Vest : Linguistic Background – Investigating the Elusive Vest

I love words, always did, I have to understand their meaning, as it usually covers a whole history to be found and enjoyed. I spend some of my time nosing Dictionaries, Encyclopedias and every readable material. Accurate use of words could save a lot of misery, accidents and even wars. VEST is one of the most fascinating words. Fashion has brought it into every closet and on many magazine pictures, but what is it exactly? Nowadays we use the name VEST to describe a sleeveless or extremely short-sleeved garment, worn on the upper torso, falling to any length from bust to floor, its front might be in 1 piece or cut midway and worn open or with any kind of closure, and one or both sides could be open.

Already in my teens I noticed that the Hebrew word for vest, Afuda= Ephod= the sleeveless upper garment, came from the Bible, and was known to non-Hebrew speakers as well. To my amazement it was sometimes used for the sleeveless garment and at other times for a full long sleeved knitted sweater. Teachers shrugged my wonderment off and dictionaries varied in explanations, so which of the two was the true Vest?.

Every book gave a different meaning while some just interchanged them, which was very puzzling. At the time I began knitting and sewing for myself I used Dutch and German Magazines instructions. I noticed that in the Germanic Languages a Vest pronounced `Fest` and some places spelled West/e really meant a sweater, or sometimes a men’s waist coat, which made me wonder whether some mistranslation caused this double meaning in Hebrew.

When my children were in grammar school, part of their uniform was a green vest. In those days when one knitted a vest, we were taught to shape the armholes round, which in knitting meant decreasing 4 stitches on the first row and than 3 stitches, 2 stitches, and 1 stitch, over the next 3 rows. One day I came to the conclusion that a round armhole was reasonable only when one wants to add a sleeve. Since I was knitting a sleeveless garment, it could be shaped otherwise, decreasing all 10 stitches at once! and than knitting straight up to the shoulder seemed more rational. The bigger armhole fitted better over the shirts. Soon afterwards I knitted a vest, shaped like a long rectangle with a square hole for the head and instead of side seams, 2 rolled woollen cords were laced under arms sides.

This discovery has shown me that I am curious, to know the historical reasons behind Clothes Construction, and that I might enhance and enjoy my ability to design my own, the more I know about the past. And so `I met`: Vesti, Clothe, Dress, Cover, Adorn, Singlet, Waist coat, Girdle, Apron, Jerkin, Ephod, Brassiere, Bolero, Stomacher, Jumper, Pullover, Zephyr, Under shirt, Underclothes, Underlinnen and some more, all of which referred at one period or another to the clothing article whose form resembles our contemporary Vest.

In the 60s it was very fashionable to wear a `Twin Set` which included a long sleeved sweater together with a sleeveless shirt, made of the same material. It had either an open or a one piece front. The sleeveless item could be worn under the sweater as a shirt or over it as a vest.

In Latin Vest means: clothes, dress, coverlet, tapestry, blanket, adorn and the snake’s skin [slough] when he discards it. Old costumes books refer to vest like garments as: bodice, jerkin, waist coat, under shirt. In German bustehalter [breast-holder], in French gilet, soutiengorge or corpino.
In early Gothic times 1200-1350, we read of men wearing a Surcot that many times had no sleeves, and looks in pictures just like a long Vest. Or a wide falling Cyclas, made of a big cloth with a hole for the head and maybe a side or front slit, for easier horse riding. In the next 50 years, Gothic Time we see the Tabbard and the short sleeved Garnache. The Italian Renaissance men 1440-1500, wore a Journade which really was made of two loose falling pieces of cloth seamed only at the shoulders, and usually adorned at the hem. Over the next century we hear about Tabbards, worn mainly by the nobles and the rich. In the Baroque 1640-1655 the puritan English and Flemish/Dutch soldiers wore a short leather `body-hose` while the French wore more elaborate clothes, and in the French Baroque 1655-1675 we find the men wearing a very short Innocent or Brassiere, made of rich fluid materials cut open in the middle front and often embroidered.

Brassiere as a male garment sounds a bit confusing to our ears, so let’s see how that came about. This word started first as brassard an armor for the upper arm, later it became to mean a support, and especially the shirt worn to support a baby’s body. Later it became the name of the richly adorned male sleeveless waist coat. Only at the beginning of the 20th cent., is the word Brassiere applied to the female breast cover, and since the English had a tendency to use French terms, when speaking of `Delicate` matters it became the official English name for the undergarment which hides the breasts.

