The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (2022)

The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (1)

Samual Pepys Diary Keeper

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

The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (2)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.

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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 Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (3)

Portrait of Augustus Keppel wearing an elaborate example of a waistcoat as seen in the National Maritime Museum

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.

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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.

The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (4)

The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (5)

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.

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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.

The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (6)

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

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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

The Waistcoat: History, Background, & How To Wear This Essential Garment (7)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:

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  • 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

FAQs

What is the origin of the waistcoat? ›

Today, waistcoats, or vests, are the essential third piece in the traditional three-piece male business suit. Historians can precisely date their origin to King Charles II of England (1630 – 1685), who introduced the vest to the English court as part of correct dress.

What was the purpose of a waistcoat? ›

The primary function of a waistcoat is to provide both a sense of depth and formality to an outfit. The best way to wear a waistcoat, therefore, is beneath the jacket of a suit.

When was the waistcoat first worn? ›

Unlike most garments or fashion accessories, the origins of the Western waistcoat can actually be dated pretty precisely. It was the English King Charles II who in October 1666 decreed it to be part of an Englishman's correct dress.

Who created the first fashion of waistcoats? ›

Who dreamed up the waistcoat? The waistcoat is a British invention. Its forerunner first appeared at Charles the Second's court during the 1660s, a garment that evolved from a simple sleeveless jacket.

What is a waistcoat in fashion? ›

“The waistcoat, or vest (as it is known in the United States), is a close-fitting sleeveless garment originally designed for men that buttons (or occasionally zips) down the front to the waist.

Why did people stop wearing waistcoats? ›

Wartime Fabric Rationing

Double-breasted suits were banned, lapels were made narrower, pockets were made less numerous, and, worst of all, turn-ups or cuffs were also banned. Fabric rationing during World War II also led in part to the decline of waistcoats.

When should you wear a waistcoat? ›

Formal. You can also wear waistcoats to more formal events, like parties, dinners and work events. Even if the events aren't black tie, a waistcoat adds an air of formality and ups your look. For these situations, choose single-breasted waistcoat styles in slick fabrics.

Why do waistcoats have Silk backs? ›

It all depends on preference whether you want to layer your waistcoat, but Permanent Style explains that the reason for its silky texture is “to allow easy wearing and removal.” The silk is meant to give the jacket an easy glide-off and easy slide-on — all for comfort, all for convenience.

What is another word for waistcoat? ›

What is another word for waistcoat?
vestjerkin
jackettunic
doubletbody warmer
gilet

What are waistcoats made of? ›

As previously mentioned, some of the most common materials used in the construction of men's suits include cotton, linen and wool. With that said, you can find waistcoats made of other materials as well, including velvet, tweed and even corduroy.

What are waistcoats usually made of? ›

Waistcoats can be single- or double-breasted, typically are made out of polyester, and usually have pockets in the front to hold various items, such as a pocket watch. Waistcoats may be double-breasted.

How do you style a waistcoat? ›

There are many different ways to style a waistcoat or vest. "Style it with jeans, wear it open over a mini dress, mix it with trousers or wear it formally with a suit.

What's the purpose of wearing a vest? ›

Vests not only protect the body from the discomfort of sweat but also add another layer to safeguard the outerwear from being in contact with the body. Did you know the term vest came from the French word “Veste”, which was translated to sports coat and jacket later?

What were 18th century waistcoats made of? ›

It was made of silk, and silver threads were used for the embroidery. What's special? The garment still has long sleeves, large pockets and is very long.

Are waistcoats fashionable? ›

Waistcoats are no longer the staple of stuffy businessmen in three-piece suits and hospitality staff handing out food on trays at weddings. It probably wasn't on your 2022 bingo card, but the waistcoat has come back in fashion for style-savvy women – and they're not like you know them.

How do you wear a long waistcoat? ›

Simply wear an oversize waistcoat over the top. Style Notes: For preppy styling, wear over a buttoned-up shirt. Add a miniskirt to keep the whole outfit fun. Style Notes: Layering a waistcoat over a shirt and skirt looks super chic.

Can you wear a waistcoat without a tie? ›

Yes, You Can Wear a Three-Piece Suit Without a Tie

Unless you're following a dress code that specifically calls for the use of a tie, you can omit this accessory from your three-piece suit.

