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It was inevitable. Anything worn in high school and college seems to have returned to the fashion scene. This past spring my middle-school-aged daughter asked for a sweater vest. I knew by the time the seasons changed, sweater vests would be commonplace at all retailers. But how to style a sweater vest as a grown-ass woman? I already did the '90s version, and I have no desire to wear an oversized vest covered in strawberries with torn “mom” jeans and platform Chucks a la my kid. Here's how to style a sweater vest in a way that is sophisticated yet fun, practical yet stylish, and perfect for us grown-ass women.
Revisiting Past Fashion Trends As an Adult
The key to re-wearing a trend from your past is not to be literal. Flip through your photos (because we, thank goodness, didn't have social media or smartphones back then) and you'll see you wore sweater vests with shrunken “baby” tees, oversized button-front shirts (likely stolen from your male relative or scored at the thrift store), and often as the sole garment on the top half of your body.
You may also remember sweater vests as part of a uniform. Paired over turtlenecks or oxford shirts, these were assigned by your school, or maybe just the default uniform of a certain group of folks in your grade who identified as preps, brainiacs, etc. Often these were argyle or a Fair Isle pattern or a solid color embroidered with a crest over the heart.
Just because a garment held a certain type of “vibe” or aesthetic decades ago doesn't mean it still does. That being said, if you have absolutely NO desire to revisit the sweater vest trend, you don't need to. As a grown-ass woman, you wear whatever the heck makes you happy, and if revisiting a trend doesn't make you happy, leave it in the past. Nothing is more stylish than trusting yourself.
But also… unless it's your personal style aesthetic you don't want to wear sweater vests in the same manner as they were worn the last go-round. The key is to make the trend feel fresh and new, with only a subtle hint to the past.
Good thing most retailers that cater to a range of ages are styling sweater vests in a way that is modern with a classic lean. Similar, yet different from the '90s and very wearable in a variety of settings and a range of personal style aesthetics and body types.
How to Style a Sweater Vest as a Grown-Ass Woman
Clean and Classic
If you wish to dip your toes into the sweater vest trend this season, I recommend starting simple. The original way I saw sweater vests this season (beyond the strawberry oversized one my daughter HAD to have) was in a pale neutral like cream or oatmeal. It had a crew, mock, or turtleneck. It was a boxy but not oversized fit, and it hit anywhere from just below the waist to tunic length.
Depending on the weight of the knit, the sweater vest was sometimes half-tucked or just had the waistband folded over to give the appearance of being tucked in. For tips on how to tuck in a sweater, check out this article.
Styling for fall and winter, the sweater vest was usually styled over a white top. If the sweater vest had a lower neck, it was often a crisp white button-front shirt (this is my absolute favorite white shirt – no iron and great for curves). If the vest had a higher neck like a mock or turtleneck, it sometimes was styled over a fitted knit top like a turtleneck or long-sleeved t-shirt.
If it was a button-front shirt, the collar is popped to peek over the neckline, but isn't properly folded over as we did for uniforms in the past. The hem of the shirt can be left untucked and it's okay to have it peek out from the bottom of the sweater vest. In fact, a popular look this season is a sweater vest the length of a tunic or short dress with an elongated white shirt peeking out creating an above-the-knee dress effect that can be worn with tights, leggings, or tall boots.
As for the bottom half, anything goes. This concept looks great styled with faux leather leggings, with slouchy cuffed chinos or cords, and denim of most any cut and wash. I would hesitate styling with a short or knee-length skirt because that feels too close to a uniform or the way we styled sweater vests in the past. If skirts are a must for your personal style, I'd recommend going with a midi-length gathered style in a solid neutral in the same color family with boots to achieve a bit of a boho/academic vibe.
Shop Neutral Sweater Vests to Achieve This Look:
Like my daughter's strawberry-printed sweater vest, patterned sweater vests are a hot look this season. While there are a few traditional argyle and Fair Isle print sweater vests on the market, the majority of patterned sweater vests this season are playful, colorful, quirky, and fun.
A printed sweater vest can be fitted and cropped, slouchy and hanging past the bum, and everything in between. Looking online, you will see this sweater vest trend worn by all genders and in a range of personal style aesthetics.
