The Utility Vest

After writing about wide leg pants and wearing white socks with shorts, I bring you the next move in grandpa style: the utility vest.

Introduction

Before we get into utility vests, let’s first discuss the idea of the waistcoat, since the designs and use are fairly similar.

I used to remember a time when waistcoats were extremely popular among my fellow youths. In the time before the #menswear age (at least for the mainstrem), boys and gals on tumblr (or for prom) would wear waistcoats with solid colored shirts and shiny black silk ties. Clearly, it was a way to look “dapper” without wearing a sportcoat; the idea that waistcoats hugged your body also added to the sex appeal (if there was any).

Then hipster and #menswear exploded onto the scene. Guys wore tweed vests with button ups to evoke vintage workear, perhaps a bit too inspired by Mumford and Sons.  The new age of tailoring took this idea and made it a bit more slick, swapping button ups for henleys and slim tee shirts, in a way to make suiting look sexy and not too formal.  In almost every case, this idea of the odd waistcoat was a way to get the most out of ordering a 3PC suit.

Today however, the waistcoat (at least in its traditional tailored sense) isn’t really around anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing, since I’m not a fan of a waistcoat being worn by itself. It either brings my old tumblr days/prom attire to mind or  simply just as a #menswear carry over.   When the waist coat does show up, it does so in the “right way”- in the novel 3PC suit, typically only worn by a select few in the menswear world.  Perhaps people have finally seen that a worsted (or tweed) vest worn alone is a bit tacky.

With that being said, I have seen the vest rear its head in the world of menswear, worn sans jacketing. However, it’s done in a “new” way that I actually don’t mind, which is largely because people are discarding their dress waistcoats in favor of the utility vest.

The Utility Vest

First off, to me, this term is all encompassing.  Whether its a hunting vest, a fishing vest, or a workwear one, I call it a utility vest; it just makes it easier.

If you’ve been paying attention to the wider world of men’s fashion, you’ll definitely note that utility vests have always been a thing. It’s only recently that they’ve caught on into the mainstream, evident by the fact that almost every Tiktok Fashionista is recommending people buy them.

I distinctly remember seeing this piece pop up a bit on r/streetwear, in what I assume was a carryover of techwear.  Techwear, at least to me, is all about being tactical and utilitarian, so it makes sense that a utility vest can be integral to the look.  Eventually it moved away from being worn with nylon popovers and cargo pants and eventually found itsway to being worn with oversized hoodies and wide leg jeans.  To me, this provided bit of a bridge between techwear and the current fascination with 90s fashion in streetwear and the mainstream.

The look seems to be an updated version of when guys would wear waistcoats all the time, only this time the vest has more character.  Huge pockets and a plethora of zippers give it something new, pushing it further into a rugged aesthetic; in terms of non-techwear looks, it makes an outfit just a bit edgier.  I would even posture that this was perhaps the youth’s answer to the fact that yuppies had adopted the Patagonia vest for the Midtown Uniform. It’s hard not to see.

As a photographer, I realize the utility of the garment, with its many pockets being pertinent to hold extra batteries and rolls of film. However, it makes more sense for a streetwear photographer to wear it; I’ve also seen quite a few dads wear these with tube socks and Hanes tees.  What I needed was inspiration for me to gleam off of and make it apply to my own wardrobe.

Luckily, u/TehoI from MaleFashionAdvice came in clutch with a great inspo album of utility vests.  Might be a bit edgy compared to some of my other inspirations, but it was enough to get the juices flowing.

I don’t hate the look. In fact, I’m intrigued by it! As a guy who grew up playing Nerf and even used a tactical vest to hold my mags (I haven’t tried airsoft yet), it was cool seeing someone take operator-adjacent attire and turn them into an actual look.  But obviously making the connection to classic or vintage isn’t a clear line. At least not an overt one.

The way I reconciled my interest in the utility vest was to look at workwear and Japanese-Americana.  And as you might expect, the utility vest, like the Browns Beach Vest, was always a big part of it! I’m reminded of the countless times I’ve been to Inspiration LA or the Rose Bowl Flea Market where I’ve seen many stylish guys wear variations on workwear vests. They wore it with sportshirts, chambray workshirts, and even tee shirts.  It was clear that wearing the vest on it’s own had always a had a place in menswear, but of course having the right details mattered.

If we look at the one above, made by my friends at Monsivais & Co, the cut is similar to a dress waistcoat (it’s short, for high waisted trousers), but the other details are changed. Big patch pockets are used, which are obviously lifted from old workwear designs, but also makes it markedly different than the modern tech-y ones.  The use of more natural fabrics rather than nylon also gives it a classic, heritage feel.

