It's been the singlet of choice for everyone from Rab C Nesbitt to Madonna. Now dwindling sales mean stores are kicking it off the shelf. Susie Rushton charts the rise and fall of fashion's ugliest underwear

Like the bowler hat, braces and the waistcoat, a cornerstone of the British male wardrobe is passing into obsolescence. At least, that's what the business brains at Tesco and Asda believe, as this week they announced that the string vest will be withdrawn from sale.

The move will come as a terrible blow for professional northerners and unreconstructed males, who have worn and loved the revealing undergarment for decades. The modern Brit no longer wants to wear the vest immortalised by Rab C Nesbitt and Andy Capp, and sales have tumbled. Men or more likely, their wives and girlfriends now associate string vests with old men and pot-bellied plumbers. Asda says that the contemporary metrosexual chap apparently prefers solid cotton singlets. Unthinkably, some are even eschewing vests altogether and going commando underneath their all-organic Fairtrade blouses.

Rab will not be alone in mourning the demise of the string vest. It is not only a highly practical undergarment that offers tantalising glimpses of flesh. It has also enjoyed great popularity across social and cultural divisions. Henrik Brun invented the first vest in 1933. A commandant in the Norwegian army, Brun one day picked up two fishing nets previously used to catch herring and fashioned them into a garment that he correctly imagined would trap air close to the skin and provide insulation. It quickly found popularity in Norway King Haakon VII was among those who praised Brun's original design and a Norwegian company called Brynje (slogan: "Keeps you warm, dry and strong") remains one of the foremost manufacturers.

But it has been British men who most enthusiastically adopted the vest, with popularity peaking in the 1950s. While civilian men appreciated that the string vest's unique construction kept them both cool in the heat and warm in the cold, these attributes eventually came to the attention of the British government. In 1955 the War Office ordered tests to be conducted on the garment. That summer, the Ministry of Supply ran a "subjective study of string vests under hot/dry conditions" in the Canal Zone of Egypt. For four weeks in July and August, as temperatures rose to 37C, men from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were made to wear three different types of vest underneath their bush jackets. In every case the men reported that string vests kept them cool and reduced "dragging or sticking" between clothes and skin from sweat. However, at the end of the experiment, only two of the men agreed to continue wearing the vest. The report concluded that "seemingly, all vests were to be regarded with suspicion" and that "efficient indoctrination" would be required to encourage men to wear them.

Back home no such indoctrination was required. Worn by miners and builders, the string vest, like the flat cap and donkey jacket, became a garment associated with working class grit. In a nation fluent in the translation of the subtlest of class indicators, the vest became an easy sartorial shorthand. Such parody helped the original white version over time to descend into naffness, and perhaps would have brought about an early death if it weren't for its export to the Caribbean where Brun's invention was given a new lease of life by Rastafarians and dancehall queens.

From the 1960s black men in Jamaica wore string vests as part of their daily dress it remains ubiquitous on the island today. "String vests started as part of soul dress and then ragga, then rude boys," says Carol Tulloch, curator of the V&A's Black British Style show in 2005, which included a string vest purchased in Dalston market as a key exhibit, "It is the perfect garment for the heat and it's supposed to reduce perspiration. If you've got an amazing body, it shows it off. It was first worn as an undergarment, but then men would also wear it with a sheer shirt over the top. Later on, with ragga, women began to wear them with a bra underneath, playing with the idea of both revealing and not revealing the body."

The 1970s also saw the vest embraced by punks, including Siouxsie Sioux, who wore hers with army boots and clothes from Seditionaries, one of the earliest incarnations of Vivienne Westwood. And even as the white string vest was falling from favour among white working class men in the Eighties, it was being picked up by fashion stylists and clubbers who associated the garment with black music and punk. According to Tulloch, a defining image in the cultural history of the string vest was a fashion picture in The Face magazine. Styled by Edward Enninful (now a fashion editor at American Vogue) it showed a black male model in Farah trousers, a handkerchief hanging out the back pocket, sheer shirt and string vest. "You saw that look in the clubs, but it was also just the usual style of many black men at the time," says Tulloch.

It's logical, then, that American hip-hop performers went on to pick up string vests, but for being both skimpy and imbued with rebellious associations, it has also found less likely fans in pop princesses from Kylie to Madonna. No gay disco is complete without an over-muscled torso showcased by a perforated singlet. Neither have the Paris catwalks failed to resist the charms of the string vest; Dior's John Galliano is among the many designers who have appropriated the look for prêt-a-porter collections.

