“The King hath yesterday in council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how”
– Samuel Pepys October 1666
Single-breasted or double-breasted. Silk, tweed or brocade. With collar or revers or without, and worn as part of a suit or casually with your favorite jeans, the waistcoat can be worn in a number of ways. A versatile item in your wardrobe, they are all essentially the same. The gentleman’s staple. The waistcoat (or vest to my American friends).
I am and always have been a fan of the waistcoat (as you’ve no doubt guessed from my Instagram feed) and I am a dedicated champion of its use and versatility. Waistcoats played a big part in my teenage outfits during the 80’s accompanied by a vintage trench coat, baggy jeans and brogues and the obligatory ‘flat top’ haircut.
Now, after a short period of perceived absence (they’ve been around but with a more subdued presence) where they seem to have been shunned and put at the back of peoples wardrobes, or donated to charity shops, I’m really pleased to see that they’re now back in a big way. Before we go on and look at the ins and outs of these fancy waist warmers, let’s look at how it came into being.
History Of The Waistcoat
I’m very proud to announce that the waistcoat is a British concept. Created by King Charles II sometime between the start of his reign in 1630 and a written exclamation by Samuel Pepys of the Kings intentions to make the vest a permanent fixture for the fashionable man in 1666.
Deciding it should be a part of every mans attire the King set about ensuring his desires were implemented. Oh to be king for a day! The burning of nylon and velour tracksuits would be my first command! Promptly followed by the shredding of the ill fitting grey suit.
The term ‘waistcoat’ is derived from the cutting of the cloth used to make them, as prior to their invention British tailors would cut the cloth for a coat much longer than that of a waistcoat.
At this time in history, a gentleman’s attire was considerably elaborate, incorporating the finest silks and lace, buttons and trims and embellishments of various natures and cut from a wealth of differing cloths in an array of colours. Colours were particularly vibrant as dye was expensive and used in excess to show off ones wealth. Waistcoats were often incredibly bright in colour and highly adorned, making it the centrepiece of a gentleman’s outfit. Think of the strutting male peacock!
Thankfully as men’s fashion evolved, the colours became much less gregarious and their design more subtle. While I’m happy to curate a few accessories in my ensembles, I think I’d struggle to make on of these older waistcoats work!
The nineteenth century saw a significant increase in the popularity of the waistcoat but colours were more subdued and they became somewhat shorter than their earlier counterparts and a little tighter too acting a like a corset, sucking in those extra inches. This evolved further to the point that gentlemen did wear true whale boned corsets under their waistcoats which followed a fashion for men to have small waists just as their wives and mistresses did, making them appear wider at the shoulders giving a masculine impression but with a small and elegant waist.
This was a time when not wearing a waistcoat was the exception. It was a staple item and a man without one was either too poor to buy one or not a man at all!
Moving onward from its ultimate heyday, the waistcoat plodded along into the 20th century and remained a well loved and accepted part of most men’s wardrobes. It was most popular as part of a 3 piece suit and made from wool, it kept men warm throughout the 20’s and 30’s when heating in homes was scarce and coal was relatively expensive for the average worker on a budget. As mentioned in my previous article on braces, the waistcoat at this time was used to cover a gentleman’s braces which were incredibly popular with the masses but deemed to be underwear and as such should not been seen outside the confines of ones home.
The waistcoat faded in popularity from here due to the introduction of the belt, negating the need for braces and therefore the waistcoat which covered them. This combined with an increase in popularity of the knitted sweaters and the rationing of cloth during the Second World War, it stopped being an essential and standard part of a mans attire. Men dressed more casually and adopted a less structured attitude towards fashion.
While the waistcoat has still had a presence throughout the ensuing decades (particularly in the 1970’s which saw denim and leather versions paraded down high streets) it’s also made more recent appearances in fashion during the last few decades, (Armani showed them on their catwalk in 2010 as did Dior in 2011) showing that it is a well loved and respected item and that designers are aware of this, making a concerted effort to ensure it isn’t forgotten entirely. While it’s never been as popular and never will be as popular as it once was. It will however remain one of those items that every man will wear at one point in their lives and a basic of a true gent like your good self and a wardrobe regular for me.
Types Of Waistcoats
Double Or Single Breasted?
Waistcoats are either double breasted or single breasted. Single breasted types have a single button fastening straight down the middle front usually with 4 or 5 buttons
Double breasted waistcoats overlap at the front and have 2 rows of parallel buttons. These are currently very popular with the steampunk movement, usually in a patterned satin. More commonly they are part of a 3 piece suit and should, in my opinion stay as such. Not being a huge fan of the double breasted waistcoat, I don’t even own one.
Double breasted waistcoats are most commonly seen at weddings, in various coloured silks or satin, embroidered or plain and worn with a cravat and tailed coat, harking back to centuries before when waistcoats were in their heyday.