That being said, I’ve also enjoyed seeing vests done that are closer to the streetwear spectrum, while still retaining a vintage menswear/workwear feel.  The designs might still be a departure from the traditional work vest, adding military details or even just being original, but I like it. Usually these pieces are made by Americana-inspired brands like Engineered Garments or even Motiv, who really fit the theme well and provide a lot of inspiration for my casual style.

Even just expanding the styling ideas was very helpful, since I was used to wearing workwear vests under tailoring.  Hell, I just needed to imagine the vest being worn on its own as the top layer, something I wasn’t sold on yet. Seeing these fun vests worn with chinos and chambrays, helps me reconcile it with my existing style.

There’s something appealing about practicality and juxtaposing them with regular pieces of clothing- certainly that’s what wearing and mixing milsurp and workwear is all about. I finally realized that a utility vest was very similar to wearing a jungle jacket or chore coat, just without sleeves! Not only would this make it more appropriate for warmer weather (which is good since I’m writing this in summer), but also makes the interesting move of still incorporating your shirt choice, which would normally be covered up by a full jacket.

I even tried it a bit with my SJC workwear vest, but I know I wanted something a bit less dressy.

Motiv.

An epic look that has a workwear-Americana vibe. Certainly I could find a way to incorporate this into my style?

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SJC workvest worn solo.  Kinda dressy, but I was digging it.

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With raw hemmed chinos and a long sleeve tee, I think  I was getting somewhere.

This but a vest would be kinda cool.

I’d actually love a jungle jacket vest.

The LL Bean vest-jacket fits the bill as a refined take on a utility vest.

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Spencer has a cool hunting vest that I unfortunately haven’t seen him wear alone.

My turning point was when I saw my good friend Ryan wearing a cool vest. Now Ryan is a rather conservative dresser, at least compared to me and the other things I write about on this blog, which is why I was very surprised to see him wear a utility vest.  It was also refreshing to see it worn with trad-ivy (like an OCBD, sweatshirt, and grey trousers), instead of workwear or milsurp.

If you look at his instagram or even his comics for Put This On (of which he draws himself), you’ll see that he wears it quite a lot! The best part is that he wears it and uses it, since as an artist, he always needs space for pens, markers, and notebooks.  I’m sure that in this Era of Quarantine, it’s much more practical for him than wearing a sportcoat or even a chore coat!

I asked where he got it, and he told me that it was from P. Johnson, a Australian tailoring brand I’ve visited before (with Ryan).  I haven’t kept up with them too much lately, as I’ve been expanding other facets of menswear, but they’ve really done a lot since 2017. In addition to doing MTM, they’ve since branched off into RTW with a big focus on more smart-casual garments; this utility vest is one such example.

The design of their utility vest is very much inline with how the classic menswear world is “reinventing” rugged pieces for a clean, tailored aesthetic.  Despite the minimalist appearance (no collar and use of snap buttons), it actually features quite a bit of pockets.  $495 was a bit pricey for me to experiment with, but this was a step in the right direction in terms of how I would want my utility vest. I also wasn’t sure if I wanted a nylon blend either, though it makes sense considering how most utility vests (at least the more rugged ones) are made of nylon.

By reconciling the rugged aesthetics with a tailored mindset, I was ready to start looking for one for me, especially since I also started to wear my sport coats less and less.  COVID doesn’t really let me leave the house or even give me much motivation!

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I don’t think I’d wear my utility vest over a suit, but its kinda cool here. Love the tone on tone.

Seeing it over solid long sleeve tops is really appealing to me.

Closer to how I’d wear it, but with a yellow shirt not over a yellow shirt jacket and shirt. Too many layers!

The Informale uility vest.

Now I considered simply waiting for quarantine to be over so I could start thrifting and picking at flea markets in order to find a cool utility vest that could work for a rugged ivy-yet-tailored look. After all, the Rose Bowl Flea was where Spencer found his hunting vest!

I was also intrigued by the utility vest from Informale, another Australian brand which this time focuses on tailored casualwear with a bit of a military flair.  It was 100% cotton and as you know, I prefer “pure” materials over synthetic blends; that made this vest more intriguing.  The design also featured buttons, which to me, gives it a bit of a vintage tailored edge over the more straight forward fisherman style of the P. Johnson one.  You could argue that it’s closer to a hunting or safari vest.

The use of pleated triple patch pockets was also a cool move for me, as it really evokes what I love from chore coats (my Drake’s one is similar, though not flapped at the breast).  While I think the vest could have done four external pockets just to give it more of a rugged, workwear/military feel, it was still pretty good. With the lapel style collar, it really does look like a traditional chore coat, just without sleeves!

