A Menswear Guide to Waistcoats

August 7th, 2015

Traditionally a waistcoat is the “part 3” of a 3-piece suit. It’s often referred to as a “vest”, although the menswear and tailoring communities consider a “vest” to be a sweater or knit garment.

The waistcoat is one of the few articles of clothing whose origin historians can date precisely. King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland introduced the waistcoat as a part of “correct dress” during the Restoration of the British monarchy. It was derived from the Persian vests seen by English visitors to the court of Shah Abbas. The most famous of these was Persia’s ambassador to the court of St. James, Sir Robert Shirley. He was an Englishman who had been a traveler in Persia for years, and garnered a reputation for his style and taste in clothing.

The word “waistcoat” derives from the cutting of the coat at waist-level, since at the time of the coining, tailors were cutting men’s formal coats well below the waist (see dress coat). An alternative theory is that, as material was left over from the tailoring of a two-piece suit, it was fashioned into a “waste-coat” to avoid the extra material being wasted.

Either way, the waistcoat served to emphasize the new popularity of the cinched-in waist for males, and became skin-tight to emphasize the figure: broader shoulders, a pouting chest, and a nipped-in waist.Wearing a belt with a waistcoat, and any tailored suit for that matter, is not traditional. To give a more comfortable hang to the trousers, and a more streamlined silhouette, the waistcoat usually covers a pair of side adjusters or braces.

A custom still generally practiced is to leave the bottom button undone. This is said to have been started by King Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales), whose expanding waistline required it. Some people say he simply used to forget to fasten the lower button when dressing, and this was copied by onlookers. Now that’s being an “influencer”! It has also been suggested that the open bottom button prevented the waistcoat from riding-up when on horseback. Undoing the bottom button avoids stress to the garment caused by the expanding of the midsection when sitting down. I’ve seen some guys leave the bottom closed but unfasten the last button (along with the front of the jacket) before sitting down. That’s classy. 

Today, with “casual tailoring” dominating the stylish menswear scene, a waistcoat is used for much more than adding another layer of formality to a suit in the same fabric. They’re worn with contrasting suits, laidback henley knits, even with t-shirts. They’re a great look for most body types, too. A waistcoat can serve to hide a gut, mask an ill-fitting shirt, or, frankly, serve as a figure-enhancing piece, kinda of like the menswear version of “spanx.

Waistcoats come in many different cuts and styles. To help provide some context, here are several different versions from the AoS archives. Don’t forget you can always browse our library of looks using the AoS Style Guide.

The Classic Waistcoat



The basic waistcoat has a six or seven button closure, two welt pockets and a pointed front that should cover the waistband. The back usually has a “cinch” adjuster and can sometimes be cut from “self fabric” (the same cloth as the front) although it’s typically cut from a lining fabric, like silk or bemberg.

See more on How A Waistcoat Should Fit.



The Donegal Tweed Waistcoat


Like a suit, the fabric choice of a waistcoat makes a major difference.

A donegal tweed waistcoat – with some subtle flecks of color in it – is one of the most versatile tailored garments you could buy. It’s a lightweight layering piece that can add a beautiful texture (and a flattering silhouette) to a large range of versatile outfits.mensstyleovercoat-42


Since I often wear my tweed waistcoats as casual pieces, I put patch pockets on some of them – like this forrest green donegal.mensstyledan-7-of-9


The Hopsack Waistcoat


I was wearing my donegal tweed waistcoats so often in the Fall/Winter, I had to find the equivalent fabric for Spring/Summer.

This wide weave hopsack turned-out perfectly. When it’s really hot out I just leave the jacket at home.



For those in-between seasons, I love blending heavy fabrics (like this donegal suit – the counterpart to the green waistcoat above) with lightweight fabrics (like the hopsack waistcoat).


The Windowpane Waistcoat


A patterned waistcoat is its own beast. I’ve been wearing this particular one a lot lately. Much more than the jacket or the matching trousers.

It’s a great piece to add some life to a conservative earthy suit.0319


Try a statement waistcoat with a couple separates. We call it 3-Pieces of Suits.




