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.
Since I often wear my tweed waistcoats as casual pieces, I put patch pockets on some of them – like this forrest green donegal.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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,
Photography by Alex Crawford.
“History of the waistcoat” was paraphrased from Wikipedia: Waistcoat