It’s official: temperatures in the UAE have dropped below 30 degrees, so I can finally put on the garment style I bought an abundance of last year, yet didn’t get nearly enough wear out of. I’m talking about the sweater vest, the sleeveless knit jumper that’s currently dominating window displays and Instagram grids alike.
Evocative of grandfathers seated in cushy armchairs, the sweater vest is fashion’s unexpected underdog for the autumn/winter season. “Sweater vests have been the talk since luxury fashion houses included them in their 2020 collections,” says Brook Tate, community stylist of subscription box styling service Wear That in Dubai. “Since then, there have been various options for the sweater vest – oversized silhouettes, bold patterns and traditional designs. Women around the world are rocking the sweater vest even better than their grandparents used to.”
Sweater vests on the runway
It’s true that runway shows have portrayed this old-school garment in a fashion-forward light – and not only for the cooler season. Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer 2021 show included sleeveless knit numbers, while Fendi, Christian Dior, Prada and Lacoste all featured sweater vests in their autumn/winter 2020 collections. The LV and Dior designs were a nod to the nerdy-chic aesthetic, and were layered over blouses to achieve looks that were at once effortless and androgynous.
Prada and Lacoste’s sweater vests came in oversized, colourblocked and preppy styles, while at Fendi, the garment exuded swank and sophistication teamed with a pair of leather trousers and showcased by supermodel Bella Hadid.
The runway trends of last year admittedly made little impact on public fashion habits, at the time anyway. After all, many of us spent last autumn social distancing, if not in lockdown, and so the fashion fads we were itching to get on board with in 2020 have carried over. Sweater vests are among this group of “saved for later” styles.
Less nerd, more chic
The garment’s steady ascent up the style ladder was not exactly anticipated. Since the 1930s, the sweater vest has been a menswear staple, often brandishing argyle or striped patters with a V-neck and relaxed fit. It gained more colour and character in the 1980s, and also carries athletic connotations – cable-knit vests have historically proved popular among cricketers and golfers.
Given the garment’s not-so-fashionable historical roots, for some, the sweater vest falls squarely in the “man-repelling” realm – an admittedly contentious term coined by veteran fashion blogger Leandra Medine to refer to styles that are not traditionally attractive or aesthetically appealing, but are nonetheless proving popular among women. Also categorised under this umbrella of trends are accessories such as bucket hats and tourist sandals, both of which were previously deemed “dad fashion”, yet have emerged triumphant in the mainstream.
Now, a sweater vest might be deemed a vogueish splurge. A salmon-toned cable-knit vest by Gucci adorned with multicoloured sequins will set you back by Dh6,000 – a high price to pay for a garment that was once considered unalluring and antiquated.
How to style the sweater vest
Sweater vests are at once topping the school drop-off outfits of style-savvy mums and being donned by Gen-Z teenagers. The wide variety in styles means there’s something for everyone: there’s the black V-neck vest with sporty white piping from H&M for the moody minimalist, and the cropped, pistachio-toned number with delicate floral embroidery from Mango for the woman looking to retain the femininity factor with this otherwise androgynous garment. Oversized ginghams, Christmas-coloured tartans, neutral-toned houndstooth patterns, retro flowers and stark solid shades – the options are seemingly endless when it comes to contemporary sweater vests.
“Designers are updating this timeless piece with a modern twist, incorporating crochet styles, oversized novelty looks and even cropped versions,” says Caroline Maguire, fashion director at Shopbop, which stocks sweater vests by brands such as English Factory, Stella Nova and Acne Studios.
“Our customers are loving colourful styles and oversized fits this season. Since sweater vests are inherently classic, going for an option that’s a bit edgier makes it feel fresh,” says Maguire, who offers her own tips on how to wear them. “I style mine as a standalone top or use layers to dress it up. I also love wearing an oversized button-down as a dress and pairing a sweater vest on top – it’s a great way to elevate any look.”
They also offer a surprising styling solution for modesty-conscious shoppers. Musfira Suleman, founder of modest fashion platform Modernest in Dubai, says that they can be a brilliant hack for adding extra coverage to shirts that are slightly sheer. Instead of wearing an additional top underneath, a sweater vest can be thrown on to provide essential coverage while looking chic.
Aesthetic and practical appeal
So, what makes the sweater vest suddenly so covetable? “Versatility is the main feature of sweater vests, making them optimal for layering,” says Tate. “The transition from summer to [autumn] can sometimes be complicated, so layering is a great way to get around this.”
Keeping the torso protected without the fuss of stifling sleeves or claustrophobic necklines, the sweater vest offers balance between coverage and comfort during the cooler months. And as brands put their own fashion-forward stamps on sweater vests, the once-dowdy garment is attracting younger generations of style-conscious consumers.
Lint-covered sweater vests with the unshakable scent of mothballs may be emblematic of our grandparents’ attics in countries where there are clearer seasonal shifts, and a more pressing need for winter wardrobes, but Suleman believes sweater vests are ideal for this region’s mild winters that don’t require heaps of layers. “Sweater vests are absolute life savers when it comes to brightening a basic outfit, and they are perfect to wear to all the casual outdoor spots during the breezy UAE weather,” she says.
But while it may offer a moderate level of warmth, there’s a far simpler selling point to this garment: the no-frills, throw-it-on comfort it instantly provides. As Tate puts it: “It’s the perfect trend that's cosy and comfortable, whilst being effortlessly fashionable.”