Whether you call them waistcoats or vests, that smart extra layer is an essential item if you love classic styling. No matter if you’re already a vest expert, or you’re just getting into the world of waistcoats, this guide will get you in the mood to add another layer to your outfits.
Table of Contents
- Waistcoats and Vests: The Video Guide
- Waistcoats And Vests: What’s The Difference?
- The History of Waistcoats And Vests
- Characteristics of a Vest
- Why Wear an Odd (Non-Matching) Vest?
- Essential Waistcoats and Vests For Your Wardrobe
- Evening Waistcoats
Waistcoats and Vests: The Video Guide
Raphael will gladly guide you through everything you ever wanted to know about waistcoats and vests in our video guide. You’ll be ready to add a splash of colour and sophistication to your looks in no time.
Waistcoats And Vests: What’s The Difference?
Simply put, there is no difference between a waistcoat and a vest – the difference is purely linguistic. Both terms refer to the same style of garment: a short, form-fitting, sleeveless item of clothing worn over a shirt and under a suit jacket or blazer. Typically, a waistcoat (or vest) is buttoned at the front in either a single or double-breasted style. In British English, the term “vest” can also refer to the sleeveless undershirt Americans call a “tank top,” but in the world of tailoring, “vest” and “waistcoat” can confidently be used interchangeably today.
Another popular item to bear in mind when discussing waistcoats is the sweater vest. This garment is effectively a sleeveless sweater, as it is knitted and pulled over your head in a sweater style. Generally, a sweater vest bears no opening or buttons down the front; cardigan-syle sweater vests with buttons are more often called “knitted waistcoats.”
The Knitted Waistcoat
Knitted vests are fantastic additions to a man’s wardrobe, especially for casual weekend outfits, because they are soft as a sweater but look more dressy. For example, a nice grey knitted waistcoat with horn buttons is a great way to elevate a Saturday ensemble.
This style is a wonderful opportunity to elevate other casual pieces such as a pair of corduroys or even denim jeans. Add some cordovan footwear to the mix and you’ll be set for a particularly dashing ensemble.
The History of Waistcoats And Vests
It’s possible to trace the waistcoat’s origins back to medieval times, however, the garment as we know it today is an evolution of the clothing first introduced in the 17th Century
King Charles II
On October 7, 1660, King Charles II of England introduced the vest as a response to the immense popularity of French fashion and dressing at the time. The vest at this point in history would have been as long as the frock coat worn over the top, and those with the means would have beautifully embroidered vests to showcase their wealth.
Unlike the vests of today, the garments at this time would have featured buttons running the whole length of the front. As the neckwear of the day was typically tall cravats tied into elaborate bows at the neck, the high buttoning point and standing collar helped draw attention up toward the wearer’s face. The flat lapels as we know them today represent the evolution of this high buttoning point eventually folding over with time.
The Three-Piece Suit Emerges
As vests continued to grow in popularity, the 1700s saw them become slightly shorter than the wearer’s frock coat, but still longer than the waistcoat of today. Some clothing historians theorize it’s around this time that we see the dawn of the term “waistcoat”, as the garment may have been constructed using the offcut fabric from the frock coat – hence the term “waste-coat”, meaning a smaller, sleeveless coat made from the waste cloth of the top coat.
Whether this is true or not, what is apparent is the formation of the three-piece suit. Wealthy gentlemen of the 18th Century took to having their frock coats, vests, and breeches made from the same length of cloth. Not only did this create an imposing image, but it also showcased the wealth of the suit’s owner and their ability to purchase an outfit consisting of such a large quantity of the same fabric.
The Industrial Revolution
As the decades progressed into the 1800s, the vest continued its evolution. Perhaps most notable is the decreasing length of the garment which would now be cut closer to the wearer’s natural waistline. This is the most popular theory for the origin of the term “waistcoat” (as it very literally describes the garment), and the term became most associated with Britain, where it is still preferred to describe the garment today.
