Vested interests

Pictures of Tony Blair wearing a vest under his shirt have raised a vital style question for the British male: is the undershirt uncool? James Sherwood adjudicates - and names his top 10 vest-wearers
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The Independent Online

A fresh crisis in the Tony Blair leadership broke on Wednesday with the revelation that the PM was wearing what appeared to be a vest beneath his shirt for an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. With all the optimism of a lugubrious vulture, the Daily Mail claimed that "the just-visible vest beneath his shirt raised health questions". As evidence for the life- threatening signals sent out by Tony's singlet, the Mail pointed out that the extra layer was "unusual for a man who rarely wears an overcoat even in the coldest weather".

A less alarmist observer of Tony Blair's underwear drawer would point out that when you have just flown back from a jolly holiday in Egypt, a vest is an eminently sensible re-acclimatiser, particularly if Gordon Brown has been tampering with the heating system at No 10.

The revelation that the offending garment was a T-shirt rather than a vest suggests that Carole Caplin does actually have her uses. Most men wear a T-shirt under the shirt-and-tie when they need an extra layer. Only saddoes are seen with VVL: visible vest line.

John Major was a notorious vest wearer, but the rumour that he tucked his vest into his underpants did much more to damage his credibility than sleaze. Sleaze at least has the virtue of being rather sexy and dangerous. You cannot respect a man who tucks his vest into his underpants any more than you could trust an Italian Prime Minister who wears a bandanna.

The last politician who wore a vest and retained his credibility was the great John F Kennedy. Then again, this was a man who wedded the chic Jackie and bedded Marilyn Monroe. Norma and Edwina Currie are not quite in the same league. We would indeed fear for the Prime Minister's political future if he had allied himself with Major as a sad, drab vest-wearer.

Obviously, there is nothing worse than a middle-aged politician wearing inappropriate clothing. William Hague and his baseball cap, Peter Mandelson and his penny loafers and Ann Widdecombe's tussle with the peroxide bottle all spring to mind. Blair, too, has been known to get his fingers burnt by fashion: for example, wearing his chav-tastic Burberry polo shirt last year and the ghastly Nehru-collared national-costume suit in India. But it is equally fatal to ally yourself to a totem of middle class, middle-aged masculinity such as the vest under the shirt. It is a trap Blair narrowly avoided, partly by wearing the sleeved version and partly by being completely upfront about it - he himself joked yesterday about wearing what he was obviously not ashamed to describe as a "vest".

"The only place you see a vest now in fashion is on the catwalk at Dolce & Gabbana," says Esquire magazine's fashion director Catherine Hayward, "and then it is modelled on a stud with a great tan and a great torso. Worn with ripped jeans, snakeskin loafers and a jewelled belt, the tight, white vest looks sexy. But to be honest with you, the white vest is really a gay male look. Straight young men may wear one in the gym at a push but never under a shirt. You're much more likely to find guys wearing a T-shirt under their shirt if they need another layer".

Mintel's March 2002 report on men's underwear reveals a slight reversal of fortune for the vest. According to Mintel: "The market for vests rose to an estimated £58m in 2003, 2 per cent higher than in 1998. This market has seen something of a revival in the last two years, following a period of declining sales. Between 1998 and 2001, there was a fall in demand, with milder winters possibly contributing to this trend, and the old-fashioned image of vests among British consumers. Lack of new product development has also been a factor in this market. Since 2001, manufacturers have started exploiting the possibilities in the vest market, with sports styling, inspired by athletes and footballers helping to create a new fashion trend in vests".

The figures Mintel report include T-shirts sold as underwear as well as the classic white cotton singlet. With 27 per cent of the UK male's underwear still being purchased at Marks & Spencer, it's safe to assume they are still supplying the nation - and possibly Mr Blair - with its vests. By 2007, half of all adult males in the UK will be over 45. As Marks & Spencer has learnt by experience, this does not mean there'll be a boom in demand for high-waisted Y-fronts and string vests. It's not nearly as simple as that.

If the vest is going to have a future as a fashionable undergarment then it has to learn from its chequered history. At the turn of the 20th century, vests were as ubiquitous as cigarettes. Men of every class wore them. So, when Clark Gable took his shirt off in Frank Capra's 1934 film It Happened One Night to reveal a bare, vestless chest, the gesture was as subversive as a knickerless Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 60 years later. Sales of vests in the USA in 1935 plummeted like King Kong from the Empire State Building - down by an astonishing 73 per cent.

The vest didn't really recover until Marlon Brando sweated his way through the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire wearing a grubby T-shirt, until then worn only as an undergarment. Fellow Hollywood rebels James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman brandished the vest on and off screen as a totem of blue- collar working-class cool and, freed from its middle-class, middle-aged image, it became credible.

