Historians can precisely date the origination of the waistcoat. It was Charles II who introduced it during the restoration of the British monarchy in 1666. Samuel Pepys documented the occasion in his famous diaries. ‘”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, I know not well how”. Vest was the original term for what we now know in the UK as the waistcoat. It is thought that the term originated from the fact that the garment was cut at waist level. King Charles II returned from exile in France to take up the English throne. He was known for his love of fashionable dress and had been wearing opulent fabrics from France. On his return to England he could not be seen to be wearing French fabrics, so he asked his tailor to create a new look for him. This consisted of a coat, waistcoat and breeches in black silk over white. This is seen as the origin of the three-piece suit as we now know it today.
During the 17th century waistcoats were generally white cotton or linen threads on a white background. The 18th century saw the waistcoat became an elaborate and brightly coloured garment. It also became longer and was often decorated with embroidery and in coloured silk and metal threads It changed during the 19th century into something more restricting, often with figure enhancing properties, much like a corset. The colour palette became more subdued too. With the advent of the lounge suit during this period, the waistcoat became more of an item that co-ordinated with the suit and so the 3-piece suits that we still see today were developed. During the 20th century the waistcoat continued to be worn as part of business attire along with the suit and also casually as an individual item of clothing. It was used to provide warmth as an extra layer of clothing. As the war took hold and rationing came in, fabric was more scarce and the waistcoat started to decline in favour of knitwear. During the 70’s, the waistcoat made a reappearance and was made popular again through the film Saturday Night Fever! They are, of course, worn by professional snooker players, without a jacket and they remain very popular for wedding attire too.
They have often been favoured by James Bond over the years from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig – you will see that the waistcoats and jackets are very similar in style – just the trousers have a slightly different cut. Daniel Craig is wearing a Tom Ford creation.
It is such a smart item of clothing for men, but also really useful. For those who may have eaten a few too many pies, they can hide a multitude of sins! They are both quite slimming and lengthening, so if your aim is to look taller and slimmer, a waistcoat it is chaps!
The fit is all important – it needs to sit flat to the body with no horizontal pulling across the buttons – this would indicate that it is too small and it mustn’t be too loose either, otherwise you will look like a hotel porter in someone else’s uniform!
Length of the waistcoat is also important – too short and we will still see the join of the shirt and trousers which can end up looking untidy and too long is not right either. It should just cover the waistband of the trousers.
There is of course, the mystery of why the bottom button of the waistcoat should be left open – there are several theories and nobody knows for sure. My favourite theory is that when Edward VII was Prince of Wales, he became so overweight that he had to undo his bottom button. His court followed suit to save any embarrassment!
Lyn Bromley MFIPI, ACMA – Managing Director, First Impressions Lyn Bromley is Managing Director of First Impressions Training Ltd and a Master of The Federation of Image Professionals International. (FIPI) She is also Director of Regional Events at FIPI and a leader of Achiever’s Academy for Women. Please contact us if you would like to know more about our programmes, bespoke image training or one-to-one coaching. First Impressions have a network of over 150 consultants working across the UK – to find one in your area visit the website and take a look at the consultant map. Telephone: +44 (0)1926 623038 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.firstimpressions.uk.com