The L.L. Bean Sport Vest

Is it a vest? Is it a jacket? Who knows- it’s rad as hell though. Maybe even trad, given the maker.

Introduction

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, the appeal of collecting and wearing vintage is to get access to details you can’t get anywhere else. This can apply to a variety of things, from the shape of a fedora and a spearpoint collar (no, regular point collars don’t count) to hollywood waists and short length sweaters. Incorporating some of these details was a great way to be into classic menswear while still remaining interesting and perhaps a bit contrarian.

Obviously many of these details can (at the very least) be approximated. With bespoke makers like Wellema Hat Co. and Ascot Chang, I’ve been able to create the fedora and shirts (oh and a suit) that really fit my aesthetics. Other times we can simply thank brands who take pride in recreating vintage designs in RTW, like SJC for their spearpoint polos, LVC for jeans, and Bryceland’s for sawtooths. In terms of leather jackets, Himel Bros. and Monsivais (their cossack jacket is dope), reign supreme for that vintage look.

But as we all know, like in the case of milsurp or workwear, nothing beats true vintage for the rarer details. And they tend to creep up on you when you’re out shopping or even just looking at inspo. That’s initially how it worked for me on spearpoint collars, noticing them in vintage photographs, and later on how it worked for those P44 military chinos- the wide legs and hip-patch pockets are definitely not common place.

Sometimes you can’t wait around for a brand to “get it”. You just need to find the true vintage piece to immediately obtain those details. And that’s how it worked for me and the L.L Bean Sport vest.

The Vest-Jacket

I’m not actually sure when I saw this first. Spencer maintains he saw a variation at Inspiration LA a few years ago but we didn’t know what it was called; I think I vaguely remember this story. What I do remember for sure was seeing the above picture of Kenji post on Instagram back in 2017, wearing what appeared to be a tan workvest with a micro buffalo plaid (in houndsooth?) shirt underneath. However, I was a bit mistaken.

As it turns out, he was wearing a white OCBD underneath the vest! That meant that this garment wasn’t a typical vest all, but a vest-jacket- in other words, it was a waistcoat with contrasting sleeves. While this short length, collarless jacket may be a bit odd for some, it was something I had seen a bit before in early 20th century workwear, especially for European vintage. The following pictures were taken recently, but Spencer and I had seen similar pieces in the past. And as you can expect, they were rare and very expensive.

What was special about the jacket Kenji was wearing wasn’t only the inteesting design but the specific two-tone combination of the fuzzy tan body and the flannel(?) red plaid sleeves. It had the makings of an icon, similar to the greens of an OG-107 or the blue of a classic French chore coat, just on a piece that seemed to be incredibly scarce.

Upon closer looks through my archives over the years, it appeared that Ethan Newton also had the same vest-jacket. It almost snuck past me, since he tends to wear it under tailoring and outerwear. The giveaway for me was the snap buttons and rounded quarters- this vest doesn’t have the typical curved points you see tend to see on typical waistcoats. Yet another point of intrigue for me on this cool and infrequently seen garment.

I next saw it being worn by Brian Davis of Wooden Sleepers around late 2018. He’s worn it a few times since, with the most prominent being shown during his interview by Lulu for her blog Outfit Dissecting last year. Her amazing photographs helped me see the details, as I had only see it posted on his stories prior to that blog post.

I must have asked him about it at some point last year (or the year before), as this was when I finally learned that it was an L.L. Bean “Sport Vest”. It was a fun hunting design that always featured a two tone design and it largely unchanged over the years, from the 1930s-1960s (presumably)- his was from the 1950’s. Snap closure is used instead of regular buttons, which is quite odd, yet cool to me. Perhaps that’s why this garment is rare and coveted by those in the know!

Love the fuzzy body and rounded pockets. The red-black houndstooth really makes this into an iconic garment.

As he states in that interview, it looks remarkably close to old 1930s-1940s Brown Beech vests. I can definitely see that in the design, with the big quadruple patch pockets and rounded points. It’s also very close to the SJC workvest, which is really what I like from utility vests. I now had enough information to being a proper search.

As you can see, the Sport VEst is very similar in design to Browns Beach vests.

I knew I wanted one, not simply because of my growing interest in vests, but because I love short-jackets. It would be a welcome addition to my wardrobe, being different than the chore coats, jungle jackets, and leathers I typically wear. The Sport Vest is its own thing that seems like it would go great with tailored and casual looks.

This 60’s version was sold for the Todd Synder x Wooden Sleepers collab. Note the three buttons and very short length compared to the sleeves. It really illustrates how this is supposed to end at the natural waist.
The subtle back flap prevents your shirt (or ass) from sticking out.

Obviously you guys know that I love to find references to whatever I’m into, but let me tell you, this one was heard. I unfortunately couldn’t find any photographs of people wearing this elusive vest-jacket but what I could find was a few vintage catalog scans. There aren’t as many archives of L.L Bean as there are of Apparel Arts (which I feel like I’ve seen almost all of), though here is what I got from the 1930’s.

From 1933. Note the plain sleeves.
Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Then began the shopping search. As you could expect, “L.L. Bean Sport Vest” didn’t really bring anything fruitful on eBay or Etsy; this was because the label on these vests simply had the brand’s name with no reference to the moniker given in the catalogs. I widened my parameters so simply “plaid L.L. Bean vest” and combed over the pages to see if anything had been mislabeled. Sure enough, a few were, but they weren’t in my size- I guess I just had to keep my eyes open.

A random one I saw during a deep dive on Google Images.
A 1950’s one and a 1960’s (or 70s) variation. Shame they stopped making this.

The Sport Vest did come up a few times in person, like at the Rose Bowl or in person at Monsivais & Co (who used to sell vintage in addition to his custom headwear), but they were also too large. I also vaguely recall seeing it at the most recent Inspiration LA, where it was both too big and far too expensive.

