The return of the sweater vest

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What they are: Sleeveless, waist-length sweaters with a V-neck, typically worn over button-up blouses, T-shirts, or crew-neck sweaters. They are often made of a knit material and if not a solid color, tend to be argyle, houndstooth, or any pattern resembling a 1980s bus seat.

Where they are: On celebrities, Y2K-obsessed TikTokers, and influencers. Fashion retailers like H&M, Mango, Zara, and Ganni all sell classic, and even cropped, versions of sweater vests. Plus, for those who want to invest in the trend, luxury brands like Prada and Gucci have their own versions as well. Authentic versions can also be found at your local thrift store, that crate of childhood clothes your mom has been telling you to get rid of, or the closet of any relative over 45.

Why they’re everywhere: Ironically, though the sweater vest is having its moment amid the firestorm of 2020, luxury brands initially pushed the trend during a much simpler time (think Harambe memes, dabbing, rainbow bagels): the summer of 2016. Gucci sent a cropped version of the sweater vest down the runway for its Spring 2016 collection. Prada pushed a Tommy Hilfiger-esque color-blocked version. So, why did it blow up during the most chaotic summer instead? The short answer: The sweater vest is here to save us from social isolation.

Making Dalgona coffee or sourdough bread was a challenging but unifying activity in March; so too are weird style trends like the sweater vest. This summer, I found myself more easily swayed by fashion trends than usual. While most years, trends are usually fading by the time I buy them, this time around, it only took a few Instagram influencers before I was online shopping — or in the case of the sweater vest, chopping the sleeves off of an old cardigan so I could DIY one.

The revelation came when I finally tried my poor man’s sweater vest on. Styling a piece of clothing that I hadn’t thought about in over a decade, and watching others attempt the same thing, gave me the same feeling as doing an Instagram challenge, or trying on wacky clothes with friends at the mall. It was a way of feeling like I was interacting with others, without actually putting anyone at risk. Watching trends arise is a great reminder that even though life may feel stagnant right now, it is moving — even if that means back to the ’90s.

Although it’s cool now, the sweater vest has long been associated with all things nerdy, which is what makes its comeback so surprising. My first and last experience with sweater vests was my middle school uniform. In an unwise attempt to salvage our hideous navy blue bottoms and baby blue tops (think Ladybird McPherson), we would wear thick navy sweater vests over our blue polos. The dapperness of the sweater vest has actually become the key to its trendiness. Since the sweater vest is so closely associated with uniforms or suits, wearing one is an easy way to look more professional on a work call.

“When you’re on Zoom calls and your outfit is only seen from the waist up, the sweater vest is kind of that easy one-and-done piece that can just instantly look polished,” Maria Bobila, Nylon’s fashion editor, told Vox.

The sweater vest is part of a movement to bring the cozy style of the pandemic into the office, or on webcam. It’s the same desire that has helped baggy dad jeans, oversized leather blazers, and dress-length button-ups stick around. The loose, boxy silhouette of the sweater vest makes it a good alternative for people who want the relaxed feel of their favorite leisure clothes, without looking like they just hopped out of bed.

“It’s kind of that cool alternative for the person that doesn’t want to wear a turtleneck, doesn’t want to wear a crew neck, but they want to be cool,” Bobila said. “It’s a good layering piece.”

Like many of this year’s trends, the sweater vest has been attributed to nostalgia. It’s yet another symbol of our desire to return to the ’90s and the early 2000s. Dig up a catalog from Delia’s or Limited Too and you’re bound to find a fitted pastel sweater vest in the mix. Plus, the funky print options make it a staple for anyone who idolizes the psychedelic-chic look of the ’70s.

The sweater vest’s popularity comes from more than just American pop culture, however. The look has for years been a staple of K-pop groups. BTS members like Taehyung and Jimin have been rocking sweater vests since as early as 2015 — and Korean boy bands have become a huge driver of trends stateside, from clothes and music, to even social justice. Korean retailers like YesStyle.com have been the go-to place to find the sweater vest as the trend blows up.

“The sweater vest is part of most Korean high school uniforms and it’s also quite common in Korean casual wear,” Dianne Jane Gupta, content editor at YesStyle, told Vox. “It’s always been a rather popular style amongst our buyers but it has been even more so in the last couple of months.” In August alone, YesStyle haul videos have garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

Like with every other pandemic trend, such as tie-dye sweatsuits or bike shorts, the question is whether it’s worth the cost. With some tie-dye sets going for nearly $100 at Urban Outfitters, trends don’t always fit into my budget. The best part about the sweater vest is that there are tons of sustainable and affordable options. You can find many vests on online second-hand stores like ThredUp or Depop, in-person thrift stores, or even in a relative’s closet.

“I wear so many of my mom’s vintage clothes,” influencer and makeup artist Sorrel Warner-James (@sorrelwj) told Vox. “Two of the vests I own are hers!”

Thrift has helped popularize the trend. ThredUp told Vox that sweater vests sold 80 percent faster between May and August 2020 than they had during the same period last year.

“One shopping trend we’ve seen all spring and summer is the shift to a comfy chic wardrobe,” Natalie Tomlin, marketing communications strategist at ThredUp, told Vox. “We’re also seeing greater interest in tops over pants, as many people working from home are opting for a pulled-together look on top and comfort on the bottom.”

The sweater vest may make it seem like we’re going back in time, but it’s really an example of fashion’s future. Clothing trends may end up being determined by what’s available at the thrift store rather than what fast fashion stores are providing.

“Consumers are increasingly shopping online, prioritizing value, and seeking out the most sustainable option,” Tomlin told Vox. “The pandemic accelerated the shift to thrift, which was already gaining momentum over the past several years as consumers woke up to the realities of fashion waste and sought out a smarter way to shop.”

Unlike other trends, the sweater vest is more of an accessory than a ready-made outfit. While the tie-dye sweatsuit is a quick way to add a fire outfit to your wardrobe, the sweater vest takes some styling and effort. Typically layered with other pieces, it can transform clothes we already own. Perhaps the sweater vest’s best quality is its wholesome truth: it won’t give you an easy way out, but it will teach you to find new ways to work with what you have.

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