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:
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?