Look, no arms


Saturday 22 August 1998 23:02 BST

We most often see the gilet in the form of a sleeveless padded jacket as worn by Meg Matthews, and the girls from All Saints and Eternal. This is the lastest incarnation of a shape that has been around for hundreds of years.

The evolution of the gilet (from the French word for cardigan) can be traced from the jerkin, a garment favoured by European peasants of the 15th century. They wore it as a sleeveless jacket, usually made from leather. And it had two main functions, it kept the wearer warm whilst allowing freedom of movement. This is still the gilet's main appeal.

But in the 16th century the aristocracy took over, and padded the jerkin. This was often fastened over a rather fancily decorated doublet, a close- fitting bodysuit, and worn with hose. The already well-padded Henry VIII was a big fan of this bulky look.

But a century later padded jerkins disappeared for all but the humble landworkers. The toffs wore the classier, fitted waistcoat (in Italian, gilet still means waistcoat) which became an essential part of any gentleman's day wear. By the 18th century the gilet was transformed by women, who wore them quilted in silk over the bodices of their hooped dresses.

In 1908 Barbour introduced their wax cotton jackets. Seventy years later, their quilted gilets followed. But a variant had already been popularised by the landed gentry and their estate workers for hunting, shooting and fishing - all pursuits that require ease of movement whilst keeping cosy.

With the First World War the gilet took a sideways step into armour. Layers of silk to disperse energy were covered with steel plates to protect those riding into battle. This echoed earlier forms of protection like the chain-mail tunic of medieval times, and the padded plastron worn for fencing.

Nothing else happened to the gilet for most of the 20th century, it was a functional item and nothing more. Just lately, though, it has been creeping back with a new name, the body warmer. And this Autumn designers such as Calvin Klein, Isaac Mizrahi and Sportsmax have all done their own interpretation. Just think of going into battle the next time you wear yours.

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