The Notch Lapel Waistcoat


A waistcoat with lapels is a little more elegant and dandy. It also works a little better when worn on it’s own. It’s more jacket-like, I guess you could say.

The bottom button rule was so widely practiced that some waistcoats have button buttons that are only for show, and cannot be fastened, like this one.

Extra style points to my man Natty for the horizontal stripe suit.




The Peak Lapel Waistcoat


Olivier knows a thing or two about being comfortable in tailoring. In his business it’s important to be able to move and react, which is why he’s perfected the art of the sleeveless suit (otherwise known as the peak lapel waistcoat).





These two looks are from WAY back in the archives. Early Style Blogger days. The photos are dated 2010, before Alex’s time.

The best part about classic-inspired tailoring: I still wear all of these pieces and versions of these looks.


The Double-Breasted Waistcoat (4×2)


Wes’ favorite waistcoat style is double breasted (4×2), with peak lapels and a traditional square-cut bottom.



The Double-Breasted Waistcoat (6×3)


The traditional double-breasted waistcoat was cut square at the bottom, like Steve McQueen’s. I prefer the lengthening effect of the pointed fronts, and the closure of the 6×3.


The DB Shawl Collar Waistcoat (6×3)


This is the waistcoat to my black hopsack suit. It doubles as a formal waistcoat with my tuxedos as well. I love the rounded corners on this thing, they flow well with the shape of the shawl lapels.

Even with double-breasted waistcoats, I leave the bottom button open. It provides the same additional comfort space for sitting.3114

Natty’s 6×3 shawl has a slightly different shape. This is a good example of, even with the same “specs”, the cutting of a tailored garment can make a dramatic difference in the end product.

Extra dandy points again to Natty, for the creativity on the back lining.


The Low-Cut Formal Waistcoat


Mr. Andre Churchwell, aka the Dandy Doctor, has a very impressive collection of traditional tailoring. The guy has “formal attire” for dozens of different occasions, down to the most specific of old-world dress codes. White tie? Got that. Grey tie? Got that. Black Tie? …what time is the event?

A formal waistcoat is generally cut much lower than a suiting waistcoat. It’s meant to act more like a cummerbund; to cover the waistband but allow space for shirt studs, bibs, pleats, etc.


Joshua Kane took this traditional U-Shape waistcoat style, and spun it into his own creation. That’s the type of creativity that I love – taking something old and cultured and making it something wholly new (that some people might not yet be ready for).


The Leather Waistcoat


If you’re a stylish motorcycle gear designer like Sam Adegoke, chances are you have your own take on the classic waistcoat. His is a washed leather “body protector”.SamA-49

The Quilted Waistcoat


Lastly, this waistcoat is one-of-a-kind, and special to me. I handmade this waistcoat as part of my final design collection at FIT (presented here in the FIT Museum).

It took my three tries and probably about 30 hours…but it was worth understand the level of skill it takes to finish a properly tailored garment.



Thanks for reading. As always, you can search the AoS archive of articles and looks using the Style Guide

Yours in style,

Dan Trepanier

Photography by Alex Crawford.

“History of the waistcoat” was paraphrased from Wikipedia: Waistcoat

  • Desi wirjodrono

    I just started to buy waistcoats. So this article helps me a lot. I have some ideas now. Thanks!

  • http://www.stylegirlfriend.com Style Girlfriend

    I’ve always been hesitant to feature waistcoats on Style Girlfriend because they can come off feeling very costume-y, but you guys really nailed it with quite a few of these looks. Consider me inspired!

  • http://www.DapperAdvisor.com Akil McLeod

    There is a lot of knowledge and even more examples in this one post. Thank you for the inspiration!

  • Orlando Williams

    Great post Dan, as a maker of custom made Waistcoats I appreciate you tossing the history of this great clothing item in the mix. I usually just stick with a waistcoat during the summer when its hot and step away from the blazers unless there is business that requires it. Great “Summer suit”

  • http://www.online-instagram.com/user/easyandawesome/1217714417 olrichm

    Like everyone has been saying, great post! I really enjoyed this read. I’d have to say that the double breasted shawl collar waistcoat really makes a statement! And the casual waistcoats, yep I’ll be keeping my eyes open for something like that, I think those are quite useful.