Vests of the 19th Century would be worn by practically all men, however, they were perhaps one of the most notable garments that showcased a person’s class and wealth. Where a poor man’s waistcoat would be made from rough, insulating fibers (or maybe even knitted), a member of high society’s waistcoat saw a return to the elaborate threads and embroidery of King Charles II’s day, albeit with a more contemporary cut.
Give ‘im the Slip
Sometimes, gentlemen would even wear two contrasting vests, one atop the other, like Bernard Wolf. Subsequently, vest slips became en vogue, and today you can still see them worn by gentlemen, especially with formal daywear.
The 20th Century to Now
Throughout the decades of the 1900s to where we are now, the waistcoat has continued to be refined.
The Victorian and Edwardian periods saw a quietening of the extravagant styles of the previous century, with most men of means still enjoying the “odd” (meaning, non-matching) waistcoat combination. This changed into the 1920s and 1930s, where (much like the 1700s) three-piece suits cut from the same cloth became commonplace.
With the dawn of WWII and heavy rationing, the waistcoat fell victim to the war effort as men returned to the two-piece suit as a standard. Of course, existing three-piece suits were still worn, but the pressures of rationing created a stigma that often prevented men from enjoying their waistcoats for fear of being chastised as being unpatriotic.
As the world recovered into the 1950s, waistcoats remained somewhat absent from many wardrobes. The 1960s and 70s saw a renaissance of sorts, but like many of the clothes during these decades, the waistcoat largely fell foul of fashion trends rather than being an actually stylish addition to a man’s wardrobe. An exclusion from this would be the wonderful three-piece suit worn by Sean Connery as James Bond in 1964’s Goldfinger.
Waistcoats became quite prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, but sadly not in the way classic style aficionados would hope; leather, ripped denim, and monstrously oversized vests were quite the rage over these years, but we all know the difference between style and fashion, right?
In the new millennium, we have seen a return to the slim, trim fits of the 1920s merged with the mass-manufacturing capabilities that create an ever-changing landscape of designs, fits, and features. But as the fatigue of fast fashion increases, so does the interest in classic, stylish, and (most importantly) wearable waistcoats.
Characteristics of a Vest
If you are in the market for a vest, there are a few points you should pay attention to:
Waistcoat & Vest Characteristics
It is very important to choose the correct vest length for your trousers. As a rule of thumb, the vest should always cover the waistband. Naturally, this will depend on your height, torso length, and the rise of your trousers. Also, many men’s waistcoats are designed for the bottom button to remain undone. This means the front of your vest has to be long enough so you won’t see any shirt fabric.
Unlike with jackets, it is not desirable to have small armholes because it doesn’t have any sleeves attached. Larger armholes are better for vests so that it will not restrict the motion of your arms at all, therefore increasing the level of comfort you feel when wearing your waistcoat.
A select few styles of formal evening waistcoat come without a back, but most waistcoats have a lined back. Sometimes it is made out of thinner viscose or silk, other times from cotton but rarely is it made of the same fabric as the front since that would be too heavy. Moreover, it is important that the back is rather smooth so your jacket will hang and drape nicely.
Whether you choose to incorporate lapels on your waistcoat is a matter of personal preference, but do keep in mind that a waistcoat with lapels will typically be viewed as more formal than one without. As for lapel styles, you could choose to reflect that of your suit jacket with a notch or peak lapel, or you could even go with a shawl lapel. Keep in mind that the latter option is usually more common for dress vests, but can work for day vests too.
With their practical origins, many waistcoats will bear some form of pocket arrangement. Historically these would have been used to hold any number of everyday items from a fob watch to a pair of spectacles, and you will likely find a similar use for waistcoat pockets nowadays – perhaps a pair of earbuds! Take a look at our guide to pockets in menswear for more information.
Waistcoat and Vest FAQs
What is the difference between a vest and a waistcoat?
Technically speaking, there is no difference between a waistcoat and a vest. The difference is purely linguistic, with the term “waistcoat” being preferred in Europe (particularly the UK), and “vest” being used more in America. In British English, the term “vest” can also refer to the sleeveless undershirt Americans call a “tank top,” but in the world of tailoring, “vest” and “waistcoat” can confidently be used interchangeably today.
