As a heterosexual woman over 30, I have been haunted by this photo of Jeff Bezos looking surprisingly swole since it appeared during the Sun Valley Conference last summer. I don’t want to get into it, and neither do you, but let’s all agree that his vest and aviators are definitely a LOOK.
Bezos’s vest showing off his sun-dappled biceps is perhaps the perfect example of what I’m calling the “Power Vest” — fleece or quilted vests that are favored by all kinds of bros: tech bros of Silicon Valley, finance bros of New York, sales bros and finance bros all over the country (I have no evidence that this is an international trend, and presumably this doesn’t apply to warmer parts of the US).
The Power Vest is practical and casual, yet it somehow enhances the illusion of a man’s professional competence, unlike, say, flip-flops. It’s a contradiction: It shouldn’t be office appropriate, and yet it’s ubiquitous.
I should clarify here I am speaking about vests worn by men. Yes, people of all genders people wear vests of all kinds. But this is a particular slice of bro culture. Women’s business attire has a whole different set of rules, even in these same industries. The Power Vest flaunts a very cruel male privilege: being comfortable.
Clothes send a message. The vests are not just a convenient warmth layer. There is meaning there. There are layers to this layer. The adoption of the vest by men who work in industries like tech and finance says something about this garment.
The vest means power. And as a lowly woman, I would like some power. Or at least to FEEL powerful — like a master of the universe, able to make snap decisions and be feared and respected by all I come in contact with. Which is why I decided I would wear a vest to the office for a week.
My first order of business was to decide what kind of vest to wear: fleece or quilted. I talked to my editors who are based in San Francisco, and they both emphatically said quilted, specifically Patagonia Nano Puff. But I was imagining a more dressed-up bro look — a fleece vest over a crisp white shirt and maybe even slacks and brown leather shoes.
I think here is the divide: West Coast tech bros always wear quilted fleeces, and East Coast finance bros still wear fleece.
It was clear I needed an impartial person who thinks really hard about different types of Power Vests and what they mean. It would be useless to ask the bros themselves, because everyone knows bros can’t be asked for opinions, at least not for articulate ones about fashion. So I reached out to possibly THE perfect expert for this: Eric Daman, the costume designer for the TV show Billions, which is about people who work at a hedge fund, but also about the depravity of toxic masculinity amplified by the excesses of money. Which is to say, a show loaded with Power Vests.
Daman has been a costume designer for Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, but he’s now become a Power Vest expert. “The ’80s Trump-world era thing was Armani suits, but after the  crash, people rejected that look,” he explained about the rise of the casual vest in the finance world. He said there was also a practical reason at finance firms for the look: “They keep the offices subarctic to keep the guys sharp.”
Not all Billions characters wear vests: The main character, Bobby Axelrod, never wears them (Daman explains his look is more of perfectly fitting Tom Ford tee) — and his lieutenant “Wags” sticks to suits, a kind of throwback to the precrash era. But one character on Billions, “Dollar” Bill, has been my fleece business vest inspo. “Dollar Bill always wears his Axe Capital [the name of the fictional hedge fund] fleece,” Daman said. He’s older, less hip, and notoriously cheap, hence wearing the free company swag. It’s also a statement of his character’s willingness to do anything for his boss. “I think out of devotion and honor that he chooses to only wear the fleece,” explained Daman. “It’s kind of like how the Scottish clans have their own tartan.”
Two other vest-wearing characters are also carefully chosen. One analyst, Ben Kim, who is younger, wears an Arc’teryx brand vest, made of a thin performance fabric, which is hipper and more youthful than a stodgy fleece or puffer. Another character, Everett, who was poached from another fund and therefore already has his own money, wears a Burberry vest to signal his higher financial status.
Indeed, I learned that vests can get quite expensive. That Jeff Bezos vest? It appears to be a $995 Ralph Lauren. You didn’t think Bezdaddy was going to slum around in a Patagonia, did you?
My vest budget was more limited. My editor informed me that BuzzFeed News was certainly not going to expense a $150 Nanopuff, so I decided to stick with something more modest: an L.L.Bean fleece vest I got as a teen in 1995 and was still at my parents’ house.
I was pretty into my first outfit: loose black jeans, off-white vintage button-down with a weird scene of a pond and ducks on the front, and of course, my vest. A jaunty masculine look. Looking in the mirror at home I saw a savvy businessperson. The Power Vest was working!
