Simply The Vest: How The Humble Tank Top Became A Queer Fashion Staple For Generations

freddie mercury white tank top at live aid
How The Tank Top Became A Queer Fashion StapleMirrorpix

Wembley Stadium, Saturday July 23, 1985. Queen perform at Live Aid and out of all the flamboyant, show-stopping outfits frontman Freddie Mercury could have chosen, he wore a simple white vest.

The vest, otherwise known as a tank top among our US contemporaries, has always stood for so much more than its original purpose as an undergarment, and its popularity should not be mistaken for simplicity. Almost 40 years after Live Aid, it steadfastly remains as a staple for musicians, actors and creatives of every gender and sexuality, not to mention it holds a tight grip on the fashion industry.


Mercury isn't the only music icon with ties to the queer community that's associated with the humble vest. Think Whitney Houston’s self titled album cover, the music video for Lady Gaga’s debut single Just Dance (naturally, revealing a disco ball bra underneath), Jennifer Lopez at the 2000 VMAs, and not to mention it being the unofficial uniform of British band WHAM!.

london, united kingdom october 28 george michael of english pop duo wham performs on stage at hammersmith odeon on october 28th, 1983 in london, united kingdom photo by pete stillredferns
Pete Still

From music to movies, the white vest has become the benchmark item for male pin-ups and empowered female characters alike. Rife with its themes of sexuality, the classic film A Streetcar Named Desire helped popularise the white vest, and its macho leading man Marlon Brando admitted to having homosexual relations decades after the film’s release.

Critics have viewed Ridley Scott’s Alien as an allegory on gender for decades, with Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley being undoubtedly queer-coded. From one sci-fi legacy to another; before the release of The Matrix franchise, trans sisters The Wachowskis (then brothers Larry and Andy) released the iconic 1996 lesbian film Bound, and on the film poster? You guessed it - a white vest.

american actress sigourney weaver on the set of alien, directed by ridley scott photo by sunset boulevardcorbis via getty images
Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Ridley Scott’s AlienSunset Boulevard

More recently there has been the intensely camp Magic Mike franchise, which sees frontman Channing Tatum don the white vest with body oil aplenty, Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft and Fast and Furious’ Letty align with bisexual sartorial tropes too, both dressed in white vests. Even the 'girliest' stereotype of them all, Mean Girls' Regina George, sported the vest, complete with purple bra cutouts courtesy of Lindsay Lohan's character Cady Heron (significantly in the 2024 remake of the franchise, George’s character was played by lesbian actor Renée Rapp). Wherever you land on the spectrum – be it macho, twink, butch, femme – the vest has been there, done that and got the T-shirt (well, vest).

The cyclical nature of popular culture means that the vest found itself taken off the screen and onto the streets, with iconic Levi’s adverts and seminal fashion campaigns from the likes of Calvin Klein and Gucci encouraging mass consumption of the garment. The white vest became zeitgeist again after the AW22 show season. Bottega Veneta offered an upscaled take with jeans, igniting the normcore trend to its most uber-luxe capabilities. Trans model and actor Hunter Schafer propelled it into the stratosphere at Prada when she closed their runway show, while Loewe took note of the hype with a bestselling monogrammed version.

a person walking on a runway

Never has an item of clothing so simple been so impactful. For AW24, brands such as Carven, Eckhaus Latta, Schiaparelli and Stella McCartney are still spotlighting the white vest and its grip over the elite luxury sector remains omnipotent. The industry has far to go in regards to body diversity, particularly on the catwalks, but it is vital to remember the universality of the garment to the masses.

a person wearing a white tank top
Stella McCartney AW24Isidore Montag

'Wearing a white vest makes me feel strong and sexy,' model Florence Huntington-Whiteley tells ELLE UK. 'It’s fluid and flexible, just like queer people. It’s the perfect piece to make an outfit feel more masculine or feminine; I like to tap into those energies and styles depending on how I’m feeling that day.'

Just how it can be worn by any gender or sexuality, the white vest can be worn by any body type, too. Its wearability, paired with an accessible price point (unless you’re investing in a designer iteration, of course) means that, more so than tricky subjectiveness of denim, the white vest is arguably the world’s most inclusive piece of clothing. It can be worn as an everyday undergarment piece as much as an casual top, or in the case of Nadine Noor, founder of Pxssy Palace, it can be a political statement.

'The white vest been used a symbol of protest and liberation within LGBTQ+ history and has always been a powerful tool of self expression,' comments Noor. 'It has been symbol of masculinity and working class culture since the 1940s, reclaimed by lesbians in the 1980s and now - we want to signal to each other that we are queer. We want to take things that are traditionally masculine and reclaim them for ourselves, in new gender expansive ways, across the spectrum of queerness.'

The white vest is dynamic and moves with the times to reflect the world around it. Its changeability allows room for interpretation for the wearer; be it them choosing to follow the catwalks or to make a sociocultural stance. The irony lies in the fact that, the most loaded item of clothing to wear this Pride might not be a rainbow flag, rather a plain white vest.

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