The bolder prints are often paired with a white shirt underneath to let the pattern take the spotlight. This is where your personality can shine through. Pair a pastel striped vest with a pale pink blouse with puffed sleeves. Rock that leopard print with a classic white crewneck tee. Mix a graphic printed vest with a floral or striped button-front shirt.
You can also style it in the same way as you would the neutral vest and white shirt, though don't be afraid to switch out a classic white shirt for one of unique fabric, with interesting details like bishop sleeves or ruffled shoulders, or choose a print or solid color.
Shop Patterned Vests to Achieve This Look:
Pop of Color
If you like the clean look but prefer some color and aren't on the pattern play train, there is a sweater vest look for you too! The most popular way to wear a solid-colored vest of any color is over a white button-front shirt, but a classic blue pinstripe or a print incorporating the color of the vest is also a great choice.
If your vest is more tailored in fit, consider playing with volume with bishop sleeves, an oversized collar, or having the shirt hang out below the vest's hem. If you like the look of a vest to replace your top, play with volume by pairing with wide-leg pants, baggy jeans, or a fuller midi-length skirt.
Shop Colorful Vests to Achieve This Look:
The Sweater Vest Trend: Styling Tips
These days, you can totally rock any trend in any way that makes you happy. Gone are the days where you have to adhere to rigid fashion “rules” to look stylish. If you're thrilled sweater vests are back so you can recreate looks you wore or wanted to wear in the past, go for it. You'll look amazing. But if you want some basic guidelines on how to style a sweater vest for here and now, this list is for you:
- You can't go wrong with a white shirt. Take that white shirt that gapes at the bust, the one that is a hair too long, or the one from your partner's closet and wear it untucked under your sweater vest. Have a few buttons unbuttoned at the collar for a relaxed look, or button all the way up and pop the collar so it peeks out of a higher neckline. Wear the cuffs down and buttoned, or down and unbuttoned; if you cuff keep it very clean and with the sleeves wrist to bracelet length for a modern (and weather-appropriate) effect.
- A white t-shirt is a classic. Whether it's a traditional unisex fit, a shrunken style with cap sleeves, or fitted with long sleeves, a white t-shirt is a good base layer to let your sweater vest be the focal point of your ensemble.
- Keep accessories simple. Whether it's a cream sweater vest with a white shirt or a purple polka-dot vest over a plaid blouse, let the vest take the spotlight. No necklace is needed, and unless it's your signature style, earrings can also be smaller and more subtle.
- Play with volume. If you're wearing a more fitted vest, consider balancing it with a higher volume pant or skirt. Longer vests look great with skinny jeans, faux leather leggings, or tights with tall boots. Don't be afraid to pair your sweater vest with a top that has statement sleeves or a more ornate collar.
- Thrift it! While you may not wish to revisit the exact look you may have worn a few decades ago, that doesn't mean you can't find a vest at the thrift store that will achieve the exact effect you want in 2022. Check out the men's section where you may find more square/boxy cut vests in solid colors that will give you the modern sweater vest trend that's so hot right now.
What do you think of the sweater vest trend? Do you plan on rocking it this season? I'd love to hear how you plan to style a sweater vest or how you've already incorporated one into your existing wardrobe!
Hi, this article was helpful – thank you! I really like the look of a patterned vest over a white or blue, but I’ve just tried a fairisle one that just looks so boxy… Despite the bright pattern, it looks like I’m wearing bulletproof riot gear! I didn’t want it to be too snug around the stomach area, especially as I expect the wool to shrink, but it just makes me look huge. Do you have any tips for women with fuller busts on how to wear these – maybe stick to v-necks only?
Alison Gary says
I have done crewnecks but I like a textured fabric so the bulk looks like the sweater not me. I also do solids with my large bust, and non-banded bottoms so they have better drape.
I’d love a sweater vest, just need to decide which color(s). Of course I love the basic neutrals -black, gray, khaki and navy. I’m 5′ 1″, 110lb, 65 yrs young with a silver pixie haircut. Which 2 or 3 colors should I get?
Alison Gary says
I’d go with navy, and then a soft neutral like khaki, camel, cream.
My kid (13) scored a vintage argyle men’s sweater vest at Goodwill. He wears it with a plain white t-shirt underneath, and it is SO cute. I do love argyle, but so far I have limited myself to socks and a scarf. Maybe I will look for a sweater!
