The waistcoat through history

Model 2 wearing a Camel Waistcoat

Discover the long and fascinating history of the waistcoat
Featured image: Samuel Windsor

From its courtly beginnings in the 16th century to its modern status as a staple for bridegrooms, businessmen and boyband members, the waistcoat has a long and illustrious history.

A truly British invention, more than one brush with royalty has shaped the style in which we create and wear what was once just a humble vest.

From snazzy to sombre, and back again, here’s the waistcoat’s journey over the last 400 years.

Royal Beginnings

Charles II portrait

Waistcoats came into style thanks to Charles II
Image: Peter Lely / Public domain

The forerunner of the waistcoat first appeared at the court of Charles II in the 1660s. It originally evolved from a vest – as the garment is still known in the US to this day.

As head of the newly-restored monarchy, the King wished to distance himself and his court from the extravagant 17th Century French style. He decided the vest was the way to do that.

The new style was announced by royal decree, with Samuel Pepys recording in his diary in 1666:

“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…”

It was inspired by fashion brought back from travellers to Persia, as clothier, Daniel Ireson, writing at The Gentlemen’s Gent, notes:

“in Persia the higher average temperature did not call for a full jacket but something that could be decorative, provide shelter against the elements when needed and be practical in concealing things safely.”

At a time when men’s fashion in Britain called for coats cut long, this vest which stopped at the waist was an innovation, and so the waistcoat was born.

Dapper dandies

Floral and embroidered waistcoat

Flamboyant and floral waistcoats were the order of the day
Image: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Public domain

What began as a simple item, marking the difference between the courts of Britain and France was soon adopted by court dandies.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, court peacocks and popinjays became ever more flamboyant in their tastes, making the waistcoat a thing of colour and style. Black Tie Guide blogger, Peter Marshall, reflects:

“Late in the 1820s dandies…developed a taste for waistcoat models in “all the colours of the rainbow” featuring lavish embroidery and rich plain or figured silks and satins.”

Clothes made the man, in restoration England, or at the very least showed off his wealth.

Victorian values

Victorian gentleman portrait

Soon, waistcoats became de rigueur for gentlemen
Image: Shutterstock

Fashions changed, as fashions do, and by the mid-19th century the waistcoat had become part of more workaday attire.

Seen as a necessity for business dress, decoration gave way to decorum, and this menswear staple became more sober, with less colour and ornamentation. As the fashion experts at Menswear Style note:

“It was quickly decided then that the waistcoat colours had to match the rest of the outfit and by the 18th century men were rarely seen without a waistcoat being part of their daily attire.”

The three piece suit was firmly in, and failing to wear a waistcoat would be tantamount to being undressed.

Teddy’s Bottom Button

Edward VII portrait

King Edward VII was the second British monarch to leave his mark on waistcoats
Image: Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions

One thing which appears to always be observed when wearing a waistcoat nowadays is leaving the bottom button open, but that wasn’t always the case.

This would appear to be common sense, helping the fit of the garment, but many people also attribute it to the second royal to influence the history of this style staple: Edward VII. Edward was reputedly a little portly, and therefore unable to do up his own bottom button, leading courtiers to follow suit and a new fashion to be born.

This approach has, however, been questioned by one fashion blogger, Kieron Casey at The Totality, who believes that the bottom button was undone to allow manual labour back when the three piece suit was standard workwear:

“Next time you are about to leave the bottom button undone ask yourself “why?” Is it because you think it looks good or are you just doing it like you think you should because
other people do it?”

Keiron clearly believes people should make their own decisions on this all-important fashion question.

The smart choice for the modern gent

Steve McQueen in a three piece suit

Stars like McQueen kept the waistcoat in the fashion limelight
Image: Unknown author / Public domain

By the middle of the twentieth century, the waistcoat was no longer de rigueur, although it continues to be the popular choice for those seeking an ultra smart look.

Today it can still be seen on many men at weddings, as well as giving an extra edge to men dressing to impress at work or at interviews. A waistcoat will enhance anywhere that suits a suit.

Tailoring expert, Edward Dutton, writing at A Suit That Fits, recognises the item’s timeless charm:

“Today, the waistcoat has carved out an unusual place within men’s fashion – in part, because it’s one of the most versatile garments a man can own.”

The waistcoat is ubiquitous. Seen on indie kids, pop stars, city bankers and trendy hipsters, it’s transcended sartorial boundaries. Sported by vintage stars like Sean Connery and Steve McQueen as well as today’s Justin Timberlake and Daniel Craig, there’ll always be a place in the limelight for a great waistcoat.

As we look to the future, it seems it can only diversify, in single and double breasted variants, a wide variety of colours and cloths, and worn with everything from suits to jeans, and even shorts.

We’d love to see how you wear your waistcoat. Show us your pictures and posts on our Facebook page, and help inspire more waistcoat wearers!

Posted in Men's style guides.