But there was a further metamorphosis to come. Just as the gay scene borrowed Brando's black leather jacket, jeans and white T-shirt from The Wild One, so it appropriated the white singlet in the glorious disco days of Studio 54, The Village People and Fire Island. Gay gym culture pumped-up bare muscular arms and flattened abdominals to the point where only the vest could show off all one's assets. The "gay vest" not surprisingly frightened heterosexual men away from the inoffensive little garment. Frankly, wearing a white vest was tantamount to waving a Barbra Streisand Fan Club card and Tank Girl and her alter ego Angelina Jolie made the khaki ribbed vest regulation uniform for every dyke under 20.

It was Bruce Willis in the Die Hard trilogy who rehabilitated the vest for the mainstream heterosexual market. Hard-man Willis is about as camp as an anvil and he turned the vest into an indispensable part of your average action hero's working wardrobe.

We've since seen George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Jean Claude Van Damme and Vin Diesel working the He-Man singlet. Nevertheless, Hollywood's support for the singlet hasn't really made the leap across the pond. Anyone over 30 is old enough to remember the heinous sight of Coronation Street characters such as Stan Ogden (nowadays Jack Duckworth) wedged into a Draylon suite drinking lager, smoking fags and wearing string vests.

Even now, television uses the string vest as shorthand for a coarse, common man: think of Harry Enfield's Wayne Slob, Gregor Fisher's Rab C Nesbitt and Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances who was, incidentally, played by the same actor as the Ogdens' lodger Eddie Yeats.

So why did Mintel report that the vest is making a comeback? My theory is that hip-hop, not Hollywood, has the fast track to kids' wardrobes today. If Jay-Z, 50 Cent or Eminem wear vests - and they do - then so too will every kid in the shopping centre. While hip-hop superstars can afford branded mesh basketball vests, their followers will have to improvise with a nice white cotton three-pack from Marks & Spencer. The white vest is already popular with David Beckham, Justin Timberlake, Robbie Williams and Will Young and you can bet your bottom dollar Will buys his smalls at M&S.

Another demographic which is clearly pushing vest sales up are the little girls buying little-boy sizes in order to look like the vest-wearing pop idols Britney Spears, Victoria Beckham and Kylie Minogue. But these ladies are minnows in the style-icon stakes compared to old mother Madonna. It was she who wore black teabag mesh vests in the dark ages of the early 80s when she introduced the vest, bangles, slutty tutu and cut-off tights look to perform tracks such as "Holiday", "Lucky Star" and "Like A Virgin". She revived the white singlet when she modelled it in last year's Gap Ad.

As with any classic piece, it is how you wear it that separates fabulousness from tragedy. Madonna could wear a plastic bin-liner and make it look like Chanel. Britney Spears, on the other hand, can make Chanel look like a plastic bin-liner. On the torso of a Clooney or Cruise, the white vest rocks. Visible underneath a shirt and tie, it sucks.

Vest wearers top 10

1: Bruce Willis

In 1988 Bruce Willis created the role of Sergeant John McClore in Die Hard and instantly transformed the humble undershirt from timid middle-aged insulation into sexy, tough body armour. The vest's sequels, Die Harder and Die Hard: With A Vengeance, made an equally big impact at the box office

2: David Beckham

Beckham is responsible for the heinous demographic "metrosexuals": straight men who stop short of being gay at the bedroom door. This white vest is positively conservative compared to previous fashion crimes

3: 50 Cent

We can blame hip-hop for such delights as the hooded GBH sweatshirt, bling jewellery and ludicrous trainers. Rappers like 50 Cent are now unleashing the string basketball vest on the world's eager teenagers

4: Craig David

It is rumoured that when David's latest album made disappointing early sales, his record company axed the cover shot of Craig-in-singlet, shoved him in a T-shirt andwatched the CD rise up the chart

5: Marlon Brando

Brando set pulses racing in Streetcar in 1951. In 50s America, a dirty, sexy man in a dirty, sexy vest was the equivalent of Robbie Williams' naked arse on the cover of British Vogue and an infinitely prettier sight

6: Jack Duckworth

Be-vested Jack has inherited the mantle - if one can call it that - of Stan Ogden, Coronation Street's token couch potato. Not only does he sport a singlet, he even keeps pigeons, for heaven's sake

7: Rab C Nesbitt

There is an honourable tradition of British working-class slobs and string vests. Of this ugly club, Rab C Nesbitt is by far the foulest. His belly looks like sausage meat being squeezed through a hairnet

8: Victoria Beckham

Blame Dolce & Gabbana for filling Victoria Beckham's wardrobe with vests - the Italian design duo took the little dear in hand last year. The singlet is one of their iconic looks and, to be fair to Victoria, she wears it well

9: Britney Spears

Britney is an inveterate vest-wearer and, like every other overweight teenage girl who wants to look fashionable, she likes her vests to ride up and display as much puppy fat as possible

10: Madonna

Madonna is the patron saint of the vest, reviving it in 1995 when she wore them with spangly Gucci trousers and in 2004 when she wore a white vest, pedal pushers, stilettos and a flat cap for a Gap advert