Vestibular motion

Everyone knows that a vest in the US is what the Brits (and others) call a waistcoat, don’t they? That’s pretty much common knowledge, just like the pants = trousers thing. Americans might not know that a vest, to British and Irish people, is an undershirt. So if someone says they were outside in just their pants and vest, that’s actually pretty odd behavior, not just a warm day when the stockbroker took off his jacket before he bought a pretzel from the guy on the street.

But there’s more to this vest thing. There’s a whole dressing culture difference here that intrigues me. It’s about layers. Bear with me now while I meander to my point…

When I read Judy Blume’s Forever, mostly furtively, serially, in bookshops, one thing that stuck with me (other than never being able to take the name Ralph seriously again) was the fact that in the scene where they flick washing-up bubbles at each other until her sweater is soaked, and she takes it off, she’s wearing NOTHING BUT A BRA underneath! This was so perplexing that it totally ruined my savouring of the sexy moment. A sweater is not a garment that should be in contact with that much of your skin. Where was her other layer?

I grew up always wearing a vest under whatever my visible-to-the-general-public top was, whether that was the shirt of my school uniform or a thin jumper (sweater) or even under a t-shirt, unless the weather was really warm, which it rarely was. A vest is the shape of what Americans would call a tank top, or (ick) a wife-beater. (Yes, they really use that term.) As a girl gets a little older she might want one that’s more like a camisole (thinner straps, more fitted). But at the very least, to my mind, our Forever heroine should have been wearing one over her bra and under her sweater.

I still dress that way, at least one and two-half seasons of the year. (That is, winter, and the cooler ends of spring and autumn.) And I dress my children in layers too, as often as I can, because air-conditioning in schools is unpredictable. They might be in a classroom that’s stuffy and sweltering or one that’s freezing, so I want them to have the option of peeling off their sweater/long-sleeved top/cardigan and having a t-shirt underneath. (The fact that my children don’t seem to notice, or don’t think of doing it, or don’t want to because then they’ll have to carry the removed item, is something I have no control over. I can be content  knowing that I’ve prepared them for every eventuality.)

But I am pretty sure that this layering technique as a daily way of dressing is quite a European thing. I think the Germans I know here, for instance, do it too – and I’m pretty sure most Americans don’t. American kids go out in just one layer under their coats, even in winter. Maybe they’re confident of good heating indoors and warm coats outdoors. When I noticed this early in my parenting career, when my kids first started to interact with others, I thought it was a modern thing and that I was just old-fashioned. Probably nobody in Ireland wore vests any more and it was just me and my inveterate chilliness having this quirk.

However, vests are still alive and well in Ireland. Here’s a screengrab from the Dunnes Stores website, for example:
Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.03.31 PM

See? Boys wear them too. Here’s a shot from the boys’ section of the Marks & Spencer UK website.Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.06.46 PM

These are not outerwear, unless you’re a builder. These are for under your shirt or your jumper. These are to keep you warm in a country where central heating is not a given, where your washing is drying on the radiators and you forgot to turn the immersion on so you’ll have to wait for your bath. And yes, grown-ups also wear vests in Europe, just like I do.

So, Americans: What’s your defence? Just more warm-blooded than your transatlantic counterparts? Are you neglecting your children by denying them a proper old-fashioned vest? And, while we’re here, how do you feel about the name Ralph?

9 thoughts on “Vestibular motion

  1. Fionnuala

    Ha, ha! I ALWAYS buy vests in Dunne’s for the boys when we are home in Ireland. They are better than the German ones. Yes, Germans wear layers too. My husband has enough vests to sink a ship.
    The other day it was a sunny 22 degrees here all of a sudden and I was horrified when my 7 year old came home wearing his best. His jacket, sweatshirt and t shirt were all crammed into his schoolbag.

  2. Wendy Walton

    This made me laugh – we have all learned about vests since moving to Ireland and my kids and myself wear them every day (except maybe that week that it gets warm in the summer….). I don’t feel dressed without my vest and yet I don’t know anyone my age back in Canada that would own a vest let alone wear one regularly!
    My son goes one step further and wears a vest and a body warmer /thermals under his school uniform everyday.
    When we visit Canada this summer I will have to convince them they won’t need to pack any vests!
    *my husband still hasn’t figured out to use “trousers” instead of “pants” leading to a few awkward work place conversations!

    1. Maud Post author

      Ah, you’ve gone over to the warm side! Isn’t it funny? And it took me so long to figure out that it was cultural, not just me.

  3. Suzanna Catherine

    I love this post! In fact, I enjoy all your posts, especially those that make note of the cultural differences between Ireland and America.

    This post about vests brought back memories of vest-wearing during my childhood in the 40s and 50s. We never thought it was different because we saw all our cousins doing the same thing. Our aim was to be warm and, in the words of my Grandmother, “modestly dressed.” For us children, I think “warm” was our top priority.

    I’ve never been to Ireland, but I believe it has a climate similar to that of the Pacific Northwest of America, where it is chilly and rainy about 10 months of the year. I remember that extra layer of clothing feeling pretty good on the walk to school through the wet streets of Seattle.

    Even as an adult, living in the Deep South, I still wear a camisole every day. Some traditions (habits?) are difficult to leave behind.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane and pointing out why I have 14 camisoles fighting for space in my underwear drawer.

    1. Maud Post author

      I’m glad to hear there are still vest-wearers in America too! So did you call them undershirts as a child? The vocabulary fascinates me.

  4. Jill

    See, I never would have suspected this was a thing, we’re all learning together!

    Both my kids are wearing vests right now. I am not but that’s unusual. Funnily, I don’t like the Dunnes ones for them; they go shapeless and baggy really quickly. Dominic has great stripey ones we got in Lidl, and then H&M do them in all sorts of colours too. The Scandi’s love their layers so that’s unsurprising.

    My husband has some in bright colours (so that he doesn’t seem like an aul fella) that he got from an Italian underwear chain that are all over Europe and there’s David Beckham for H&M (youngish) mens one too.

    You need to host a vest display photo party on your Facebook page so we can wow all these one-layers Americans 🙂

  5. Thrift Store Mama

    Oh, camisoles! My girls wear camisoles in the winter, my mother does as well, and I do sometimes. They are hard to find though. I like them slightly fitted and I think it feels so much warmer with one on. I’m also from the South, and perhaps that where we started wearing them as children, I’m not quite sure.

    I also wear a slip under a skirt or dress, that’s pretty old-fashioned as well but I assume it’s a Southern thing too.


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