Design Dinosaurs 4: The string vest

Antony Woodward
Sunday 20 February 1994 00:02
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FOR A joyless item, the string vest has picturesque origins. Norwegian fishermen discovered that if they cut up old fishing nets and wrapped them round their bodies when fishing in icy weather, they kept warm. Why? Because the mesh fabric trapped pockets of still air which acted as insulation.

The idea was seized upon by Henrik Brun, a Norwegian army captain. He made a 'fishnet' vest which he presented to a meeting of the Norwegian Officers Club attended by King Haakon VII in 1933. This revolutionary garment, he claimed, would insulate the body as effectively from extremes of hot weather as from cold. In fact a cellular cloth based on the same principle had been patented in 1896 under the trade name Aertex. But the new design was more assertively scientific.

By the Second World War a crude string vest made by a knitwear factory in Larvik, Norway, was being issued to several Allied armies. In 1948, a cotton string vest was introduced for US servicemen in the tropics (it promoted cooling by allowing sweat to evaporate fast). Then, in the 1950s, the Larvik factory, under the tradename Brynje, launched its 'original' stringwear worldwide. It was joined by competitors; most have long since discontinued production.

The trouble is the vest never really recovered from the moment in 1934 when Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and revealed that he wasn't wearing anything underneath. Woven wool button- up gave way to knitted cotton singlet, increasingly optional in summer. The hi-tech novelty of the string vest gave it appeal in a science-oriented age. But thereafter began the slow decline to the situation today: T- shirt or nothing at all.

In Britain these days the unmistakable string VVL (Visible Vest Line) is usually spotted beneath drip-dry polyester shirts on males of an older generation. When Marks & Spencer no longer stocks a line of underwear you suspect the end is near. But the string vest may yet survive on the street. In red, gold or blue, sometimes sequinned, it remains part of the uniform of Jamaican ragga.

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