Can you wear a waistcoat open? ›

Always leave the bottom button undone

The golden rule is to leave your bottom button undone. If you fail to do this, get carried away, and button all of the buttons up, than all the time you spent matching your tie, starching your shirt and polishing your shoes will have been a waste. Don't be a rookie, gents.

Can you wear a waistcoat to a wedding? ›

Waistcoats for weddings are almost compulsory if you wear a morning suit, but you can add an air of modernity and personality beyond the usual silver and cream men's waistcoats for weddings. Blue, red, green, or patterned are more and more common nowadays.

What is a man's waistcoat? ›

Both vest and waistcoat are garments covering the upper part of the men's body and shoulders. They are sleeveless and usually buttoned up. Waistcoat is always worn over a formal shirt and with a full suit. It features a number of buttons and is either single-breasted or a double-breasted.

Do you wear a belt with a waistcoat? ›

Never wear a belt

As mentioned in our 25 Tips to Dress More Elegantly, when you wear a vest, always skip the belt in favor of side adjusters or braces because a belt will always make your vest stand away from the trousers waistband, which looks bulky and crowded.

Where should a waistcoat sit? ›

It should fully cover the entire waistband of the trouser and never let any shirt fabric show in between. This means the trousers also need to be sitting on the natural waist. Gentlemen often leave the last button of a waistcoat unfastened to allow more room at the hips for movement and sitting.

Can we wear waistcoat on jeans? ›

Any waistcoat must be paired with a smart, collared shirt underneath. Whether it's plain, checked or striped is up to you but anything else makes the waistcoat look sloppy, which it is not! You should also only wear dark wash straight leg jeans with any waistcoat as light wash jeans look far too casual.

How many buttons should a waistcoat have? ›

The single-breasted vest is the most common choice. It is possible to choose a configuration from 3 to 6 buttons; the greater the number of buttons, the greater the formality level of the vest. A 3-button waistcoat will appear sportier and slimmer than an equivalent and more upright 6-button vest.

What is the difference between a vest and a waistcoat? ›

Waistcoat is always worn over a formal shirt and with a full suit. It features a number of buttons and is either single-breasted or a double-breasted. Vest, on the other hand, can be worn over button down shirts or without anything underneath (official rule, though we would not recommend trying it).

Do waistcoats have pockets? ›

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.

What is waistcoat called in English? ›

British English: waistcoat /ˈweɪsˌkəʊt/ NOUN. A waistcoat is a sleeveless piece of clothing with buttons, usually worn over a shirt. American English: vest /ˈvɛst/

What's a coat without sleeves called? ›

A gilet (/dʒɪˈleɪ/) or body warmer is a sleeveless jacket resembling a waistcoat or blouse. It may be waist- to knee-length and is typically straight-sided rather than fitted; however, historically, gilets were fitted and embroidered.

How much fabric is needed for a waistcoat? ›

FabricChest Size 36, 38 or 42"Chest Size 46 or 50"
Waistcoat
36" wide2 yards3 yards
44" wide2 yards2 yards
60" wide1 yards1-1/4 yards
10 more rows

What is a double-breasted waistcoat? ›

A double breasted waistcoat has two rows of buttons of 3 or 4 each row, giving it in my opinion a more elegant touch. Between the two, this one is more formal. For an everyday look a single breasted waistcoat worn with a shirt and a pair of chinos or even jeans is a safe bet.

Should a waistcoat have lapels? ›

Just like a suit jacket, you can opt for point lapels or peak lapels. You can also choose a waistcoat that comes with shawl lapels. However, by far the most common style is no lapels at all.

Are waistcoats lined? ›

Waistcoats have a lining on the back that will be on full show when you take off the jacket. Feel free to be bold with the colour and pattern, but make sure your shirt choice doesn't clash. 2. Always leave the bottom button undone.

Can you wear a waistcoat with a tuxedo? ›

The Tuxedo Cummerbund and Waistcoat

A classic black tie outfit features a cummerbund or a waistcoat. When you're wearing a one-button dinner jacket, you need one or the other to cover up your tuxedo shirt.

How do you wear a waistcoat dress? ›

Waistcoats have buttons down the front and you should always button them up, except for the bottom button. Traditionally, the bottom button is left undone and it's usually considered a fashion faux pas if you wear the vest otherwise.

