In March 2020, one week before most major cities in America shut down due to covid-19 concerns, WWD reported that Fall 2020 fashion was going to be dominated by sweater vests. The divisive layering piece—is it only for nerds? Or preps? Country club WASPs? Is it too antiquated to be modernized?—appeared on the runway for collections from Prada, Gucci, Tom Ford, Givenchy, Off-White, Magliano, Cecilie Bahnsen, Kenneth Ize, and countless others. Over the course of the next few months, influencers online and their zoomer followers could be spotted wearing sweater vests in a similar styling: over a t-shirt, or turtleneck, or oversized button down, or nothing at all. Love ’em or hate ’em, sweater vests have returned to vogue.
According to Slate, “sweater” first appeared in the Oxford dictionary in 1882 and was worn by rowers to encourage sweating and weight loss. At some point between then and 1907, when a Michigan’s football team was gifted proper sweater vests as part of their uniform, somebody had the idea to lop off a sweater’s sleeves and the design was born. In the 1910s, President Woodrow Wilson wore a sweater vest, and, in the 1920s, President Herbert Hoover did the same. By the 1930s, sweater vests were a menswear staple (though, according to Mel Magazine, Eleanor Roosevelt wore one with tweeds in 1934, perhaps popularizing the design for women.)
From there, the design mutated. In the 1940s and 1950s, solid, smart shapes dominated the sweater vest market. In the 1970s, bold patterns were popularized, leaning way for the inventive, multi-colored sweater vests of the 1980s. I’d argue that for women, the 1990s and early 2000s (lovingly dubbed the “y2k era” by its natives) is viewed as the golden age of the style: a Clueless-meets-Delia’s catalog cool that is just old enough now to have disappeared as bad fashion to return as something retro and trendy. A quick scroll through Brandy Melville’s website, a size exclusive preppy brand popular with VSCO girls and influencers alike, shows a ton of argyle and pastel sweater vests paired with chic polos and pleaded skirts—schoolgirl cool, revitalized.
According to Vox, there are a handful of reasons that the sweater vest is back: the nostalgia outlined above is a motivation, sure, but so is the fact that sweater vests are a staple in certain K-pop circles. (Sweater vests are a part of a traditional South Korean school uniform, too, which feeds into an attraction to preppy, wholesome styles. That’s a textbook boy band style profile. Check out One Direction’s “One Thing” video for proof.) K-pop has a monumental influence on what becomes popular—there’s a reason K-pop idols are becoming more and more visible front row at fashion weeks worldwide—and so a group like BTS wearing sweater vests is sure to inspire others to do the same. (Let’s not forget Harry Styles has been on board with the trend for years now, as well.) E-boy fashion certainly takes a lot from K-pop, and once E-boys are onto a trend, it proliferates all over Tik Tok. Wherever you look for fashion inspiration, sweater vests are sure to follow.
Personally, I think the sweater vest is a staple item—something historically dorky and preppy that can be elevated and styled in inventive ways, should the person wearing it chose to go the extra mile. I am, of course, alluding to the mall goth sweater vest Ashlee Simpson wore in the music video for her painfully 2005 hit, “Boyfriend,” which is nearly identical to the wool vests sent down the the runway during the Zambesi show at New Zealand Fashion Week 2019. As long as there are stylish people committed to layering pieces (or not!) the sweater vest will endure. And everyone will look sharper this fall because of it.