The Waistcoat, Part 1

Everyone may already be familiar with waistcoats, or vests to Americans. They can add warmth during cool weather or simply another piece of interest to dress up or formalize a regular suit. Three-piece suits, those that include a matching waistcoat, appear to be more popular now than "odd waistcoats" that do not match anything else. Once upon a time, three piece suits were the only acceptable business attire after the morning coat went out of fashion. But they and waistcoats in general remain in good taste for those wanting to look formal short of wearing actual formalwear.

A rather common five button model from Marks & Spencer.

The common five button version with no lapels, two lower pockets, and pointed bottom is the most popular right now but also the most unremarkable. I suspect because it is the easiest to manufacture. There are many, many styles available and I am only touching upon a few here.

A Tattersall waistcoat from Ben Silver, typically worn for more casual attire or in the English countryside. Note the swelled edges and lower flapped pockets, which bring down the formality a bit from a typical waistcoat.

Double breasted waistcoats are more flamboyant than single breasted models but seem to be avoided by the less style conscious. They are most often found as six button, three to button (6x3) or eight button, four to button (8x4). Recently they have come back into fashion somewhat, especially through English clothiers who add peak or shawl lapels for even more flair. The buttons on many modern ones are arranged straight down instead of the traditional keystone shape. It is a matter of debate which style is more aesthetically pleasing or appropriate, but I give the edge to the traditional because of how it implies a V-shaped torso on the wearer.

A modern, in-between variation from Charles Tyrwhitt where the buttons are only slightly spaced apart the farther up they go. Double breasted waistcoats typically have a straight bottom but can also have pointed bottoms.

But the single breasted waistcoat should not be underestimated. The most common model sold now has five buttons. They also have two pockets below which are mostly for decoration, since men tend to store things in their jacket or trouser pockets instead these days. There are of course exceptions. J. Crew, for example, still sells six-button-five models with four pockets, which is my personal favourite style. Unlike a regular six button, the bottom should never be fastened since the button and buttonhole are on the cutaway part and will not line up. With any other single breasted waistcoat with pointed bottoms one can leave the bottom button unfastened... if they wish. Unlike what some claim, it's not actually required (much like on a double breasted jacket) but it can relax the look and make it easier to sit or bend down.

A very traditional waistcoat style from otherwise hip and modern J. Crew.

Though single breasted waistcoats generally have pointed bottoms, occasionally some have a straight bottom. These, contrary to what was said before, should always have the bottom button fastened since it tends to look sloppy unfastened.

Next to the Goldfinger suit, Steve McQueen's glen plaid suit with straight bottom waistcoat in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) may be one of the most iconic three-piece suits of the 1960s.

Believe it or not, even rounded bottom waistcoats exist. Not in the same capacity as they once did, however. iDesign still sells them for their made-to-measure clothing, but it's unclear how popular they are compared to the standard pointed bottom.

Unfortunately, iDesign erroneously calls it a "square bottom".

Much more rare now is the single breasted seven button waistcoat. As seen below, it appears to be something of a fashion in the 1930s, James Stewart's prime, with this example having the same nonfunctional bottom button as the aforementioned style. Most shouldn't even attempt wearing this unless they have the same 6'3 frame as him, as it may overwhelm their torso. I've noticed a few loose fitting, urban style suits having a seven button waistcoat, though.

James "Jimmy" Stewart in a rather fetching windowpane suit. It appears to be a more informal style judging by the patch pocket on the chest.

Whatever you choose, ditch the belt and try a pair of braces (suspenders) -- the proper button-on kind, not clip-on since those love to damage fabric. The waistcoat will lay flatter and look better without a conspicuous bulge or belt buckle near the bottom. Furthermore, instead of belt loops, try getting side adjusters. These can come in either strap and buckle or elastic button tabs. If your trousers lack them, you may be able to get the former type using selvage from the hem with your alterations tailor. Otherwise, having a suit made for you bespoke or made-to-measure will often provide this option.

A made-to-measure suit from iDesign. Unfortunately, my waistcoat is not as well-fitted as it should be around the midsection and it stands apart from the trousers rather than lays flush with them.

Regardless of style, the length should always adequately cover the trouser waistband and not go far below it. Waistcoats that are too short will look untidy, exposing shirt and tie below the last button. On the other hand, waistcoats that are too long will visually shorten the legs and make it more difficult to reach into the pockets of one's trousers.

As Harvey Specter on Suits, Gabriel Macht always wears impeccable three-piece suits made in or inspired by Tom Ford's signature "Windsor" base. The latter are actually from Canadian tailoring house Garrison Bespoke.

In the next part, we will look at the various semi-formal and formal waistcoat styles for evening and morning wear.

Comments

  1. What do you think about waistcoats worn with jeans?

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    1. Don't really care for it. If it's a sleeveless cardigan or sweater that's one thing, but a tailored waistcoat looks out of place with belted, five pocket, riveted jeans. You may as well wear proper trousers if you're going to the trouble of wearing a waistcoat.

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    2. Okay but I wanted to wear something casual but smart without a blazer. What would you do?

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    3. If you want to wear jeans, try at least getting them in colours and fabrics other than blue denim. Unpopular opinion, but I also wouldn't wear a waistcoat without a tailored jacket of some kind. I'm not suggesting a suit, but something like this: http://www.martinfishertailors.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/tumblr_ni7wumAI2C1rm9sjto1_500.jpg

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  2. What about vests with double breasted suits? I want to get a three-piece double breasted suit made but worried it'll look old fashioned.

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    Replies
    1. Some might see it as old fashioned but you should be guided by your own sense of style here. I personally don't care for them and think they look a bit busy.

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    2. Oh, okay then! Thanks. Anything else you'd say even if you don't like them? Like vest height, single breasted or double breasted?

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    3. I'd lean on the side of single breasted without lapels so it doesn't overwhelm. If you're getting a suit made, they should be able to put the top button just a little bit above the jacket's closure, which I think is the best look in this case. Again, just my point of view.

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  3. Your suit looks good apart from the issue you already mentioned (looks like it could be taken in an inch). But I gotta be honest, that haircut doesn't suit your style at all. Didn't you used to do a classic side part?

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    Replies
    1. I did, but it wasn't really "me". To each their own.

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