While I think they do look good as part of a suit as they are very smart and add something slightly more unusual to the standard single breasted waistcoat, I’d never recommend wearing one as part of a casual ensemble because, for me, for the contrast between smart and casual is too much and it doesn’t work.
All of my waistcoats are single breasted, both new and vintage. As the vintage scene has got bigger so has the love for the waistcoat. It’s an item that has stood the test of time and it nods to days gone by, to the 1920’s and 1930’s when life was more gentile and gentlemen had real style. It’s easy to don a tweed waistcoat, and automatically adopt a vintage look but more on this later.
Due to their re-emergence as a staple item, the market has seen many different types become available. ASOS have a good range as do Topman along with Next and River Island, here in the UK. All selling a good range of styles and fabrics.
In addition, most high street stores are once again selling a high number of new suits with a waistcoat as standard. As a rule, the waistcoat for a 3 piece suit will be cut from the same cloth as the jacket and trousers, creating a smart and cohesive look.
Collars, Necklines, & Pockets
Some waistcoats come with a collar or rever. These are usually in the same fabric as the rest of the garment but they may also be in a contrasting fabric, adding a bit more interest. Collars are either pointed (peak or notch lapel) in shape like a standard jacket collar or have a curved shawl collar.
When fastened, the V at the neck may be quite high, showing only a small section of one shirt and tie (should you choose to wear one) you could wear a deeper V or even a wide deep scoop, seen in evening waistcoat and popularised in the 1920’s but still worn today at formal events. These are known as a ‘horseshoe’ waistcoat for obvious reasons and were favoured by Steve McQueen. Now there’s a reason to get one in your wardrobe if ever the was one!
Most waistcoats have pockets and it is rare to find one without any. The majority will have two at waist level (where one may store their pocket watch) and will be straight on the horizontal or slanted, dipping to the outer seam. A good deal of waistcoats are also incorporating a top pocket where you may wish to display a pocket square if you are without a jacket.
Above, left to right: A point collared waistcoat with a high V and 3 horizontal pockets, a shawl-collared waistcoat with a lower V and 2 slanted pockets both from River Island at £40.00 and a shawl-collared horseshoe evening waistcoat by Oliver Brown at £190.00. Contrast collar waistcoat with 3 pockets and contrast buttons and pocket watch chain by River Island £35.00
The Bottom Button
If there is one rule about wearing a waistcoat it’s that you should never, under any circumstances do up the bottom button. Aunt Maud is a staunch advocate of this rule and you will incur her considerable wrath if she ever sees you with the bottom button fastened. I have been on the receiving end of said wrath on more than one occasion (usually following my use of foul language and or tequila) and I assure you it is not pretty!
This long-established tradition is said to have begun when future Kind Edward VII became so fat that he either couldn’t do the bottom button up or because he couldn’t see past his considerable girth to see that it had been left undone. Assuming this was now the done thing, other members of court quickly adopted the same style and it promptly became the way to wear a waistcoat.
Another good theory is that it is to do with a gentleman’s comfort and the look of the waistcoat when riding one’s horse, eliminating unsightly creases from the article when upon one’s steed by undoing the bottom button.
There are other theories and nobody really knows for sure but my money is on King Edward.
Having said this, it only applies to single-breasted waistcoats. A double-breasted waistcoat should be fully fastened at all times.
Accessorizing Your Waistcoat
Traditionally, before watches were worn on the wrist a pocket watch would be worn on ones waistcoat, the watch being kept safe in a side pocket and the attached chain (known as an Albert chain) being fixed to a buttonhole by a T shaped fastening (known as a “t-bar”), making sure that the watch cannot be lost or stolen.
You can also add a pocket square (as mentioned above) Take your favourite square and fold however you wish before popping it into the upper breast pocket.
Lapel pins are also a fun item to add and can set you apart from the rest. Adding all of these items increases the personality of your waistcoat and takes it from a standard off the peg item to an extension of your personality, showing your creativity and individuality.
How To Wear A Waistcoat Rules & Tips
Next month I’ll show you some different looks with waistcoats but for now, bear in mind these few basic rules:
- Buy a waistcoat that fits. It should feel comfortable but fit your frame closely, not bagging under the arms because the chest size it too big or straining at the buttons because it is too small
- Avoid a belt. Traditionally belts were not worn with waistcoats. Wear button-on braces instead but if you must wear a belt make sure that the length of the waistcoat is sufficient to cover it.
- Vintage is just as good as modern
- Tighten the waistcoat at the rear and secure it properly so it does not hang loose
- An ‘horseshoe’ waistcoat should only be worn with a bow tie.
- NEVER do the bottom button-up on a single-breasted waistcoat