All about waistcoats

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A traditional waistcoat, to be worn with a two-piece suit or separate jacket and trousers

A waistcoat (commonly called a vest in American English) is a sleeveless upper-body garment. It is usually worn over a dress shirt and necktie and below a coat as a part of most men's formal wear. It is also sported as the third piece of the three-piece male business suit.


A waistcoat has a full vertical opening in the front, which fastens with buttons or snaps. Both single-breasted and double-breasted waistcoats exist, regardless of the formality of dress, but single-breasted ones are more common. In a three piece suit, the cloth used matches the jacket and trousers. Waistcoats can also have lapels or revers depending on the style.

Before wristwatches became popular, gentlemen kept their pocket watches in the front waistcoat pocket, with the watch on a watch chain threaded through a buttonhole. Sometimes an extra hole was made in line with the buttonholes for this use. A bar on the end of the chain held it in place to catch the chain if it were dropped or pulled. Waistcoats are now worn less, so the pocket watch may be more likely be stored in a trouser pocket.

Wearing a belt with a waistcoat, and indeed any suit, is not traditional. To give a more comfortable hang to the trousers, the waistcoat instead covers a pair of braces underneath it (suspenders in the U.S.).

A custom still sometimes practised 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. Variations on this include that he forgot to fasten the lower button when dressing and this was copied. It has also been suggested that the practice originated to prevent the waistcoat riding up when on horseback. Undoing the bottom button avoids stress to the bottom button when sitting down; when it is fastened, the bottom of the waistcoat pulls sideways causing wrinkling and bulging, since modern waistcoats are cut lower than old ones. This convention only applies to single-breasted day waistcoats and not double breasted, evening, straight-hem or livery waistcoats that are all fully buttoned.


Woman in a modern denim waistcoat

Waistcoats worn with lounge suits (now principally single-breasted) normally match the suit in cloth, and have four to six buttons. Double breasted waistcoats are rare compared to single. As formalwear, it used to be common to wear a contrastingly coloured waistcoat, such as in buff or dove linen. This is still seen in morning dress, which requires a waistcoat.

The waistcoats worn with white- and black- tie are different from standard daytime single-breasted waistcoats, being much lower in cut (with three buttons or four buttons, where all are fastened). The much larger expanse of shirt compared to a daytime waistcoat allows more variety of form, with "U" or "V" shapes possible, and there is large choice of outlines for the tips, ranging from pointed to flat or rounded. The colour normally matches the tie, so only black barathea wool, grosgrain or satin and white marcella, grosgrain or satin are worn, although white waistcoats used to be worn with black tie in early forms of the dress.

Waiters, sometimes also waitresses, and other people working at white-tie events, to distinguish themselves from guests, sometimes wear gray tie, which consists of the dress coat of white tie (a squarely cut away tailcoat) with the black waistcoat and tie of black tie.

The clergy vest is a form of waistcoat. It differs in style from other waistcoats in that it buttons to the neck and has an opening that displays the clerical collar.

In the Church of England, a particular High Church clerical vest introduced in the 1830s was nicknamed the "M.B. Waistcoat" with "M.B." standing for the Mark of the Beast.

In the Girl Scouts of the USA, vests are used as an alternative to the sash for the display of badges.

Stock trading
In many stock exchanges, traders who engage in open outcry may wear colored sleeveless waistcoats, or trading jackets, with insignia on the back.


Child's Beaded Waistcoat, Sioux (Native American), late 19th or early 20th century, Brooklyn Museum

French waistcoat in silk, circa 1750, LACMA

French waistcoat in cotton, circa 1760, LACMA

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 traveller in Persia for years.

John Evelyn wrote about them on October 18, 1666: "To Court, it being the first time his Majesty put himself solemnly into the Eastern fashion of vest changing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloak, into a comely dress after the Persian mode, with girdles or straps, and shoestrings and garters into buckles...resolving never to alter it, and to leave the French mode".

Samuel Pepys, the diarist and civil servant, wrote in October 1666 that "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". This royal decree provided the first mention of the waistcoat. Pepys records "vest" as the original term; the word "waistcoat" derives from the cutting of the coat at waist-level, since at the time of the coining, tailors cut 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 that material being wasted, although recent academic debate has cast doubt on this theory.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men often wore elaborate and brightly coloured waistcoats, until changing fashions in the nineteenth century narrowed this to a more restricted palette, and the development of lounge suits began the period of matching informal waistcoats.

