What do Tom from The Good Life and Tyler, the Creator have in common? The answer comes in knitwear, and a design perhaps less loved than the trusty jumper or the Taylor Swift-approved cardigan. Enter the tank top: the sleeveless knit that is enjoying an unaccustomed moment in the style spotlight this autumn.
Harry Styles was an early adopter, wearing a tank top covered with sheep worthy of an eccentric geography teacher last winter, while Zoe Kravitz’s character in High Fidelity wears hers with a micro-mini.
But this is not just about celebrities’ restlessness with well-worn knitwear options as the weather turns. The tank top – cosy, warm, cheerful, a bit nostalgic – makes sartorial sense for where we are all at just now. When working from home, it will soon be too chilly for the so-called Zoom shirt to work as workwear. The tank top could be its replacement. It is a way to quickly look presentable even if a bowl of cereal is just out of shot on your video call – and it comes with a cosiness that is comforting given the current news cycle.
The tank top – or sweater vest as it is known in the States – has been around for more than 100 years. According to the fashion historian Lucy Adlington, the sleeveless knit was first popularised by King Edward VII as part of his hunting attire. By the 30s, it was worn on and off the golf course, and it then became part of the cricket uniform.
But the 1960s and 70s are the decades with which the tank top is still mostly associated, as a staple of crafty wholesomeness, and seen on wholesome bands such as the Osmonds, on wholesome TV shows such as The Good Life, and on extremely wholesome knitting patterns (the kind that now appear on those “Wasn’t it funny in the olden days?’ listicles.
Post-70s, the tank top might have had its moments (Jarvis Cocker was partial to one in the 90s, as was Prada, and Cher Horovitz in Clueless), but it never quite broke through into the mainstream. Practicality might be one explanation for the tank top’s rehabilitation from retro lols to Proper Fashion Trend, but also … because internet.
Vogue, writing about Ryan Gosling wearing a tank top in 2018 called it a “meme-worthy piece of menswear”, pointing to the much-meme Steve Urkel, the geek character on the US sitcom Family Matters. Certain tank tops have also had the very modern seal of approval enjoyed by the sweater vest of the 2012 Republican candidate Rick Santorum – their own Twitter account.
The tank top fits into the nostalgia currently fuelling fashionable Instagram feeds: from the young Princess Diana to Chandler in Friends to Carlton Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The opposite of classically cool style icons such as, say, Jane Birkin or James Dean (neither of whom would go near a tank top), these endearingly uncool and unpolished references have come into their own with the benefit of a bit of distance. Sure, Dean and Birkin have their white T-shirts, but the tank top as worn by Carlton – cosy, dorky, preppy – has a charm of its own. Especially at the moment.
The tank top’s retro charm means this is a trend that lends itself to some vintage shopping. There are loads on Etsy, eBay and Beyond Retro – with argyle and cable knit dominating – and “sweater vest y2k” is already a search prediction on Depop. The crafty among us can of course make our own (a very fashionable at-home project were a second lockdown to transpire). Or a more minimal SFW take comes from brands such as Arket, Everlane and COS. Wear with thrift store slacks like Tyler’s or over a Zoom shirt to upgrade your look in the 9.30am meeting. The tank top might have been knitwear’s poor relation for decades but – thanks to 2020 – its time is now.