As with many things that exist in a background way and then almost overnight become inescapable — Elon Musk, say, or cauliflower buffalo wings — the men’s quarter-zip has snuck up on us.
Once mere workout gear, living its life modestly in polyester, it has crossed over — to royal alpaca, to suede trim, to the Italian luxury purveyor Loro Piana, where a cashmere quarter-zip sells for $1,190 and is part of the “Roadster collection” designed for vintage car enthusiasts.
Casual but also kind of fancy, comfortable but not sloppy, with a stand-up collar that can sometimes satisfy the dress code of the country club dining room, and a vibe that admittedly veers toward golf but manages to pull away just in time, it’s the rich guy’s way to look approachable, the approachable guy’s way to look rich.
The sweater sends a “social signal,” said Derek Guy, a prominent menswear commentator. “I don’t think guys explicitly buy it to look wealthier, but subconsciously, they recognize it’s slightly posh.”
Wherever you look, there it is. Zipping into the Longwood Medical Area on a scooter. Dining at waterfront restaurants. Riding the Acela from New York to Boston.
“It’s become acceptable business casual rather than a button-up shirt and tie for teachers” — the male version of the denim jacket, said Christina Young, a school psychologist from Wakefield who works in districts across the state.
In March, after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was photographed at his home in North Yorkshire in a quarter-zip, and Victoria Beckham posted an Instagram reel of her husband David Beckham making pancakes in one, the Guardian newspaper called the quarter-zip the “new status symbol for men of a certain position.”
The style has become so prominent it gets called out on social media. When Barack Obama went on Eli and Peyton Manning’s TV show after the Patriots played the Bears last October, he wore a quarter-zip in homage to the sibling quarterbacks’ signature look, and social media went bananas.
“Obama out-quarter-zipping the Manning Brothers,” @bykevinclark posted on what was then Twitter and is now X. “Quarter zip goats here,” wrote @jbbrisco.
The quarter-zip has its haters (more on its rep as the bland, corporate “Sweetgreen” of the garment world in a moment) but there’s no arguing with its popularity.
At Corporate Gear, a Rhode Island-based firm that sells corporate logo wear, a growing number of customers are ordering quarter-zips for clients and employees. One costs nearly $700.
The beauty of the garment, said McLean Shanley, vice president of sales, is that it looks professional on a Zoom from a home office, but not so professional that it’s absurd to wear in your own home.
“It fights the line between athleisure and corporate casual,” he said.
The rise of the quarter-zip sweater comes at a time when society as a whole is getting more casual, and the Senate has relaxed its dress code. Some men report the style is taking over their wardrobes.
Here’s how it happened for Brendan Clancy, president of a tennis club on Nantucket, almost without him quite noticing. Five years ago, he had a couple of quarter-zips that he wore for tennis or hiking, and now he has two dozen and considers them dinner party attire.
“I’ll send you a picture of my sweater closet,” he said.
In the South End, Kin Moy, a style coach and image consultant, and founder of Dapper Dangerous, traced the quarter-zip’s journey.
“There was a period, in the prepandemic teens, where the quarter-zip was seen as a half-assed way of dressing up,” he began.
“It was very typical for maybe a finance guy who wasn’t forced to go all the way to a suit or sport coat. As the teens progressed, we saw more going to their Patagonia vests, and the quarter-zip was seen as an old guy thing to wear.”
Every holiday, he added as an aside intended to show how dull the quarter-zip once was, “my fiancé’s family would gift each other a quarter-zip.” " ‘I’ll get him navy this year because I got him gray last year,’” he said, channeling the thought process.
But now, he said, there’s been a “rebrand.”
Alas, as avocado toast has proven, nothing gets this big without getting slapped down. The quarter-zip has yet to become as reviled as the infamous “tech bro” Patagonia vest. But it could be on its way, considering the creativity with which people aspire to insult it.
“The quarter-zip epitomizes the mediocre Boston man,” a thirty-something woman in the local dating scene told the Globe. “His name is Colby. He’s a real estate agent, and he’s drinking a beer at the airport bar right now.”