WHEN COSTUME designer Marilyn Vance was working on the 1986 cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” she ran into a roadblock. Ms. Vance wanted a sweater vest for the film’s titular truant but couldn’t find one. As she recently recalled, although sweater vests abounded in ’80s London, she was hard-pressed to find any in Chicago, where the movie was being filmed. So the industrious Ms. Vance marched over to department store Marshall Field’s, bought a geometric-patterned cardigan and promptly lopped the sleeves off it. Problem solved. Ferris’s now legendary brown-and-black sweater vest was born.
If the film were being produced in 2020, Ms. Vance would have no problem finding a patterned vest. From a hazy sunflower-motif number by Heaven by Marc Jacobs (the designer’s new ’90s-inspired line) to Prada’s sharp sleeveless wonders with deco-ish patterns, they’re crowding the menswear market.
In the early 1900s, long before Ferris played hooky in his, a prim sweater vest was the sort of thing a tony aristocrat would have worn to keep warm while fox hunting. Today, after we’ve been sagging about in sweats for months, a snug garment that hugs your sides, tamps down your floppy Zoom shirt and generally brings order to your above-the-waist outfit seems compelling. A sweater vest’s “silhouette is less roomy or relaxed, and it automatically feels smarter,” said Damien Paul, the head of menswear at London-based retailer Matchesfashion, which stocks several styles this fall.
As Brendon Babenzien, co-founder and creative director of the New York label Noah, put it, the sweater vest has returned as part of a general shift back to “traditional clothing.” (See also: pleated trousers, double-breasted sport coats and utilitarian raincoats.) To land properly in 2020, he said, these items must be rethought in ways that are exciting, even “a little bit aggressive.” A vivacious pattern, for instance, can scramble the sweater vest’s inherent stodginess.
To that end, Noah’s two sweater vests for fall are rendered in bold leopard print, channeling Sid Vicious more than Masterpiece Theatre. (Fact: While many fans think Ferris’s vest also represented leopard, the pattern actually consisted of abstracted dashes that created a feline-ish effect.)
If you’re worried a hot pink-and-black cat print might startle co-workers on your next video call, consider a more tempered take like the muted checkerboard vest from ERL, an upstart Venice Beach, Calif., label, or Aimé Leon Dore’s neo-traditional Fair Isle vest. The latter has buttons like Ferris’s, for easy-on, easy-off without mussing your meeting hair.
To properly pull off a spirited vest, take care to avoid styling misfires. For instance, on the runway, Prada presented its sleeveless sweaters over sleeveless shirts, a look best left to the most fashion-forward, exhibitionist gym-rats. On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Babenzien cautioned that wearing a knit vest with khakis and a plaid shirt will telegraph “accountant.”
He instead advocated for throwing a bold sweater vest over a stark white tee, like a hefty pour of Tabasco atop a bowl of white rice. Rapper Tyler, the Creator (who might be contemporary culture’s most prominent sweater-vest role model) often dresses like this, layering his leopard or floral vests over plain tees.
It’s also the Ferris formula; the chipper class-skipper wore his vest with a crisp white tee and gray Perry Ellis dress slacks. Though costume designer Ms. Vance was surprised to hear that sweater vests were trending again 34 years later, she did note that when dressing Ferris she wanted to avoid conveying the precise year that he was attending high school: “Had I done the big shoulders [on a suit] and everything that was so popular at that time, it totally would have looked dated.” Her tactic worked. In his patterned sweater vest and tee, Ferris looks as fresh today as he did in 1986.
FERRIS WOULD APPROVE / THREE SNAPPY STYLES
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com
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