Book Goddess says
I adore sweater vests and wore them like mad the last time around. I actually think they are flattering as long as the contrast with your bottom garment isn’t too high.
Having said that, I haven’t found anything in the more recent versions which suit me. But I will keep looking!
I am surprised at how much I like the offwhite and white look, even though I rarely wear those colors. I do have a black open front long sleeveless sweater I got for layering last year, I guess it is technically a vest. I will look at this pics again to get styling ideas for it, in theory it’d be an easy piece for me to mix in but since it is longer that what I typically wear it hasn’t been as easy as I expected.
I am going to knit myself one, but I’m wary of a vest making my bust look matronly 🙁
You really found some great vests! I was very into a preppy look for a while in the 90’s & had so many sweater vests with matching cardigans. So. Many. I love the look of a vest over a button down shirt—those options from Boden are my favorites (but not the prices). A few months back, I ordered the inexpensive one from Target in cream, thinking it would be a fun way to revisit the look but for little money. It looked terrible on me; not sure if a different size might have helped but it was returned instead. Now, you’ve got me thinking about these vests again!
I bought the cropped houndstooth one from the plus department at Nordstrom and just couldn’t figure out how to wear it. I tried a black turtleneck but with my LE activewear pants it just didn’t look right. Since I don’t wear denim or leggings, I returned it.
Alison Gary says
I think the houndstooth one is SO cute but really hard to wear. I have found turtlenecks with vests feel a bit too 4th grade school picture or the NPR characters on SNL, even though I usually LOVE turtlenecks. I ordered myself a solid colored one and will try to style it and share my experience here soon!
Jill Sheehan says
I am old enough for the adage, “if you wore it the first time, don’t wear it the second time around” and in my case the THIRD time around. However, you have rocked the updated version. Sweater vests were never really in my wardrobe but I love the looks you featured. I may try this in my old age. (as in old enough to be your mom). The looks shown are really sharp and classic. Thanks!
Alison Gary says
I used to follow that adage, but now I’m like… the ways trends are so cyclical if I stuck to that I wouldn’t be able to wear anything by time I was 60! I just try to wear it differently from the first go round so it feels fresh. You should try it, you may love it!
This is a great round-up. Love your thoughts and suggestions. My daughter’s just a little older (15) than yours and absolutely rocks the sweater vest look with a funky androgynous vibe. I’m *thinking* about trying it again myself. The last go-round for me was high school. One particularly memorable iteration? I’m wearing it solo with nothing underneath it, a mouth full of braces, and … wait for it … a mullet. In fairness, it was called a bi-level then and it was the shizz. The whole look in its entirety is quite something.
Alison Gary says
LOL I love this description! My last vest was worn with a baby tee, cuffed denim shorts, and butterfly clips!
I’m a different generation so I don’t have that high school reference.
I like sweater vests, particularly cotton ones. I have a small chest so a bit of volume with the vest is acceptable.
There was a cute one at American Eagle this weekend that I was thinking about – cream with a denim blue border. Would look good with a long-sleeved top now, and cute later by itself or over a tank.
I have a wool one my Mom knit me that’s wonderful under a cardigan – warm torso, arms free of floppy sleeves.
The long belted ones are nice too, but dressier.
My WFH office is not all that well heated so that extra layer is nice.
Well, you made it as palatable as possible, but I’ll pass on this “trend,” which is, as you said, just a repeat of a previous one. I do like the tunic length, loose vests you feature, but in general, vests create a horizontal line across a wide part of the body, and IMO, it’s not attractive.
Ack! I had no idea sweater vests were back. Good thing, because that first pic is giving me MTM vibes. Thanks for the reminder that I’m old. j/k.
I’d pass on this trend anyways as I’ve started running warm, not cold, & need to stick to cardigans so I can adjust layers easily as needed.
Ann Marie says
I bought two from target this fall so I could try the trend again without committing too much. One is off white with a high crew neck and one is black and white with a v-neck (I think your daughter has that one). I wear the white one to work over a long sleeved navy t shirt with a navy blazer on top and grey dress pants when it is cold out. I have worn the v-neck one over a black turtleneck with black pants. Given my age (40), I try to keep it more conservative and professional looking because wearing it like the “kids” will just look weird on me.