Herself with roots in Jamaica, Tulloch adds that her sisters still send packs of string vests to relatives in the Caribbean. She is bemused to learn that they are no longer available from British supermarkets. "Well, at Dalston market you can get them in different colours anyway that's the interesting thing, the string vest has been a garment that has catered to different cultural demands." So somebody tell Rab. If stocks run short, from now on it's either Dalston or Dior.

String theory: how the vest works

Dr Mark Lancaster, a physicist at University College London (UCL), says:

"All these fancy materials used to make sports underwear now are really just glorified string vests; Michael Hunt went up Everest in a string vest and a shirt, so they can't be that bad. The holes in the fabric channel out the sweat, while the remaining fibres trap warm air next to your skin.

"Any clothing has got fibres in it, which keep you warm by trapping the air between them. On a string vest, the fibres are further apart, so it only works if you wear a shirt on top. Rab C Nesbitt had it wrong when he wore one on its own, but with another layer, the warm air can be trapped in the holes between the strings.

"The advantage of a string vest over a normal close-weave one is that you don't overheat: whilst a conventional vest keeps you warmer, because the holes in the fabric are small, it is less good at transferring sweat away from your skin."

Famous stringers

Wallace

Like all good Lancastrian men of a certain age, Wallace wears a string vest. It was first seen in the second of Wallace and Gromit films, The Wrong Trousers, as the upper half of his bedwear. Cracking pecs, Gromit!

Madonna

Madge had a passion for string vests, circa Desperately Seeking Susan. Always black, and always worn with arms full of tat and seriously scarey hair, Madge's lingerie obsession was perhaps some kind of statement about her poor Italian-American roots. Now she wears string vests to show off her scarey physique instead.

Rab C Nesbitt

Gregor Fisher starred as Rab C Nesbitt in the eponymous show that ran on BBC 2 from 1988 to 1999. Accessorising his threadbare pinstripe suit with a dirty string vest, Rab wandered around the cold, mean streets of Glasgow, philosophising on such varied subjects as ringworm, alcoholism and contract killings of the homeless.

Lenny Kravitz

When your torso is as tattooed as Lenny's (he's also got two nipple piercings) it clearly feels like a waste to cover it all up. Alas, here, the majority of Len's 'body art' is covered by a leather jacket. You'll just have to imagine the glorious effect when he takes it off and reveals all.

Cliff Richard

In a bizarre sartorial display, Cliff Richard sets off on his Summer Holiday bus wearing what looks like a string T-shirt. Even more bizarre, the garment sparked a craze of copycat dressing after the film's release. Legend has it that Richard personally picked it out to wear. Explains a lot.

Kylie

Teeny-tiny and styled to within an inch of her life, Kylie can wear whatever she likes and generally looks OK. Ever ready to embrace a challenging style, she took the string-vest plunge in 2002 for the US cover artwork of her Fever album. She accessorised it with a silver necklace.

Gwen Stefani

Is there no limit to the sartorial risks Stefani is willing to take? Leaving aside the peroxide-blonde hair, bright red lipstick, tartan jackets, marching band uniforms and Harajuku Girl gear; she is also a fully-paid-up string-vest fan. US Vogue editor Anna Wintour likes her, so she must be getting something right.

John Galliano

Once described as a cross between Captain Jack Sparrow and a circus ringmaster, Dior's Galliano is very partial to a string vest, and wears them in a myriad of colours. His particular favourite is bright blue, which he likes to wear with ripped jeans and biker boots. He probably needs the ventilation after his daily 150 push-ups.

Denis Rodman

Rodman, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Sean Paul have popularised the string vest among rap fans. Rodman favours the black vest rather than the traditional white, and accessorises his look with shades, a cap and bullions of bad-ass gold. Not a good look, then, for the cowering wallflower.

Pete Doherty

Perhaps it would be crediting Doherty with too much lucidity to suggest that his wearing of the string vest is a nod to the punk acolytes of the Eighties; to wear the string vest, a symbol of the workers, was a punk rebellion against the anti trades-union Thatcher. However, it's more likely that Pete wore it to prove how, like, edgy he is.

By Esther Walker

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