19th century
After the French Revolution of 1789, anti-aristocratic sentiment in France (and elsewhere in Europe) influenced the wardrobes of both men and women, and waistcoats followed, becoming much less elaborate. After about 1810 the fit of the waistcoat became shorter and tighter, becoming much more secondary to the frock-coat overcoat and almost counting as an undergarment, although its popularity was larger than ever. With the new dandyism of the early 19th century, the waistcoat started to change roles, moving away from its function as the centrepiece of the visual aspect of male clothing, towards serving as a foundation garment, often with figure-enhancing abilities.

From the 1820s onwards, elite gentlemen — at least those among the more fashionable circles, especially the younger set and the military — wore corsets. The waistcoat served to emphasize the new popularity of the cinched-in waist for males, and became skin-tight, with the overcoat cut to emphasize the figure: broader shoulders, a pouting chest, and a nipped-in waist. Without a corset, a man's waistcoat often had whalebone stiffeners and was laced in the back, with reinforced buttons up the front, so that one could pull the lacings in tight to mould the waist into the fashionable silhouette. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had a reputation for his tight corsets and tiny waist; and although he lacked popularity during his early reign, men followed his style, and waistcoats became even more restrictive.

This fashion remained throughout the 19th century, although after about 1850 the style changed from that of a corseted look to a straighter line, with less restriction at the waist, so that the waistcoat followed a straighter line up the torso. Toward the end of the century, the Edwardian look made a larger physique more popular -- Edward VII having a large figure.

20th century

Guitarist Ruthie Morris of Magnapop wearing a leopard print vest on stage

The waistcoat remained a required part of men's business clothing, and even casual dress, until the mid-twentieth century. Part of its popularity stemmed from the fact that it added an extra layer of warm cloth between one's body and the elements, but the strict rationing of cloth during the Second World War, the increasing popularity of pullover sweaters and other types of heavy tops, and the increasing general use of men's casual clothing all contributed to its decline. In the United States, the waistcoat began its decline during the 1940s when double-breasted jackets became popular, and by the 1960s it had become a rarity.

During the mid-1970s, the waistcoat once again became a popular and fashionable garment with many businessmen and youngsters wearing one with their suit. Movies like Saturday Night Fever helped popularize the waistcoat as a fashionable piece of dresswear. The three-piece suit quickly became associated with the disco culture. The backlash against disco eventually led to the demise in popularity of three-piece suits. By 1986 waistcoats had become a rare sight. Today one rarely sees a business suit worn with a waistcoat in North America, although it remains popular among conservative-minded businessmen in the rest of the world. Some of the last professions with de rigueur waistcoats included banking, law, governmental agencies, and the professorate. Professional snooker tournaments usually require that participants wear a waistcoat: in this case without a jacket.

21st century

A young Somali man wearing a modern waistcoat

In Germany, the waistcoat has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since the beginning of the century, in a country where casual and smart casual dress had previously come to predominate even among white-collar workers. It has once again become a common part of business attire: many German politicians wear waistcoats, such as Left Party member Oskar Lafontaine. Many commentators see this as part of a general return to more traditional norms of dress, deportment and working-patterns in the workplace, attributed to Germany's sustained period of economic uncertainty. American political and social commentators Penn Jillette and Keith Olbermann are known for wearing waistcoats. Waistcoats have also become popular within the indie and steampunk counter-culture movements in the United States. Vests are often worn both open or closed over dress shirts and even t-shirts.

Waistcoats have been worn by many males primarily within the UK, but also in other European countries, with a shirt and jeans. This has become a common sight and is mainly seen in clubs and bars worn by many younger generations. Waistcoats are sometimes seen on characters in modern day film and television. Neal Caffrey (portrayed by American actor Matthew Bomer) on the USA Network television series White Collar often wears a waistcoat. Patrick Jane, the main protagonist on the popular CBS series The Mentalist (portrayed by Australian actor Simon Baker) is almost always seen wearing a waistcoat. The character Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) on the USA Network television series Suits almost always wears a waistcoat as part of his three piece suit to look powerful. The character George Christopher (portrayed by actor Ted Danson) on the HBO series Bored to Death frequently sports a waistcoat. Take That, the recently reformed British group, also sported waistcoats at Wembley Stadium on their Progress Live Tour in July 2011. Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) has also started wearing waistcoats in season 8 of How I Met Your Mother.

Retailers are beginning again to sell three-piece suits, although some refer to them as 'vested' suits rather than as 'three-piece' suits.

Although not related to formal wear, a type of waistcoat have also been used as part of workers uniforms, such as at Walmart prior to 2007, and also as high visibility clothing (usually bright "safety orange" colour).

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