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...And the vest is history: How the white vest became a symbol of queer identity

From Brando to Bound, Isobel Van Dyke explores how the humble white vest became a code used within the LGBTQ+ community

HAL FISCHER, STREET FASHION: JOCK, FROM THE SERIES GAY SEMIOTICS, 1977.

/ © Hal Fischer. Courtesy Project Native Informant, London
By
26 June 2022
V

est, tank top, sleeveless T, undershirt, gilet to the French, and occasionally (outdatedly) ‘wife beater’, with so many names it’s easy to understand why Hal Fischer — author of the queer bible Gay Semiotics — had to clarify exactly what I meant when speaking to him.

A true M&S classic, it’s what you associate with PE class; 1950s underwear ads; Helmut Lang and Herb Ritts; Channing Tatum’s entire portfolio; the oil-stained mechanic wiping sweat from his brow (or hers, ahem, as in Michelle Rodriguez in Fast & Furious). But from perspiring brow to… highbrow, the AW22 runway collections made a case for vests last season, with the garment cropping up in abundance at Prada, Bottega Veneta and Chloé.

/ Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics, 1977

The white vest is the essential wardrobe basic worn globally for comfort, ease, reliability and functionality. Among the LGBTQ+ community, it also serves the purpose of visibility, and for decades has acted as a vessel for queer identity.

‘The white vest has been a staple in my wardrobe forever, for me as a garment the vest is inherently and historically queer,’ says Kai-Isaiah Jamal, poet, model and trans-visibility campaigner. ‘Found wrapped around the bodies of so many versions of people, from butches and studs who reclaim and disrupt the origins of who the garment was made for, to baby queers throwing their arms above their head in the club, hot and sweaty and liberated’.

But before being adopted by us queers, the white vest has a dark backstory buried in its history. Unfortunately the term ‘wife beater’ exists for a reason, and in 1947 a man from Detroit, James Hartford Jr, was arrested for fatally ‘beating’ his wife. When arrested, he was photographed wearing a white vest, smeared with baked bean stains.

In the same year as Hartford Jr’s arrest, Marlon Brando would star on stage for the first time as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, the role that would catapult him to fame — though playing the part of someone physically and emotionally abusive. It’s no coincidence that Brando was styled wearing a white vest for the part.

If Brando wasn’t already a sex symbol after the play, he certainly was after the release of the screen version in 1951 (no doubt with help from the physique under the vest). But from sex symbol to queer icon, he was known to have had relationships with men as well as portraying gay characters on screen. ‘Homosexuality is so much in fashion, it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed,’ he said in 1976.

‘In American culture the simple white vest carries with it a not so subtle aura of danger and violence,’ says Fischer. ‘In the 1970s, members of the gay male “clone” culture adopted items of clothing traditionally perceived as stereotypically masculine,’ he says, referring to the ‘Castro clones’ (named after the gay San Francisco neighbourhood) of the late 1970s who popularised Levi’s, work boots and construction wear as everyday wear — a look commonly linked with The Village People.

Like the Stanley Kowalski character, Castro clones were based on the idealised working-class man, with each embodying hypermasculinity in a way that could be classed as camp. Lesbians, queer women, gender-fluid and non-binary people have, for centuries (that we know of), adopted typically masculine forms of dressing as a way of carving out identity and rejecting stereotypical norms expected of women. Gentleman Jack — recently played by Suranne Jones for the eponymous BBC series — is one of the earliest records we have of a lesbian wearing clothes typical of the male wardrobe, but she would be far from the last to do so.

Thankfully, fashion has evolved fairly significantly since the early 1800s. While the white vest became popularised among men following the release of A Streetcar Named Desire, it would be another 30 years before women began donning the cotton armour for themselves. The vest’s popularity with queer women spiked in the Nineties, helped along by the 1996 lesbian cult classic Bound, in which Gina Gershon plays Corky, the butch lesbian plumber next door who will fix your sink and steal your girl.

Not long after Bound hit our screens, in 1998 Versace Jeans launched a campaign in which model Milla Jovovich is photographed surrounded by male builders on a construction site. Her tool belt hangs from her waist (lesbian code: check), boxes heaved onto her shoulder, with low rise jeans meeting a white vest at her hips. In 2001, Tom Ford’s Gucci would pull a similar stunt, coupling Eleonora Bose’s pixie-cut with white vest for a campaign shot. Ford later explained his decision as a ‘personification of what is in the air’.

It’s important to note that for many trans, non-binary and gender-fluid people, a vest is a garment that triggers feelings of gender dysphoria. For Kai-Isaiah Jamal, the vest hasn’t always represented the freedom it does for them now: ‘For me it’s a metaphor for my identity, it’s almost a coded language that non-explicitly or non-verbally states who I am. It took a long time for me to be comfortable wearing one, my chest fluctuates without a binder. Vests allowed me to toy with my feelings towards my chest, to sit comfortably and also in the discomfort.’

Of course, not everyone who wears a white vest identifies as queer. Straight people wear them too… much to the dismay of LGBTQ+ Twitter and Instagram. That being said, for such a lightweight top it carries a heavier weight when worn by queer people.

Being visible is not only about being visible to the general public, but more importantly to other LGBTQ+ people. It’s the reason that queer spaces are sacred and why we have such a rich history with nightlife — because knowing that we are not alone, meeting other people with similar experiences and seeing those who resemble us is crucial to both self and societal acceptance.

Every June, shop windows display ghastly creations — rainbow splattered across everything — but arguably, a more camp way of showing support would be a window packed full of white vests.

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