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FASHION : Vests Put Cool to the Test : Despite the heat, the garments from menswear win over women. But it's the multi-pocket version that may endure.

August 04, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the dog days of summer, as temperatures soar, feminine fashion proudly parades the vest.

This trend makes little sense--until you come to know fashion's rules, as we have. Some of its tenets are: You can't go wrong copying menswear. Form should not follow function. Weather doesn't count.

Even in Manhattan, the high court of fashion injunction, vest wearers are sweltering in the streets. Of course, they have the keen satisfaction of dropping to the pavement in style.

Actually, vests were launched last year as an accessory before the fact. But with summer's progress they have, like zucchini, come into their own with a vengeance.

Clubs, boardrooms and chili cook-offs are choked with women foregoing decolletage for the three-piece look--or, for vests over T-shirts, over long trailing shirts, or, less often, directly over underclothes.

In fact, we defy you to get through a local supermarket without encountering a vested woman.

To check the garments' universality, we surveyed Barbara Bowman stores in Ojai, and Target stores. At the former, vests accompanied almost half of the outfits in the shop. They come in tasteful earth tones in knits and embroidered fabrics, and tend to run into three figures. We were taken by a tweedy knit bolero number at $210, which is trimmed with unmatched buttons.

When we pointed out to sales associate B.J. Ray that vests didn't seem summery, he said, coolly, "We are suggesting them instead of a jacket."

He also said the latest trend is the long vest, sometimes teamed with short jackets and pants to create a three-tiered look. The thigh-length vest is appreciated by many women because, he said, "it hides certain critical areas."

At Target, in contrast, the vests were short and bold and less than $15. Tartan plaids were the tamest pattern, outnumbered by wild prints such as watermelon slices and sunflowers that would put Van Gogh to shame, and a peppy Flintstone number.

You can tell that a style has reached a universal phase when it has sub-plots such as these. We can picture vests becoming so common that, like neckties for men, they will be required for working at Fortune 500 companies.

Then, women's clothing could fade to neutral grays, browns and creams, and be worn for decades, saving countless hours of shopping. Only the vest would be routinely replaced, reflecting trends such as the daring see-through vest, alternating with swings to demure houndstooth button-to-the-collar models. Additional excitement could be added by raising and lowering vest hemlines.

Or, if these developments are too radical to gain favor, we can see another practical vest application, which somehow designers have overlooked.

This is so obvious, it will probably be out there next season--so, this amounts to a fashion scoop--no, make that a fashion innovation. And remember where you read it.

To begin with, women have a number of essential items they carry with them at all times, such as (but by no means limited to) car keys. They do not wish to stuff these objects into their hip pockets as men do. So, they are tied to a handbag, making them appear dependent and insecure.

Even with a shoulder strap, bags are hefty, awkward and vulnerable should their owners put them down to dance. To solve the problem, some women have turned to the kangaroo-ish belly pack--but we're thinking of something with a little more panache.

The answer is right under woman's collective nose--the vest!

There is no need to create a vest with pockets for valuables. Already on the market are versatile sports vests with room to spare for things the '90s woman totes. We found them at Sports Chalet in Oxnard in muted tones of khaki and olive.

Our favorite model had pockets enough for credit cards, checkbook, driving gloves and lunch, and also featured little sewn-on rings for hanging often-used items at the ready. Fishermen, it seems, like to use them for a line clipper and a tube of Fly Rise--a sort of silicone gunk that makes fishing flies float. We can imagine lots of things a woman might pinion to her chest: a road map; earphones, maybe a can of pepper spray.

Another nice feature is a woolly patch intended for hooking flies to one's chest. This would lend itself to attaching spare earring backs, or pinning those pesky parking stubs that tend to elude one at exit gates.

Khaki and olive happen to be big colors this season. But, should someone need a wider choice, Big 5 has similar hunting vests in Blaze Orange--an excellent choice for meeting someone in a crowd--or Mossy Oak, which is someone's clever term for traditional camouflage. This seems less useful in social situations, but it could come in handy for hostile corporate takeovers. Kind of intimidating--especially with the still popular combat boots.

So, why not go avant garde? These garments will no doubt rise in price when the new trend catches on. You can now get in on the bottom floor.

Remember, your hands will be free for those activities you have missed while lugging a purse: filling plates with canapes; catching fly balls in the stands; fending off passes in elevators. And, a particularly useful move in the weeks to come: adjusting sweatbands.

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