Why do Americans call waistcoats vests?
Waistcoats were actually called vests to begin with, and the term “waistcoat” came along later. Americans began to eschew the British term “waistcoat” as early as the time of their revolution as a further step toward independence.
Do men still wear waistcoats?
Many stylish people still wear waistcoats today, both individually and as part of a three-piece suit. The trick is making sure the waistcoat fits you and suits your outfit.
When to wear a vest with a suit?
A vest can be worn with a suit any time you like! Depending on the style of vest (formal or casual), you will be able to dress up or dress down an outfit. This theory of dressing is called spezzato.
What is the point of a waistcoat?
A waistcoat has several useful features. It creates a clean, uninterrupted line that follows your trousers up, thus elongating your body. Its V-shaped neckline helps frame your shirt and tie nicely. And a waistcoat can be seen as another layer of warmth if needed.
Is it okay to wear a waistcoat without a jacket?
As the 21st Century sees many people adopting a casual mode of dressing, a waistcoat worn without a jacket will typically be considered okay in most settings. The best way to wear a waistcoat without a jacket is in warmer climates, where this look makes the most sense. Try a lightweight linen waistcoat in order to capitalize on this cool and casual classic look.
Why do you leave the bottom button of a waistcoat undone?
It’s widely believed that due to an expanding waistline, we can thank England’s Edward VII for this bit of waistcoat etiquette. Naturally, if a member of the Royal family does it, the kingdom will surely follow, as you can find out about in our article on the subject.
Why Wear an Odd (Non-Matching) Vest?
You may wonder why you would want to invest money into odd vests if you could just get a three-piece suit. The advantage of odd vests is that they expand your wardrobe in size and flexibility, without taking up that much additional space.
Vests Offer Versatility
As an example, say you only have 2 jackets and one suit in your closet. You now have the choice to invest in just one more jacket, or you invest in 3 odd vests – go for the odd vests, and you can now create 27 different outfits! A jacket alone would have only given you four possible outfits.
So, contrasting odd vests can have a substantial impact on your wardrobe without breaking the bank. Even if you have a large number of suits and jackets, a few odd waistcoats are the key that will allow you to create a huge number of new outfits.
The Vest Benefits
Not only will a waistcoat offer you a layer of warmth, but it also gives outfits a very different look. When traveling, or with a limited wardrobe of 3 suits and 3 odd vests, you can create a total of 12 outfits; 3 without vests, and 9 with vests! Perfect for long-haul trips and economic wardrobe solutions alike.
Vests Are Easy to Tailor
Without a doubt, suit jackets and blazers are complex garments to create, even at the entry Ready To Wear level. This means they are often the most time-consuming (therefore expensive) element of an outfit to create.
Waistcoats, however, possess simpler patterns and require less fabric overall when being made. This makes an odd waistcoat a great option if you’re looking to enter the world of bespoke craftsmanship, but don’t want to spend a lot of money on a larger project (like a suit) before testing the waters with your chosen tailor.
Even if you choose a Ready To Wear waistcoat, the cost of getting it altered to fit you should be minimal, as it’s typically just the side seams than need to be adjusted. Paying this additional $20 to $30 (on average) will result in a waistcoat that fits you like a dream, and looks fantastic.
What alterations are too tricky?
Read the Article
Essential Waistcoats and Vests For Your Wardrobe
The Lighter Colored Odd Vest
If you only invest in one odd waistcoat, go for a solid-colored vest that is a lighter tone than your suits, pants, and jackets. Simply put, this style is very versatile and will almost always look magnificent.
Historically, dapper gents would wear white gilets or vests with their daywear, and even today a white vest in either flannel or worsted looks fantastic with navy or charcoal suits. At the same time, white stains very easily, so tones in natural sandy browns, buff, or dove grey work very well for a bit of 21st Century flexibility.
If you get a single-breasted vest in buff or sand you can wear it as a morning waistcoator with a stroller suit, a business suit in solids or pinstripes, and even casually with sport coats and tweed suits, too.
