Paul Mescal, the actor who rose to fame after his role in the BBC’s adaptation of Normal People, loves wearing vests. He wears them to the shops, he wears them to star in musicals and he wears them to dance around hotel rooms for the Rolling Stones’ music videos. He even wore one vest on top of another vest on top of a smart white shirt in the Financial Times. Most recently, he wore one under a double-breasted duck-egg blue jacket on the red carpet. He is, officially, first in line to the singlet throne.
The one place Mescal doesn’t wear them, however, is to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Many cite Marlon Brando, who wore one to play the wife-beating Kowalski on screen, as inspiration for the now thankfully sidelined term “wife-beater”; the stage director Rebecca Frecknall reportedly banned Mescal from wearing the same kind of vest for his role in the new London production, because she wanted to move away from the “performance baggage” involved in the play.
The way Mescal wears the vest when out and about arguably distances it from these past associations with a very toxic kind of masculinity. If Mescal has made a career of nuanced portrayals of men, from Connell in Normal People to Kowalski to a single dad in the indie flick Aftersun, his vests can be seen as singing from the same sheet. The neckline is elegant – regularly chest hair-baringly low and set off by a sliver of jewellery that is a nod to when he first came to the public’s attention and his necklace was hailed as a character in its own right.
Often wearing them under suits, Mescal also brings a sense of dressing up to a garment best known for dressing down. White vests have long been a go-to for men as underwear, that is until 1934 when Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in It Happened One Night and reportedly sent vest sales plummeting by 75%.
While it is unlikely due to Mescal alone, the popularity of vests has in more recent times been booming. The £700 Prada vest was heralded as the item that defined 2022 by British Vogue and, despite its ludicrous price tag, it sold out everywhere.
The author Justin Myers thinks the fact that “men are working harder on their bodies than ever before” explains, at least in part, its ascent. “Instagram pulses with ripped boys-next-door – and the vest is a near faultless showcase for those hours put in at the gym,” he says. There might also be something of the gym-body equivalent of Zoom dressing going on: “It helps that arms usually respond quickly to weight training, so can offer a buff illusion even if the rest of the body is still playing catchup.”
But, he says, there’s more to it – there’s “something emotional here, too. When we show off more skin, it’s not just about peacocking or even sexual availability; we’re revealing our emotional vulnerability.” Where once perhaps vests were the preserve of the gym-bods, now, he says, “willowy guys are wearing them, too”.
Vests “allow us to be seen, there’s nothing to hide, and revealing your body can be a show of confidence or trust in those observing you. It’s surprising at first, perhaps, that the uniform of the hard-nut has become the go-to for the softboi, but in a more emotionally intelligent world, it actually makes sense.” This is a world where those who might once have balked at the idea of wearing a vest might now find some kind of freedom in it; where the Ryan Atwoods make way for the Seth Cohens of the world to wear vests with pride.
So where do Mescal and his vests fit in all this? The picture is complicated. He does, of course, on some level represent the conventional Hollywood star. “As different bodies are being – albeit slowly – presented to us within fashion, there is a conservative backlash in the form of a fresh, tight singlet on someone such as Mescal,” says Dal Chodha, a fashion writer, editor and academic. “It proffers an idealised male body in a classic 1950s pin-up way. It says ‘masculine’ in a very direct and uncomplicated way.”
But for all of the ideas tied up in the vest, there might be another, much simpler, reason why they are finding favour. “Vests are more comfortable and show a nicer line under jackets than T-shirts,” says Myers. “But nobody wants to hear that, do they?”