Vested Interest

For Terrific Style Returns, Add a Vest or Two to Your Wardrobe

The vest, or waistcoat as it is called in the UK, has been around a very long time, and if you don’t own at least one, you are missing out on one of the most versatile items in a man’s wardrobe. Before we explore some of the ways a vest can diversify your look, let’s have a look at the history of this timeless classic.

Originating centuries ago in Persia, the vest became fashionable in Europe in the mid 17th century, having been imported by English courtiers returning from the Persian emperor’s court. First mentioned by King Charles II in 1666, he declared that the vest should be recognized as proper court attire. Owing to the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, he specified that a sober, knee-length version be appropriate dress attire for English gentlemen. The vests had to tight-fitting enough to go under a coat and they had collars and sleeves as well. Unlike the French court, lavish materials such as lace were discouraged. By 1670, vests had become a major European fashion trend, notably among the nobility, who would soon enough resume more opulent decorative detail. In the wake of the French and Industrial Revolutions, bold patterns and colors gave way to a more utilitarian vest design that was normally worn with a frock coat and trousers.  

For the 18th century man, the vest was an indispensable part of his attire, and he was considered undressed without one. Gradually the vest grew shorter, reaching above the knee. The versions worn for sports did further away with excess length. The fashionable vest length was to the upper thigh, and tailored to a “V” beneath the stomach. Double-breasted styles were the most popular through the first part of the 18th century and featured pockets and flaps, with hooks and eyes giving way to buttons. Vests were made in silk, cotton, wool and linen, often embroidered, printed, brocaded, quilted, tasseled, silver or gold laced. By the middle of the century, they became altogether sleeveless, and were cut to the waist. For the next century and a half, they continued to be worn in brightly colored fabrics with ornate details, and were easily the most elaborate, and at times ostentatious, article of a gentleman’s attire. Some dandies even wore a second vest unbuttoned over the first. Prince Albert’s penchant for exaggerating his small waist by wearing a corset led to the fashion of tighter vests that restricted the waist. (Later on, the Prince of Wales would initiate the fashion of leaving the bottom vest button undone.)

During the second half of the 19th nineteenth century, vests grew more straight-lined and plain. The vest as decorative attire waned in popularity in the early 20th century, and was soon relegated to the third piece of a man’s business or formal suit. Even its function of housing a pocket watch in the vest pocket would soon be displaced by the wristwatch.

Until the 1960s, the vest had become but a conservative vestige of its former glory. Then came the “Peacock Revolution” and fashionable young men revived it as part of Neo-Edwardian style. Teddy boys also started sporting vests for their rocker style. Then the hippies adapted them, sometimes tie-dyed or floral embroidered, as well as with patchwork and long fringes. Remember Sonny and Cher?) In the 80s designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier made vests that harkened back to more elaborate styles once brandished by dandies. And what would John Travolta’s look have been without a vest?

Today the vest is one of the most versatile additions to a man’s wardrobe. It can be worn with jeans, over a T-shirt or button-down shirt, as well as with a suit, blazer or evening jacket. Of course it also offers a practical extra layer for warmth. A leather or suede vest can also add earthy style to a simple shirt or sweater. And a patterned or brocaded vest will ramp up the urban dandy factor whether just worn over a shirt or under a jacket as well. If it’s single-breasted vest, remember to undo the bottom button when sitting down so it doesn’t pop off or make the vest bulge. Double breasted styles stay fully buttoned and look fantastic with a shirt that’s buttoned to the top or with a turtleneck. There’s no limit to ways you can adapt a vest to your look. Whether you go with a vintage one or new designer model, you’ll find that the history of the vest is far from over.