The Waistcoat, Part 2

Previously, we discussed casual and informal waistcoats, but this week we'll get into the semi-formal and formal styles.

Black Tie

Black tie waistcoats can come in many permutations and combinations. This in mind, the one thing they should never emulate is an informal waistcoat with five or six buttons (which even manufacturers who should know better are selling now). Stick to single breasted three or four button waistcoats with low, closely spaced fastening. Double breasted ones, which can have anywhere from four to ten (!!!) buttons with half of them buttoning on one side, should also fasten low and closely together. The main goal is that the waistcoat barely show above the jacket waist button when closed, maybe an inch or two at the most. The body should ideally be of the same fabric as the dinner jacket and trousers. Same goes for the silk facings on the lapels and buttons. Keep in mind that waistcoats do not need to be worn with double breasted dinner jackets since they will always be kept closed and would not be seen anyway.

Brad Pitt shows off a rare double breasted ten button, five to fasten (10x5) waistcoat on his Tom Ford evening kit. It's a flashy style for sure, but saved by how low fastening it is.

Shawl lapels are proper as either the rounded or angled type but not required, strictly speaking. There should only be two lower pockets on a black tie waistcoat. Besides the common "V" opening, there are also "U" shaped or shield shaped openings which can add a dash of style.

A rather stylish four button waistcoat for black tie complete with straight bottom, "U" shaped opening, and shawl lapels.

Backless models will offer some advantages. Namely, they allow for fewer layers in back and thus wear cooler during warm months. The other big advantage is that they can work with just about any trouser rise since the neck strap is adjustable. (I still recommend wearing trousers at or near the waist for best effect.) Good quality backless waistcoats will have an inside front loop to attach to an inner trouser button and keep them level all night. For best results, your shirt should have a loop under the back of the collar to keep the adjustable neck strap secure as well. These are easy to install with the help of a tailor.

A proper backless waistcoat from Ralph Lauren, this one has a normal "V" opening.

White Tie

White tie waistcoats follow many of the same customs as black tie, only made in starched white marcella (often called piqué by Americans) cotton instead. The biggest difference is that these should always have shawl lapels. More often than not they will be found as backless models instead of fullback. They should be able to take studs through eyelet holes which are fastened with a metal pin in back. This is similar to military uniforms that can have their brass buttons removed through eyelets for cleaning. Commonly these are mother of pearl without metal settings, but there are just as many variations as on shirt studs if one looks at vintage examples.

A high quality backless waistcoat from Darcy Clothing.

Remember, the waistcoat points should never go beyond the points of the tailcoat. It looks sloppy and breaks the flow of fabric from top to bottom. This error has been made a lot in recent times, even in period movies and television series not to mention the last two Presidents of the United States! The easiest solution is to get everything made bespoke... but it's also the most expensive. In the meantime, wear the trousers at your waist and adjust the waistcoat straps for it to sit accordingly higher.

A lovely double breasted four button, two to fasten (4x2) waistcoat. Note the shield shaped opening, mother of pearl studs, and correct length.

Morning Attire

Unlike white and black tie the button spacing doesn't need to be very close on these waistcoats. Typically they come in double breasted six buttons, three to close or eight button, four to close with peak and occasionally round shawl lapels. Single breasted six or five button versions exist, often with notch lapels. While correct, in my view they lack the same presence due to resembling waistcoats made for typical business suits. The most common colour choices are dove grey and buff. The latter can brighten up the otherwise colourless ensemble which is why it is my preference. Duck egg blue is also considered acceptable. Black is okay and arguably more traditional, but a little somber for daytime events in my opinion.

A dove grey linen waistcoat. This has the traditional keystone button arrangement for double breasted.

A buff linen waistcoat. This style is much the same as found on ordinary waistcoats, but it is still correct.

However, if you want something extra special then slipped waistcoats can add a distinctive touch. A slip (not to be confused with the undergarment) is literally just a white Marcella cotton edge that can be buttoned inside the waistcoat opening. It's an old fashioned detail that has nevertheless been kept alive by those with good taste. Those in the United Kingdom may not have a hard time obtaining them. Elsewhere may be a little more difficult. It's best to have them made, but off the rack slips can be purchased with buttons added to the inside of your waistcoat.

An excellent slipped waistcoat from Kingsman: The Secret Service. I was delighted to see proper morning dress represented in a mainstream action movie. Made by bespoke tailor Martin Nicholls.

What are your favourite waistcoat styles for semi-formal and formal dress?


  1. Serious question, why are you so obsessed with dress codes and "proper" this and that? In all your posts it comes down to what was done before instead of what can be done now. It's 2017. Have a little fun with what you wear. Break some rules. You might even like it!

    Just trying to help, really.

    1. These dress codes have evolved over time to what they are now for a reason. They consistently look good and give a sense of occasion and belonging. Better results are achieved by at least knowing the rules and bending them slightly than throwing them out entirely as so many do now. If you read -- really read -- what I've written you'll see there's actually a great amount of flexibility even within traditional formalwear guidelines. This is just about waistcoats. There's even more flexibility with other parts of the ensemble.

    2. I know Jovan has already answered this but it is kind of the point of a dress code that you follow it. Most events, functions and venues are almost entirely informal these days - and that's no bad thing - but if you bother to go a black tie or white tie event or wear morning dress then there are certain conventions about what you should or shouldn't wear. Generally, they are there for a reason too - enhancing what is best about that code's look - and allow a degree of personality still to show through.

  2. Hi Jovan,

    Good article, I really enjoy it. Regarding the double breasted waistcoat, I don't often read about the ones without lapels. I am curious what of what your opinion is regarding that.


    1. Thanks, Shinhau!

      I've seen some on occasion without lapels, but they look incomplete to me. As in, you may as well go the full nine yards and get lapels if you're wearing the bolder double breasted style to begin with. The only possible exception is that 10x5 Tom Ford model (which Bradley Cooper also wore back in 2010) because it already looks pretty showy. I'd still rather go with the more traditional 4x2 with shawl lapels like the white tie example if I got one for black tie.

      Though I know we were talking about double breasted, my preference on single breasted is also with lapels. Single breasted morning waistcoats tend to look fine without them though. I'm not sure why I feel that way!

  3. What is more proper, double breasted with straight or pointed bottom?

    1. Either one is perfectly correct, though arguably a straight bottom is more traditional.

    2. Okay thanks. Any rules about that with single breasted?

    3. Not that I'm aware of, but my preferences for single breasted waistcoats (provided we're still talking about formalwear) are black tie with point or straight, white tie and morning wear with point.

      The reasons are too long to get into here, but it's a combination of many sources and inspirations from the past and present.

  4. The tailor clearly wasn't there when Jackson was dressed in Kingsman. The both sides of the waistcoat slip go inside the waistcoat, creating an illusion of an underwaistcoat, which used to be a thing. The same mistake was made in Blade Runner 2049. Weird that professional costume designers make such silly mistakes. Prince Charles is a good modern example of how to wear the slip.


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