I actually brought this up to Steve Calder (the founder of Informale) when I interviewed him for The Bloke (RIP) early on during quarantine.  We talked a bit about his design process for the vest and to my surprise, he offered to send me one as a thank you for doing the interview!

It seems my search for the utility vest was now over.

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Since I was enamored by Ryan’s vibrant yellow vest and the use of color, I went with the navy blue Utility Vest from Informale.  It’s not as bright as yellow obviously, but the deep color is much more interesting to me than the tan one, which would definitely be a bit hard to differentiate from “old man” vests in my eyes. Perhaps thats why the vests earlier in this piece are darker (more tactical) or in dark green.  Blue, as I’ve written for Craftsman Clothing, just has this dark, elegant vibe which I love to utilize in casual attire. Plus, as Steve has told me, this color may fade over time, which I’d really love.

The fit is spot on for a utility vest. It’s definitely roomy in the body, which is great since this isn’t supposed to fit like tailoring (though I do love good drape in my jackets).  The length is longer than my natural waist, but that’s also good, as this is supposed to be a jacket alternative, rather than a layering piece.  My SJC workvest (and ones like the vest from Monsiavais ) is meant to be a mid layer as well as a more straightforward cousin to a tailored waistcoat, which is why with those, I prefer a shorter length.

The pockets are all great, especially since they’re pleated and bellow out, similar to what you’d find on a safari jacket or a jungle jacket. The outside ones are good for fisting, while the breast pocket is absolutely perfect for my notepad. There are simple inside pockets (not flapped) which are also useful, but I haven’t fully utilized since I still take my tote bag everywhere.

I’d be interested to see how this vest holds up if I went traveling, as my jungle jacket (with its quad-patch pockets) was incredibly useful when trekking around Tokyo.  Like I said earlier, this is basically a chore coat without sleeves, making it much easier to throw on a wear on a hot day.  The fabric also feels stiff right off the bat, but thats simply because I haven’t worn it out enough; I’m confident that like a good cotton suit or chino, this will get softer.

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My first fit with the vest was fairly simple, done around the same time as the School Boy article if that wasn’t obvious enough.  Unlike a straightforward school boy fit which is basically an OCBD ivy look just with shorts, this one takes some inspiration from minimalist streetwear and Japanese-Americana attire. It uses all navy blue, creating a somber aesthetic, offset with the white socks and loafers.

I really love the idea with long sleeve tops (be it a tee, sweater, or button up) with the vest, as a short sleeve would look a bit off to me. A full button up would look better with full trousers or jeans, hence the tee with the shorts here. With the collar propped up, monochromatic color palette, bucket hat, and white socks+loafers, the vibe is similar to the vests easy roots from Informale, just done through my own preferences.

If I wore the vest with shorts, I would probably do it the same way here: keeping it minimal. Introducing too many separates would probably make it too “old man”, which despite my taste in clothing, isn’t an overt connotation I want to have. I think that separates when done with full trousers makes the different pieces much more harmonious.

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The next one is probably my absolute favorite with the Utility Vest and one that will definitely guide future outfits.  Now as I’ve said earlier, wearing a vest with trousers and a button up shirt (especially if its ivy) will bring connotations to those dapper Tumblr boys or even the Midtown uniform. However, changing up the silhouette and adding interesting pieces helps mitigate those unfortunate connotations.

Underneath the vest, I’m wearing my 1930’s popover spearpoint collar shirt. With it’s vintage multistripe and multitude of frays and repairs, it’s definitely a piece that isn’t the traditional business shirt.  It’s only slightly dressy, but I lean into the slouchy look with my Uniqlo U easy pants, which feature a draw string waist, cropped length, and a wide leg. These pants with some sockless tassels help give the utility vest look a different vibe.

The entire look is wide and slouchy, which instantly appears un-stuffy when compared to most other people out there. A utility vest brings in some rugged workwear vibes to the relaxed nature of the fit, and combining both is definitely inline with my Casual Style; it’s just that the vest isn’t a chore coat, which is my usual go-to for similar looks.  It’s really a standard navy jacket + brown pants look that doesn’t feature sleeves! I was really in love with this outfit. It’s perfect for going to the park to read (at least before the fire hit Monrovia), since I could just keep everything in my pockets- no tote bag needed.

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You can’t blame me for leaning into Outdoor Grandpa vibes when I wear this vest; I had to try it at least once! Heading to the park with some friends for a picnic provided the ultimate opportunity for it, even if it’s something I may not return to in the future (at least not often).