I got to the office and my deskmate, Joe, looked at me and said, “Nice vest. You know what you look like?”
“What?” I asked.
At midmorning I experienced a moment of extreme powerlessness. I noticed our floor was out of milk for coffee, so I went to grab a gallon from another floor. The BuzzFeed office has several floors, broken up by department. I sit on the news floor. I see these people every day, I know them, I don’t feel ashamed of wearing a relatively ugly vest around them. The next floor up, where I was getting milk, is where the fashion and lifestyle team sits.
All of a sudden I felt a deep sting of shame, aware of how utterly uncool I looked in front of these people who were dressed much more fashionably. It was that burning shame feeling of when you walk into a room of strangers and realize you’re extremely over- or underdressed. I wanted to scream “It’s for an article!” as a disclaimer, but that would’ve been very weird since no one was asking.
It was harder to figure out what kind of outfit to wear for day 2. I settled on a black button-down blouse with white piping and black jeans again. I don’t really think it worked quite as well — it seemed mismatched to have a casual vest over this dressier top. I didn’t feel powerful.
However, I did find that the vest was the perfect weight to wear under my light raincoat on a chilly April day. Useful!
My other deskmate, Davey, overheard me talking about my vest experiment and said, “Ooooh, I thought you just looked really bad this week for some reason. Like, your outfits just looked…awful.”
Dara, who sits across from me, also seemed relieved. “I was wondering why you were wearing that weird maroon and teal vest every day.”
This was not empowering at all, although I appreciated their candor. I’d also like to remind Dara, who is 23, that I acquired the vest when she was 1 year old.
I paired the vest with blue jeans and an olive green shirt that is pure polyester but kind of MAYBE can pass for silk (if you are very unaware of what real silk is), so is something that can be sort of dressed up a bit. This is a shirt I wear a lot, since it fits into my current personal style of “looks professional but is machine washable.”
At this point, I realized I just looked bad. Power levels were very low.
It was even colder, and I really struggled with what I could wear under the vest that would keep me warm enough. The vest was too bulky to fit under my warmer wool coat, and a sweater would be too hot once I got to the office. I settled on a black T-shirt with an aqua cardigan sweater. This was truly a terrible, horrible outfit.
Once I got to the office, I shed the cardigan and just went with the T-shirt. I can’t even really describe this outfit other than like spinster aunt horseback-riding instructor, but even worse.
After work, I went out for drinks with coworkers. I probably should have felt embarrassed for wearing a dorky fleece vest out in public (other than the office), but by this point I just didn’t care anymore and solely focused on enjoying some happy-hour-priced wine (I guess I’m cheap, like “Dollar” Bill).
The Power Vest was a complete failure. Instead of feeling powerful, I felt like a fucking dork. I’m not the most fashionable person in the world, but I like to look nice and I care about clothes. A good outfit can make me feel good, and wearing a blazer makes me feel professional. Looking like a total idiot in a shitty ‘90s fleece vest makes me feel like shit.
Week-long experiments about trying a new fashion or beauty routine are a staple here at BuzzFeed –”My Boyfriend Dressed Me for a Week and This Is What Happened” or “This Is What I Learned Going Makeup Free for a Week.” Typically, these have a happy ending, and the guinea pig comes away with a positive learning experience about self-acceptance or willingness to try new things. There was no happy ending to my Power Vest experiment. I came away more sure than ever that I needed to stay in the conventional lanes of “professional attire.” It’s easy to say you should dress for yourself, but you can’t also pretend that we aren’t all judged in the workplace for our clothing, and doubly so for women. If you find it tiresome to ponder what minute variations of men’s vests can mean for professional status, just imagine the war zone that is womenswear.
Dressing casually while still looking powerful and important at the office doesn’t really work the same for women. The Power Vest is a form of male privilege, a hideous fleece totem of the patriarchy’s oppression of non-cis-male people in the workplace. The Patagonia Nano Puff is complicit in the power structure that led to #MeToo.
The Power Vest’s power was out of reach for me. Not only did I feel like a slob, I had a less productive week at work than usual, and I blame the vest for that. I only hope that my journey into the vest life can help others. I suffered so that you don’t have to; I carefully considered the sociological elements of sleeveless outerwear so that you can comment “I can’t believe someone got paid to write this” in the comments. Yes, I am that brave journalist putting my life on the line to set the truth free. Thank you for your consideration of this for next year’s Pulitzers.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at [email protected].
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.