This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I'm sitting at the laptop and my fingers feel antsy. I know I should probably get on with some work, but something doesn't feel right. The antsy feeling, it won't go away. I pace around the room a bit, maybe have a coffee, stare at the screen some more. But no: I can't take it any longer. I load up an online shop – any online shop – and start hammering "add to basket" with a kind of unsettling private violence. Black vests. White vests. Grey vests. Straight to check out! My fingers relax. The thirst is quenched. More vests are on their way.
I'm not the only queer woman who loves vests. Look anywhere in which lesbians congregate – Instagram, Dalston coffee shops, wherever Maggie Nelson books live in a library (once they open again) – and you will see them. Vests with no bra and a chain. Vests that used to be tees but now have their sleeves slashed off to reveal a curve of side boob. Racer back vests that accentuate hard-soft shoulders. Vests, vests, vests. Along with thumb rings and expertly tailored trousers, you could say that vests are the perennial lesbian fashion item. Just take a look at these L Word characters congregating. Don't they look good? In their vests?
Obviously not all lesbians love vests, that would be absurd and generalising. But vests love lesbians. As a garment, they teeter perfectly between masculine and feminine aesthetics – a dichotomy which queers pull off so well – never definitively clinging to one or the other. Depending on the shape of the vest and the vibe of its wearer, they can say anything from “I'm really good with a hammer and IKEA furniture and, by extension, fingering” to “look at my nipples but don't look at my nipples!” They can be horny or they can be practical, but fundamentally they can be both – which is what makes them especially gay.
Straight people and gay men can look fit in a vest too, of course. Even I am not immune to the muscle-clad boy in a string vest, casually stretched out in the park in summertime. But the lesbian vest is a separate item, it has its own agenda. “I personally wear a lot of vests because I am a sucker for a girl in a vest, so it goes both ways,” says 23-year-old lesbian Tia. “It's this androgynous thing where you can imagine what's underneath, but not in an overt male gaze-y way. Shoulders are sexy too, I literally don't know why. I guess queer women use them a lot.”
26-year-old Sophie agrees. “The vest is definitely a subtle lesbian signal, especially if it's paired with a chain or rings and like, a men's belt. Tops made 'for women' are also quite annoying shape-wise. The sleeves are always uncomfortable and they go in at awkward places, especially if you're not slim. So I would say vests are this neutral item that look good on all women, specifically women that don't want to dress within the limits of 'men's' or 'women's' clothes, and maybe that often happens to be lesbians.”
Emma Hope Allwood, head of fashion at DAZED, explains that vests have long been intertwined with lesbian culture. “From Jenny Shimizu – circa the iconic 90s ad for CK One – to the subjects of Catherine Opie, and that picture of Anjelica Houston, the white vest is a canonical style signifier of lesbian culture – at least, my white, western, very online version of it,” she says.
“When it comes to popular perceptions of queer women’s style historically, excluding the lipstick lesbianism of the 90s and beyond, they are based around stereotypical staples of male clothing: white vests or t-shirts, blue jeans, work shirts, work boots,” she continues. “Whether working class fetishisation or a rejection of the artifice associated with the traditionally feminine, these things speak to a certain kind of masculinity – one that’s practical, unpolished – that has been attractive for gay, bisexual, and queer women to claim ownership of.”
The lesbian's love of the vest isn't just cultural though, as Emma points out. “A white vest speaks to queer female erogenous zones: shoulders and arms, not to mention the fact that you can’t really wear a bra,” she adds. “It’s familiar yet subversive, masculine yet feminine, mundane yet erotic: you can be traditionally covered – no cleavage – but there’s not much hiding your body.”
In essence, for lesbians, the vest will never die. Why would it: it's beautiful, simple, practical, chic. A perfect and classic little item. It sits within the same sexy, satisfying circle as blue Levi's jeans and pulled up white socks. Freshly cut grass and a ring of keys. Soft lips and metal hammers. Leather belts and sun-tanned stomachs. You know what I'm talking about. Long live the lesbian vest.