The Double Breasted Vest
Just like with suits, double-breasted waistcoats are more formal than their single-breasted counterparts (and therefore aren’t generally worn with tweed suits and country clothing). Also, when you wear them, make sure that they are cut proportionally to the jacket, meaning that the body of the vest (as opposed to the lapels) should not be visible when the coat is buttoned.
Most classic double-breasted vests are seen in grey, buff, yellow, and light blue, but sometimes also in salmon or pale green. Most of the time, you will see that they have a 6×3 button configuration and a peaked or shawl collar lapel. However, sometimes, you also see 8×4 or even 10×5 waistcoats, but usually, these are bespoke. If you go that route, make sure that the jacket has a high buttoning point so the top of the vest doesn’t show too much when the jacket is buttoned.
Another point to note is that double-breasted waistcoats are usually straight or slightly curved at the bottom, not pointed like single-breasted vests. As such it is even more important that it has the right length to cover your pants’ waistband.
Vests For Business Suits
If you want to wear an odd vest with a business suit, go with muted colors and simple textures. For example, white or gray linen, and buff or gray worsteds work well with navy and charcoal solid and striped suits. Of course, the simplest and safest vested look with a suit is a three-piece ensemble in matching cloth.
Dark burgundy or a light blue waistcoat can also be a nice choice here but do avoid going for a black vest as this should only be worn with eveningwear.
Getting Down To Business
Even if you don’t work in a white-collar office, leather or moleskin vests aren’t good partners for business suits. While not quite as severe, this also holds true for tweed waistcoats, as there would be too much of a formality clash. Also, skip bold patterns and shiny buttons – after all, you’re at work, not showcasing the latest collection on a runway!
A great option for a business suit vest is to swap out an element of a three-piece suit for a contrasting item. For example, in this picture, you can see the vest and trousers of a brown pinhead suit paired with a solid grey jacket. The key here is to pair a subtle pattern with a solid, like a Prince of Wales vest with a solid jacket, or a chalk stripe suit with a solid vest. Experiment until you find a combination that really works for you.
If you want to wear and combine waistcoats casually, there are very few limits! You can go with basically any material, color, or pattern and combine it with your outfits. You’ll likely find it best to avoid combinations that aren’t overly flashy, but sometimes you might surprise yourself – for example, a bright yellow vest may work really well with a sky-blue linen suit.
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 for your trousers. A belt will always make your vest stand away from your pants’ waistband, which looks bulky and crowded.
Tattersall refers to English vestings made with striking plaid designs in all kinds of color combinations. Usually, the background is beige or eggshell and traditionally they were made of a medium-weight kersey cloth.
Today you can find all kinds of weights and it is often used for country shirts as well with slightly smaller plaids. It was named after the Tattersall horse auction rooms in London which were established in 1766. In the 18th century, horses were covered with checked horse blankets, and it is believed that some people borrowed these designs to make them into waistcoats.
It is a very classic design and it can be paired with all kinds of jackets. If you want to go with a checked jacket, make sure the pattern is considerably larger or smaller than the vest, otherwise, it looks odd.
Tartans have their roots in Scotland and some people like the pattern for the holiday season and evening events. Most of the time, tartan vests are rather bold and so it pays to combine them with solid jackets to create a harmonious balance
At the highest end of formality is the evening waistcoat. These can vary in style depending on the dress code, namely depending on whether the invitation is for a black-tie or a white-tie event. While an evening waistcoat might not be necessary for a black-tie event, it is absolutely essential for a white-tie event. Head over to our in-depth eveningwear guides to find out more about the differences between these styles of vests.
Want to learn more about black tie waistcoats?
Explore the white tie waistcoat
Typically woven from jacquard silk, these waistcoats are designed to wear at weddings, and maybe even at prom. Unfortunately, the majority of these styles on the market today are mass-manufactured out of low-quality materials. They’re designed to be worn infrequently, and as such, they rarely fit well or look attractive.
Although they may bear a passing resemblance to the decorated waistcoats worn throughout history, these vests will cheapen your outfit with overly loud, shiny designs that won’t flatter you. Avoid these wherever possible.