The Name Vest appears about 1675-1715 under Louis XIV, when it still is sometimes called Kamizool, it is a very important part of a man’s appearance. Made of rich materials heavily adorned knee long and had pockets. From now on through the Regency, Rococo, French revolution and until nowadays the Vest is an essential part of the male suit. For a while it is called Waistcoat. It has changed its length, became less ornamented, sometimes had more buttons and at times even a double row of them, it lost the lower pockets and gained an upper pocket and even a false pocket, it received a `watch pocket`. The back is made of a lighter material while the front is made of the same material as the pants and jacket, and it is probably here to stay.

The word VEST itself, really had to do with outfitting a young man with a suit, to make him look respectable and fit for work, [probably a late version of the vassal providing his own military attire]. Which led to the figurative use of `invest to clothe= as meaning to put money in something hoping to profit`. { Italian 13th cent investire]. When we give power to somebody we Vest him. Many jobs civil as well as clerical functions are manifested by wearing a kind of vest like article over other clothes.

In the female closet, the vest like garment appears at about the Roman time 1000-1200 first as a short sometimes sleeveless tunic called Bliaud. By the mid 12th century ladies wear a tight fitting vest, laced at the back a Corsage. By the Early Gothic period women wear a sleeveless Surcot-ouvert. In the Gothic period 1350-1440, the women wear long wide falling Cyclas. In the Italian Renaissance women wear sleeveless Tabbards. Through those 2 centuries a side-less long dress is worn at different times in different countries and is sometimes jokingly called Hell’s windows. In Northern Europe in the late renaissance women wear a short Ropa [Spanish] a short sleeved front buttoned vest. The female Bodice or long Corset that were laced tightly under the breasts, as well as the very wide sash that was tightly wrapped around their middle, all of which meant to push the breasts up in pre bra times, also were sometimes called vest, which was thought to be `neater` language.

In the 19th cent, women wore crinoline skirts with matching jackets, under which they wore velvet vests that resembled the male vests. About 1860-1870 we see the Bolero vest. In 1910 the Russian Ballet performs Rimski-Korssakov`s Scheherazade in Paris, it has an immediate influence on the Moda. Paul Poiret designed dresses with quite low V neck openings, so he added also a kind of breast-holder, but it is not in much use.

The bra, as we wear it nowadays, was engineered by Howard Hughes for Jane Russel or Jean Harlow in the early 30s for a film.
A Jerkin is a short sleeveless jacket usually made of leather [it is related to the jerked beef= sun dried meat slices]. In the middle ages this name referred to a very small tight fitting waist coat.
In the Chinese tradition we find Long sleeveless silk overcoats, worn mainly by men, and worn rarely by very high court women. The Mongols wear similar long sleeveless overcoats made of wool, which were sometimes called pakress, but are to us long vests.

While most English Bible translations refer to the Ephod= the Biblical Vest as such, we find in the Darby translation [1769] that in addition to the word Ephod it suddenly translates a chequered dress [Kutonet] into a chequered Vest.

Let’s remember the ww2 Vest like inflatable Rubber Rescue girdle, named Mae West after the famous American movie actress [1892-1980].

The vest seems to be one of the most versatile clothes. in the developed countries where houses are better warmed, it is a more comfortable garment than the sweater, in work places it is easier to work without long sleeves while it keeps the body warm. If in older times the vest in its various forms was used to pronounce and attract attention to the female breasts, now a days it is being shaped and worn by many ideological groups as a means to disguise the same female form.

Trends moved the vest from under the shirt to over it. In contemporary fashion shows we can sometimes see an open vest, worn over a clear see through shirt or even a model’s bare chest.
It can be shaped in any form: loose, skin fitting, it can be worn in any length. It can be knitted, sewn, crocheted, felted. It's low cost enables people to have more than one, It diversifies the look of the higher priced clothes, it is easy to carry with you, and to fold away when not needed. Basically it is the same plain but lovely garment even though it has periodically changed its name.


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Mirjam Bruck-Cohen

© Copyright 1998 by Mirjam Bruck-Cohen

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