The combo of this Brooks Brothers plaid poplin sportshirt and M-43 military pants calls to mind this school boy look, which uses the same shirt but with olive linen shorts. It’s a very rugged combo and I was intrigued by this iterations use of the full pants, echoing the cargo pants typically worn by real campers (I’ve actually never camped before).  My desert boots were a no brainer, though my Alden indy-tanker boot would have been just as good.

I think that the utility vest adds an extra dimension to the outfit, again replacing a chore coat. The navy works well here, since a tan one would definitely be unforgivable. It may lean a bit too far into the old man theme, especially since I also wore a bucket hat, but I was into it. Personally, I don’t think a real old man would wear these exact pieces, though the idea is definitely there.  Maybe jeans, a beanie, or even the turtleneck base layer would make it “younger” and more interesting.

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Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least try to do some dressed down ivy/tailoring looks with it. It’s still a bit tough, since a regular dress shirt will definitely bring the midtown uniform into your minds eye. That’s why this one features a rugby shirt, worn on a slightly mild summer day (so its use was justified)!

This outfit definitely appeals to my desire for more “formal” takes on the utility jacket, as the others were firmly casual.  I know that brown cords or jeans would’ve been fine here, but I intentionally went with my typical grey high rise, pleated trousers for a more refined look, not only to contrast the vest but the casual rugby shirt.  Grey flannels would also be a great choice, but I’m writing this in July.  When I wear more outfits in fall that feature the utility vest, I’ll put them here.

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Conclusion

Waistcoats and vests are still hard to wear on their own.  However, when you expand your mind (and wardrobe) beyond getting them in plain worsteds, you’ll see that workwear and utility vests are still perfectly wearable in classic menswear.  In terms of #fashion, you could consider this our little niche’s take on this trend in streetwear.

I especially like the utility vest because of one simple reason: it looks like a chore coat, just without sleeves! It provides an edge to the idea of a waistcoat or vest, incorporating rugged elements like bellow pockets and pleats- as a photographer, it really makes my job easier as well, being able to carry necessities on my person instead of using a tote bag(but let’s be real, I’ll do both).

I like the ones that come from tailoring and tailoring-adjacent brands, since it really mixes these details well with a more versatile stand point.  Brands like PJT and Informale, the latter of which I’ve enjoyed for the navy utility vest, are great.  I’ve considered obtaining workwear vests or even vintage hunting vests like Spencer, though I scratch my head at the notion of me trying to utilize actual tactical vests. I don’t think my style is that streetwear!

Obviously pulling it off is rather weird; even Informale tends to wear theirs quite casually, with simple tee shirts and drawstring easy pants.  As a guy who loves mixing layers and even striped shirts + patterned ties, I obviously had to do it my way, incorporating takes from rugged ivy, workwear, milsurp, and you guessed it, tailoring.  Wearing a utility vest makes a school boy outfit more interesting and a slouchy/wide fit even cooler, though you can always rely on it for some casual/utilitarian takes on casual ivy or even to lean into when doing outdoors looks.

It really is a great piece that I’ve come to enjoy, especially as I’ve come to “evolve” from simply relying on my navy chore coat. It’s not going away anytime soon, but it’s nice to add some variety!

And if you’re wondering what my stance on the down vest is, just wait.  I’ve owned one for a little while (purchased at the PTO holiday market) and I’m just waiting until it’s colder to break it out.  That’s a piece that deserves some actual cold, don’t you think? So be patient…

Always a pleasure,

Ethan M. Wong  

3 comments

  1. Pingback: The Utility Vest & Classic Menswear « Fashion
  2. withoutthefez · September 14

    Canvas utility vests are standard for the over-50s here in Anatolia. Generally in beige, navy, or black, with a dress shirt, chinos, ballcap or flatcap, and loafers (always black). Some do a “summer guy” color scheme but one assumes those are clotheshorse types. In winter these vests get swapped out for the goathair (!) version, always worn UNDER a nice roomy suit. Some rock the matching goathair pants and vest with a sport coat, sans overcoat, but obviously that’s a power move! Top it off with an uncuffed beanie worn high. It’s a LOOK.

    Cigarettes, lighter, Quran, skull cap for prayer, cellphone, maybe some sweets for the grandkids. Everything fits inside. It’s streetwear for dudes who actually spend entire days lounging around in the streets, on park benches, shooting the shit, smoking, arguing. I’ve never really seen village types wear it.

    Great tribute to a truly utilitarian garment, Ethan!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Form & Function: The Case for Vests – dirtbag life coach

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