Fancy paying £700 for a sleeveless vest? An undershirt? Even on Prada’s terms, the Italian fashion brand for the ludicrously loaded is surely taking the sartorial piss here.
This Prada vest, which looks much like an ordinary vest, except a hundred times the price, was one of the most sought after items of the year. It is the third “hottest” item in Lyst’s autumn list, which monitors what people buy, Google and tag on social media, and British Vogue called it the item that defined 2022. It is sold out everywhere.
I’ve always been partial to a vest, but like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, I don’t tend to wear it as an undershirt. The undershirt is my shirt. Unlike Brando’s Kowalski, I don’t wear vests because I’m a hot, ripped, testosterone-fuelled Adonis. No, I wear vests because I don’t like clothes.
Clothes oppress me. I just find them uncomfortable. Jeans chafe (big thighs), shirts are too tight, jumpers ripple in all the wrong places. Clothes make me overly aware of my body and uncomfortable in it. As soon as I get home I get back to basics – pants and a sleeveless vest, sometimes set off by a dressing gown.
This is not an acceptable look for the workplace. So I always start off with a shirt or jumper. But there inevitably comes a moment when I feel tyrannised by my top. It’s too hot, tight or itchy. So the shirt/jumper comes off and the vest comes into play.
It doesn’t always go down well. The managing editor was aghast when she saw it. Conversations were had about appropriate dressing. One editor banned his team from wearing sleeveless vests as anything but an undershirt.
The look was one thing, the associations another. Vests bring out class snobbery at the very least because of their association with working-class men.
Then there is the ugly issue of the “wife beater” connotation. Kowalski may have been the epitome of red-blooded beauty, but he was also an abusive alcoholic who beat his wife and raped his sister-in-law. He was defined by his vest. Some say that was when the humble vest became known for a time as a wife beater; others say the phrase goes back to 1947 and the conviction of James Hartford Jr in Detroit for beating his wife to death. He was pictured in papers wearing a stained sleeveless vest. Another theory purports it goes back to medieval times when soldiers who lost their armour on battlegrounds were known as “waifs”. All they had to protect them was a thin, chain mail undershirt, which became known as a “waif-beater”. This explanation was later claimed by the film-maker Paul Davidson, who was seeking to show us “how dangerous taking something at face value on the internet can be”.
Ribbed sleeveless vests have fallen into disrepute. I can’t get a decent one for love nor money. My last one cost around a fiver from Amazon Essentials. Mine are made of thin, infinitely rippable cotton, and manage to pull off the impossible by being simultaneously too tight and baggy.
When my daughter bought a lovely red and white sleeveless top, I looked for the men’s equivalent. It didn’t exist. So I bought hers in the largest size available. That’s when I realised why low-cut tops aren’t best suited to men. I was destined to be thwarted in my search for the perfect sleeveless vest.
Then along came Prada. How I laughed when the fashion desk told me it cost £700. Prada doesn’t call it a vest, let alone a wife beater. It’s a cotton tank top, which sounds like something I might have got from Topman in the 1980s. In its online publicity, Prada says: “This skinny-fit cotton tank top features the minimalist elegance typical of the brand. The enamelled metal triangle logo stands out on the front.” In other words it’s white, tight and has got a groovy label.
There’s more. “Pragmatic garments acquire new importance and value.” Pragmatic garment, my arse. The sleeveless top is part of my essence, the visualisation of my soul. Though to be fair, in charging 700 smackers Prada is definitely endowing it with a new value.
The fashion team bring the cotton tank top over to me. They look anxious. The vest has to go back to Prada. One stain, and we owe them nearly a grand. Hopefully the Guardian has taken out vest insurance for me. Dream on. Instead, I’m asked to put my cup of coffee down, and to try not to dribble too much.
I put it on. To my amazement it fits. After a minute or two I breathe and it still fits. It feels different from my other vest. The baggy/tight worst-of-both-worlds thing has gone. I feel swaddled, protected, at one with my £700 top. I touch the material – it’s so much thicker than I’m used to. The label’s not bad either. I stand on my mark, give the photographer my three-quarter profile, I push my chest out, pout, start believing I am someone.
The top clings tight to my shoulders in a nice way. It mirrors my body shape, while somehow hiding the bits that are best hidden. It feels more like a corset than a sleeveless vest, or something you might find in the world’s most expensive magic box. It’s comfortable and supportive. It makes me feel stronger and straighter. Perhaps you pay for the illusion as much as the label.
I feel sad when I have to give it back. I’ve never worn designer clothes in my life, but I might just be a convert. By which I mean I’d happily hand over 20 quid to Prada for my corset-vest.
• This article was amended on 16 December 2022 to revise the context in which the offensive name “wife beater” is explained.