A nearly-serendipitous moment happened when I was at the Zebulon Bazaar, a small pop-up vintage market started by our pal Garret of Western Gifts. One of the sellers there had a typical local spread of grandpa clothing and books. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that one hanging piece had the striking black-and-red houndstooth. I immediately pulled it out to try it on…and it was much too small. The tag was marked a 36 and so it went to MJ, who has worn this $50 vest-jacket well. Quite a steal, considering the rarity of the garment!

I started to doubt whether I’d have my own chance at wearing this garment.

My Vest

One lucky day, after one of our bi-weekly streams, I decided to hop on eBay for yet another attempt- this was something I had done every few weeks, just in case. Nothing. I decided to also try Etsy, as its a good place for slightly more curated vintage. To my surprise, I found two.

The one I passed on was marked a size 44 and yet had a pit-to-pit measurement of 20″. This would fit me like a sportcoat (maybe a slightly snug one), but I passed on it because it had only three buttons and were very spaced out. It’s not terribly bad, though I knew I preferred the classic vest aesthetic which typically uses five buttons or so. After all, that is what the ones from the catalog looked like; I assume the ones with less buttons came later, after the 1950s.

I ended up getting one that had the appearance I was after- five buttons included. This Sport Vest was marked a size 38 and had a pit measurement of 19, which meant that this would fit the way a waistcoat should: snug and form mitting, but not too much. The heftier wool would actually stretch and contort to our figure, which is probably why vintage waistcoats fit close to the body and never felt uncomfortable.

It cost $150, which is a hefty price for vintage (I haven’t bought vintage in a while), but a good one when compared to the curated listings I had seen before. As a bonus, I saw that this listing had free returns, so why not!

To my surprise, the vest came rather quickly (bought Wednesday night, came in on Monday). The fit was quite snug as I expected, being one size bigger than MJs (which could not close at all); it had been a long time since I had worn such a close fitting waistcoast (though it was the end of summer, so don’t blame me).

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The length, as you can see, is quite short, echoing again what vintage waistcoats were cut like. The only difference between this Sport-Vest and a 1930’s waistcoat however, is the lack of points on the front quarters. Sport-Vests have a nearly squared away front with the faintest semblance of a rounded edge. This is what points to them being remarkably close to the cut of a Brown’s Beach vest, though the Sport Vest is clearly shorter in the body length.

It’s clearly meant to have all the buttons fastened, as per the catalog images, but I rather like it with only the top ones done- that is how all the other guys did it. It definitely makes the tailored connotations clearer, though it also makes the jacket look more interesting (and fit more comfortably I might add).

It did make me wonder if Kenji, Ethan, and Brian had sized up, considering how short mine is on me- I did like that, as this silhouette emphasizes a snug torso and a high waist. Makes it perfect for that classic tailored vibe that I’m always after.

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My first outfit with it is rather standard and one that I think will be the go-to “uniform” for it. I didn’t want to just revert to plain OCBDs and knit ties (like I saw on Kenji or that I had done here with the SJC two years ago), so instead, I went with a turtleneck. A plain tee (like navy or grey) would have worked well too, but I opted for the turtleneck since its finally getting just a wee bit cold here in LA.

Wide legged military chinos would have been the move, but to subvert what I thought a regular milsurp-workwear enthusiast would wear, I chose my slightly tapered military chinos from Uniqlo that I raw hemmed. It makes for a slightly edgier look that I really enjoy. Instead of white socks, I wore dark grey to add in a “grandpa menswear choice” and then immediately brought it back to rakish vibes with suede tassel loafers.

Obviously a regular person isn’t going to notice these things.

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For a slightly more tailored look, I decided to bring in more of a 1930’s look. I didn’t let the houndsooth arms stop from wearing my trusty (and only) checked spearpoint shirt, which has always had a more rustic charm than my typical blue stripes; the main body is plain, after all. A striped tie and grey flannels brings in that ivy, country-club aesthetic while the fun retro bluchers add in some character.

If you’re wondering, yes, the Sport Vest does work under tailoring (or a jungle jacket or chore coat), but it’s not the best. I don’t particularly like how the flannel sleeves catch on other sleeves and the hefty weight and fuzzy texture of the body don’t really play well with typical sportscoats. A tweed may work, but I think it might be overkill; I’d rather just layer sweaters if I’m concerned about being warm. Its just fine under an overcoat though!

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A “country” look with some navy cords, an OCBD, and a British checked wool tie.
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EDIT: 11/24/20

Apparently Orslow has made their own version of this sport vest. Called the “woodsman”, it’s made of a wool-blend and has a more accessible fit- longer length and wider body. Friends say you should try to use Yahoo! Japan Auctions or search on other Japanese reseller sites to try to get it. Good luck.

Conclusion

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The L.L. Bean Sport Vest really is a cool garment. With it’s lack of collar, two-tone nature, trim fit, and snug length, its a perfect combination of vintage workwear and tailoring (though back then, the relationship was closer than you think). It’s such a different type of casual jacket that contrasts sharply against typical chore coats and utility vests that seem to be popular now.

Like the spearpoint collar or belt backs, I hope that this design gets its chance to be reproduced. It seems so simple to add arms to a utility vest (I’m looking at you Monsivais), though maybe a slight cotton-flannel would be more in the L.L Bean vein. Perhaps Bryceland’s is working on it as we speak- I wouldn’t be surprised! I personally think its a flattering garment that’s perfect for guys who also want to skirt the line between casual and tailored.

Though I think that embracing the natural waist for vests, waistcoats, and leather jackets needs to come first. For now, good luck searching for this rare garment. It’s a good one.

Always a pleasure,

Ethan M. Wong

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