  • Simon

    Great article ! Talking about waistcoat lapels, is it considered a style faux pas to mismatch lapels on a three-piece suit ? I noticed Natty wears shawl lapels under a notch lapel jacket. It doesn’t look bad at all.

  • AFH

    Waistcoats are known to be the toughest thing for a tailor to get right – so you’re probably going have to err on the side of caution on the first one and choose a fabric that will more easily take an alteration. That also means they’re not a great idea off-the-peg. I do own a few, but I tend to favour more casual ones in cotton or linen which can be worn with less or even no buttons. I also tend to wear them in Summer where looser fits.

    That extra 5lbs that doesn’t matter with your suit, matters with your waistcoat. I doubt Wes is rocking many at the moment.

    7 buttons is too damn much – it looks fussy. I know some tailor told Dan something about cutting the body in half, but people seem to do fine with 6 buttons. 5 is okay, but 6 is better because you can undo 2 buttons at the bottom and one at the top and still have 3 buttons done whereas that feels a bit much on a 5 button.

    Generally though, you’re probably better off saving the tailoring money and investing in decent knitwear. That’s going to depend on the scale of your sartorial ambitions, but for most people waistcoats are a very optional wardrobe item.

  • http://www.lucidlingo.com.au/ Gazman

    Dan looks terrific in a waistcoat. Being tall he wears it well. But I don’t think it suits certain body types. Men with extra girth and short men should probably give it a miss. As far as I know a waistcoat should cover the belt-line of a pants and the ‘vee’ should extend past the waist line. Too many men I see wear too short a waistcoat, thus revealing their shirt and belt. In my opinion the best looking waistcoats are ones with a fairly high neck line, featuring 5 or 6 buttons and no lapels.

    • AdamE

      If done properly I think a waistcoat works with most body types… the problem is that some men don’t do themselves any favors with their choice of waistcoats… I too see too many short waistcoats, because people don’t understand the purpose of the garment… (it fails to achieve the desired effect if you see shirt, belt or worse… gut, all of which I’ve seen in guys wearing them…). That said, I shudder at the idea of wearing an OTR waistcoat… it’s one garment that really needs to be cut for the wearer (i.e. made to measure or bespoke)…

      As for stance, I am not a fan of a button stance on waist coats… My preference is to have mine cut so that roughly 1-1.5″ of the waistcoat is visible with the jacket buttoned on the suit (and I generally favor a low button stance on my jackets…). If it’s meant as a wear alone garment (i.e. with lapels), then I would favor a button stance similar to my suits…

  • Seam Stitch

    Awesome post; really showcases some of the styles you can have with suits and vests. Thanks for the share; I’ll need to get a matching vest for my fitted t-shirt.

  • Khalid

    Everyone here is thin or has a positive chest to belly ratio. It seems that even with a little bit of belly, a waistcoat risks drawing attention to it… or can a waistcoat be flattering on other shapes? (I am fit, but just barely, and I’ve not found a waistcoat that looks good on me.)

    Then again, waistcoats, especially those not intended for a suit, are hard to find in stores generally. Will Dan be selling these in his forthcoming online store?

    • TO

      Churchill looked pretty good with one covering his gut. I hope Dan has some statement/pattern waistcoats in his collection!

  • http://www.genuinemensmag.com Genuine Men’s Mag

    Great post. Love those brown, and maroon toned suits with the vests. Really well put together Dan.

  • Cody Langton

    I’m very much liking the longer post dedicated to a specific subject, with many examples and variations. It’s easy to lose sight of how much content you guys put out over time.
    I’m sure many articles may not be seen again after drifting away from the front page, so it’s nice that you guys can draw on the wealth of images you created to put out such comprehensive articles.

    • http://www.TSBmen.com/ Dan Trepanier

      Couldn’t agree more. Hopefully with our new site this Fall it will also be easier to discover older content in a meaningful way… Thanks for the kind words Cody. Keep it real.