How do you wear a waistcoat without a suit? ›

Although guys sometimes express interest in wearing a waistcoat with a t-shirt or without a jacket, the waistcoat's just too much of a jump from your casual clothes. So stay smartish with a shirt, tie, blazer, smarter trousers and leather lace-ups." Make sure your waistcoat's not shiny.

How do you fasten a waistcoat? ›

How To Properly Tie A Waistcoat - YouTube

Why do waistcoats have silk backs? ›

It all depends on preference whether you want to layer your waistcoat, but Permanent Style explains that the reason for its silky texture is “to allow easy wearing and removal.” The silk is meant to give the jacket an easy glide-off and easy slide-on — all for comfort, all for convenience.

What is the difference between a vest and a waistcoat? ›

Waistcoat is always worn over a formal shirt and with a full suit. It features a number of buttons and is either single-breasted or a double-breasted. Vest, on the other hand, can be worn over button down shirts or without anything underneath (official rule, though we would not recommend trying it).

Do waistcoats have breast pockets? ›

Waistcoats can be single- or double-breasted, typically are made out of polyester, and usually have pockets in the front to hold various items, such as a pocket watch.

What's the purpose of wearing a vest? ›

Vests not only protect the body from the discomfort of sweat but also add another layer to safeguard the outerwear from being in contact with the body. Did you know the term vest came from the French word “Veste”, which was translated to sports coat and jacket later?

What are waistcoats made of? ›

Waistcoats were made in all qualities of silk, cotton, wool, and linens. If adorned, it could be embroidered, printed, brocaded, quilted, tasselled, silver or gold laced, and was generally the most elaborate article of men's dress.

Is waistcoat necessary? ›

While not not necessarily an "essential" item in a men's suit, waistcoats have become increasingly popular over the past few years. They contour to fit the wearer's body shape, adding a unique element of style that's not found in other garments or accessories.

How do you style a waistcoat? ›

There are many different ways to style a waistcoat or vest. "Style it with jeans, wear it open over a mini dress, mix it with trousers or wear it formally with a suit.

What is another word for waistcoat? ›

What is another word for waistcoat?
vestjerkin
jackettunic
doubletbody warmer
gilet

Can a waistcoat be worn open? ›

One of those traditions is always leaving the bottom button of your waistcoat undone. Like always having one button unbuttoned on your jacket cuff it's hard to trace the origins of the practice, but somehow it just looks “right”. Leaving your waistcoat completely unbuttoned, however, is another matter entirely.

Can you wear a waistcoat without a jacket? ›

Although guys sometimes express interest in wearing a waistcoat with a t-shirt or without a jacket, the waistcoat's just too much of a jump from your casual clothes. So stay smartish with a shirt, tie, blazer, smarter trousers and leather lace-ups."

Where should a waistcoat sit? ›

It should fully cover the entire waistband of the trouser and never let any shirt fabric show in between. This means the trousers also need to be sitting on the natural waist. Gentlemen often leave the last button of a waistcoat unfastened to allow more room at the hips for movement and sitting.

How many buttons should a waistcoat have? ›

The single-breasted vest is the most common choice. It is possible to choose a configuration from 3 to 6 buttons; the greater the number of buttons, the greater the formality level of the vest. A 3-button waistcoat will appear sportier and slimmer than an equivalent and more upright 6-button vest.

How do you fasten a waistcoat? ›

How To Properly Tie A Waistcoat - YouTube

Why is it important to wear a safety vest? ›

The purpose of safety vests is to allow the wearer to be seen and to alert all that a person is present, especially in a low visibility situation. A safety vest is constructed out of reflective material and typically come in a slew of bright colors.

Who should wear safety vest? ›

1. Increased Visibility in Dark or High Traffic Areas. Any job that requires a person to work in a potentially dangerous area with low visibility and/or moving vehicles or machinery is required to wear safety vest. Anybody wearing reflective jacket can be easily noticed by oncoming traffic.

Why do people wear vests under shirt? ›

An undershirt in American English (vest in British and South Africa, banyan in the Indian Subcontinent, or singlet in Australia and New Zealand), is an article of underwear worn underneath a dress shirt (or sometimes T-shirt) intended to protect it from body sweat and odors.

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