Vests--sleeveless garments worn over shirts--were introduced into the court of Charles II in the mid-17th century, and have been an integral component of men's clothing ever since. Until recently, vests were relegated to the third piece of a three-piece suit. Today's vests, however, are versatile, display the wearer's individuality and taste, and pull together almost any outfit. In the UK, a vest is known as a "waistcoat."
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Down vests are perennial outdoorsy classics. They exemplify a rugged but casual chic, particularly those manufactured with natural rather than synthetic goose down and with snaps rather than a zipper. They look great over a sweater, with jeans, hiking shorts, chinos or corduroys beneath. Vests made with Polartek or similar materials are lighter weight but not as warm, and tend not to last as long. Fleece vests usually zip rather than snap or button, and sometimes come with a hood.
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Sweater vests, traditionally favoured by golfers, academics and geeks, are neither quite outerwear nor fashion accessory. Nevertheless, they're useful for keeping your body warm and your arms free. Sweater vests can be made of wool, cotton, cashmere, synthetic materials, or a blend; pullover or buttoned; and solid, cabled or patterned. Sweater vests look better on the young and skinny. If you're neither, wear a narrow tank top under an open jacket, and make sure all items are high quality.
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The Suit Vest
The "traditional" suit vest is constructed from the same material as the suit, has a deep V front with buttons, and often a silk backing with adjustable buckle or tie. You can also buy suit vests in unusual colours or patterns, although not all are appropriate for boardroom or job interview. For instance, an embroidered or otherwise detailed cotton or silk vest can peg you as a retro dandy. Meanwhile, wearing a modified version of a suit vest--without the suit--indicates a precarious balance between professionalism and anti-authoritarianism. Regardless of your choice of suit vest, make sure you hold up your trousers properly. Some formal vests are designed to be worn with suspenders, not a belt. However, please wear a belt with a suit vest and jeans.
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Some vests are designed purely for looks. These include lightweight denim vests, and the button-front skinny black cotton vests seen over T-shirts and with high-tops for a "nouveau punk" look. Pairing a black cotton vest with a pair of black trousers is chic and slimming, and your girlfriend can borrow your skinny vest with impunity. As these vests go in and out of style, keep abreast of men's fashion sources to ensure you don't look too "last season."
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Vests for Bikers and Cowboys
If you're part of the biker or western-wear culture, you know about these vests and how and when to wear them. Otherwise, you should be able to identify them so as not to purchase them by accident. Biker vests are usually made of wind-resistant heavy denim or black cowhide, and snap or zip up the front. Leather biker vests often have pockets, side ties, and fringe or other decoration at the bottom. Cowboy vests are usually suede, with a notched v-neck, and can also include fringed bottoms or similar decoration.