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Perspective: I declare a vested interest in underwear.

Byline: Richard McComb

I was sitting in a business meeting with three women and it was hot, hot in the sense that it was stuffy. Something had to give, either the tie or the jacket.

'It's stifling in here,' said one of the women. 'The heating's been on full blast. Shall I turn it down?'

'Oh, yes, please,' I blurted out. And then I said it. Perhaps it was the heat, maybe it was the company.

Anyway, I said it: 'It's just that I'm wearing a vest today.'

There was silence, but it didn't last long. The hoots of derision soon followed.

'A vest, Richard? Do you tuck it into your underpants?' remarked one of the women. 'Ooooohhh. Do you wear it on the beach?' cackled another.

The third just sat there in tears, rocking gently in her chair and pinching her nose. I never realised the topic of the male vest was so contentious. But the reaction of these women led me to question why this truly utilitarian garment has become a topic of female mirth. Sexual politics and the male vest is a complex issue. Women were urged to burn their bras in the 1970s in the cause of female empowerment and have gone through any number of psychotic clothing reappraisals in the intervening decades.

The vest, however, remains iconic. It has been there through thick and thin, outlasting the mini skirt, the shoulder pad and the boob tube. It represents a sublime fashion fusion, being both functional and stylish.

I am not referring to the string variety. Popular confusion over the two types of vest -the tasteful, close-fitting, holeless variety, and the comic string form -undoubtedly have contributed to the demise of this item.

The Rab C Nesbitt-style string vest is rightly mocked, worn by slobs and slackers and flaunted over Day-Glo T-shirts by 1980s pop bands such as Kajagoogoo. The classic sleeveless white vest is an altogether different proposition.

Real men wear vests. They do not wear the ridiculous American import of the vest T-shirt. T-shirts are fine when they are worn as T-shirts, and here I am thinking of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

However, a T-shirt should never, ever, be worn under a formal shirt. It's SO what the male characters would do in Friends. There may be occasions when a man needs to loosen his tie and undo the top button of a shirt but to do so and reveal the stitched collar of a T-shirt is the height of vulgarity. It spoils the line of the neck and indicates brashness.

Vest wearers who opt to loosen a top button merely reveal a wisp of chest hair, conveying honesty and a sound work ethic. It's like saying: 'Take me as you find me. I've nothing to hide.'

On the personal hygiene front, vests also win. Without offending female sensibilities, vests do what all good male underwear is supposed to do: they trap air in the places it is meant to be trapped and allow it to circulate in those areas where circulation is critical.

Not to put too fine a point on it, office workers who go for the discredited T-shirt option are liable to overheating in their armpits. This can lead to what is commonly known as Claggy Armpit Syndrome. It is unsightly and in economic terms wasteful as it leads to the rapid deterioration of both the T-shirt fabric, and through its close proximity, the shirt fabric.

Vests, on the other hand, are cut away at the armpit and allow the body's natural cooling system to function effectively. From a user's point of view, it is divine.

And now we come to what I suspect is the nub of the issue.

Some women find it amusing that the straps of a vest can be spied through a shirt when a chap's jacket is removed. Moreover, they are happy to point this out.

I wonder how the average female would react if a man were to remark: 'I can see your bra straps through your blouse. That's so funny!'

How they would laugh.

Let us not forget that bras and vests share common ground in the minefield of human sexuality -they conceal forbidden flesh.

Janet Jackson did her best to promote the cause of the nipple when she exposed her right breast at the US Super Bowl. But in general terms, rightly or wrongly, we don't tend to do nipples, male or female, in polite company.

The bra, and the vest, are the next best thing, to be seen, admired even, but certainly not spoken about in open conversation.

I would not dream of drawing attention to a woman's nipples, or her bra, and similarly I do not expect a woman to draw attention to my nipples, or my vest. If they do, then I suspect they may have ulterior motives.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 24, 2004
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