Republican senator Rick Santorum was once known for—and rebranding it altogether. Along with being functional and multi-seasonal, sweater vests can be worn by the dark academia minimalist or the colorful, statement-loving maximalist. They can serve as a statement piece or be simply added to an outfit. It’s all fair game, but here’s some inspiration to get your mind brewing. 

Small vest, big shirt

While you can definitely go with the classic oversized sweater vest over a large button-down, one of my favorite looks is taking a tight-fitting vest (either a V-neck or turtleneck) and letting it crop right under the bust. This could also work on a dress, but ideally one that has a collar of some sort to peek through the top of the vest and create dimension. 

Big vest, big pants

If you want to embrace the full-on ‘90s look, a baggy pair of jeans paired with an oversized sweater vest is key. For this look you’re going to want a wider vest that flows casually atop the shirt, and maybe throw in a French tuck. Just focus on making the vest look as loose as possible.

Big vest, tiny skirt 

If you’re really trying to take risks with trends, try combining two by pairing a sweater vest with a tennis skirt. Either put the sweater vest over a button-down shirt if you want to go full-on country club, or slip it over a t-shirt to balance out the preppiness. 

Layers on layers

Don’t be shy, add some more. The great thing about the sweater vest is that it keeps your torso warm while providing endless layering possibilities. Add a colorful turtleneck underneath and maybe even a t-shirt in between to make the perfect layered sandwich, while staying cozy and not looking too bulky. 

The one and done

Something about short-sleeve knitwear begs to be layered, but I’d say only at the right temperature and with the right bottoms (think a loose pair of pants or high-waisted jeans). A sweater vest just thrown on with nothing underneath can look effortless and fun. Throw on a chain necklace or two to elevate the look just a bit more and you’ve got the perfect minimalist, fashionably-late-to-class ensemble.