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The charm and swagger of waistcoats

Charlotte Rampling paired a masculine waistcoat with a long-sleeved shirt in 1974 © Mondadori via Getty Images

At a recent rural wedding in North Wales, I paired a pink waistcoat with matching trousers from French brand The Frankie Shop and was greeted with bewilderment. “It’s so great that they have female magicians now,” said another guest. “I see Ronnie O’Sullivan is on the guest list,” another joked. In my mind, I was channeling Charlotte Rampling from 1974, not the snooker player. But that’s the risk you take when you put on a vest. It’s all about context.

If I had been in the front row at a fashion show, rather than in a field, I might have elicited a warmer reception. The spring shows of Saint Laurent, Jacquemus, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Burberry all featured cardigans. The same goes for the “gateway” at Nice airport, where a few weeks ago Marion Cotillard showed up at the Cannes Film Festival adopting the “chic passport control” dress code in a black waistcoat, jeans and giant sunglasses. And Palm Beach got the memo: Taking a page from Bianca Jagger’s playbook, Nicola Peltz wore an all-white Dior three-piece to her epic wedding rehearsal dinner to Brooklyn Beckham.

That said, women in vests are nothing new. If Marlene Dietrich, Janelle Monáe and Kate Moss are anything to go by, once you’ve discovered a zest for the vest, it’s got you covered for life. “There’s a lot of charm and swagger in such a small garment,” muses British designer Bella Freud. The Chrissie vest from her eponymous line is a recurring style named after singer Chrissie Hynde. “She wears a vest really well, in a warm, boyish and sexy way. When you feel like you’re blending into the wall, it’s a good thing to wear. Freud’s denim iteration proves popular to help customers stand out – in a good way.” Natasha Lyonne just wore it Saturday Night Live,” she says. “You can get a good jacket in any market. But a good cardigan that has a certain cut is harder to find.

Model Kate Moss wears a black hat, shorts and a black leather jacket.  She carries a cola bottle and a paper cup

Kate Moss in an open waistcoat at the 2005 Glastonbury Music Festival. . . ©Getty Images

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders playing guitar on stage wearing a frilly white shirt and black leather vest

. . . and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders in a leather vest in 1980 © Redferns

Italian couture brand Giuliva Heritage is also becoming a vest destination. “We’ve always included a vest in our collections, inspired by Bianca Jagger and Studio 54 – and over the last two years sales have really started to pick up,” says Margherita Cardelli, who started the brand alongside her husband. Gerardo Cavaliere in 2017. The ivory vest-trouser combo from his SS22 collection is one of the most requested looks by celebrities and fashion editors. “I originally designed it for brides – I thought it was a cool alternative to a blazer, a bit sexy,” says Cardelli. Currently pregnant, Cardelli lives in vests. “It’s smart and fitted on the top, but you can unbutton the bottom to make room.”

Vests make for a surprisingly foolproof workwear look, says retail consultant Natalie Kingham, a fan since she acquired a fitted Ossie Clark red snakeskin-print style as a teenager. In her previous role as purchasing director of Matchesfashion.com, she often placed orders for cardigans at Alexander McQueen, Bella Freud and Dolce & Gabbana. She herself considers them a surprisingly versatile day and night option. “I often bought a waistcoat with the matching blazer because it was obvious and it made my life easier,” she recalls. “It works a bit like a 9 to 5 dress, and it doesn’t feel too stuffy or strict. You can have your meeting wearing the blazer over it, then you can have a cocktail party wearing the vest with nothing underneath.

A model on the catwalk wears a black vest and sunglasses

Saint Laurent SS22

A model wears a small bare-arm vest and a full-length pink floaty skirt

Giorgio Armani SS22

Separating the waistcoat from its three-piece suit origins and usual formal context also challenges its more traditional connotations. The three-piece suit became a symbol of aristocratic eccentricity (and a short-lived trademark look for England football manager Gareth Southgate). At Eton, for example, the privilege of wearing a wacky waistcoat is reserved for prefects. Do you remember Prince William in his Union Jack print style?

In another context, London-based, Helsinki-born designer Ella Boucht approaches vests from a queer perspective, having discovered the power of clothing during their Masters in Womenswear at Central Saint Martins. “I personally love wearing vests because they make me feel invincible. I love the combination of the structured front and the silky back, with exposure of the arms and skin. It’s an erotic piece but professional,” says Boucht. Boucht’s vests, which often feature harnesses, have become an iconic design that aims to “stir the pot and bring homosexuality into a world heavily created for men.”

Bella Hadid is stepping out in an open cardigan and T-shirt in April. . . © GC Images

. . . and Marion Cotillard opts for the cardigan and jeans for her arrival at Nice airport in May © GC Images

Vest-lover Janelle Monáe at the 2012 Grammy Nominations Concert Live. . . © FilmMagic

. . . and actress Elle Fanning at an event in Santa Monica in 2022 © WireImage

Tent ? Do like model and designer TyLynn Nguyen and try a plain white t-shirt under a slightly oversized style. A fan of the gray linen floaty pants and oversized jacket from Skall Studio, she says the set is a stylish — but mostly cool — alternative to a summer jacket. “It’s a lightweight layer that creates the same ease as a suit,” she tells me. Lauren Santo Domingo, Brand Director at Moda Operandi, owns a linen style by Michael Lo Sordo and advises, “You’ll find yourself reaching for the set when you feel like you have nothing else to wear. ”

But watch out for the buttons. “Something that buttons too high above the chest can be difficult to wear unless you’re very small in that department,” she warns. Instead, look for a flattering V and an adjustable strap. And don’t forget to have a magic trick on hand if things go wrong.

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Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds