Waistcoats are one of the most overlooked pieces of clothing in menswear in modern times. For our grandfathers and the generations preceding them, the waistcoat was a part of a suit, not an optional extra. Over the last couple of decades we’ve seen the general phasing out of waistcoats in daily wear, so much so that anyone wearing one tends to stand out (which is a good thing if it’s subtle, well made and well fitted).
Fortunately, waistcoats have been making more of a reappearance in the last few years, as a move back towards classic men’s style gathers momentum. It’s unlikely that they’ll ever regain their place as an essential part of any suit, but there’s hope that they may at least become a little more commonplace in daily life.
I’ve loved waistcoats for as long as I can remember, when worn well, they elevate an outfit beyond what it could ever be without one. If you’re in good shape, their flattering lines make an already fit person look even better.
Fit: Waistcoats are particularly difficult to get right in terms of fit. As they sit so close to the body any in-discrepancies in fit are magnified, making a poor fit anywhere stand out to anyone who sees it. Jackets and trousers offer more forgiveness, as they sit off the body in several places, following the body’s lines without being pressed against them. As a result, bespoke or made-to-measure waistcoats should be a starting point for anyone wanting to wear one. Even then, you’ll want to make sure you’re working with a good tailor, as many tailors will struggle to cut a waistcoat well.
Mind the gap: The waistcoat should be cut so that no shirt is seen between the bottom of the waistcoat and the top of the trousers. Many of the guidelines in menswear can be bent or broken once you know enough about them, but this is one which never works when broken. If your shirt is seen between the waistcoat and trousers it looks sloppy and breaks the clean lines of the whole look. It’s the most common issue you’ll see with men wearing waistcoats these days, brought on largely by the cultural shift towards trousers being worn on or below the hips (as opposed to on their waist, which had been the norm for generations/centuries prior). If you insist on wearing your trousers on or below your hips then just don’t wear waistcoats. The only two possible outcomes will be that you show plenty of shirt between waistcoat and trousers, or the waistcoat has to be cut longer, which elongates the torso and shortens the legs (the opposite of what you want to do).
No belt: If you’re wearing a waistcoat as part of a suit or just with formal trousers, as opposed to wearing one casually (see below) then do away with trousers requiring a belt. The belt creates bulk that the waistcoat has to get over, taking away the clean transition from waistcoat to trousers that would otherwise occur with belt-less trousers. Wear either trousers with side adjusters or braces (suspenders if you’re American) to keep the lines clean and smooth. If you only have trousers with belt loops, then wait until you have adjusters or braces before wearing a waistcoat, it’s an awful look and you just look like you forgot your belt.
The Bottom Button: Traditionally waistcoats are worn with the bottom button undone. The Duke of Windsor made the look famous and it’s been done as a matter of course by just about everyone else ever since. These days, leaving your bottom button undone is more of a nod to the past and a sign of respect for tradition. Practically, it’s actually very useful for sitting down,letting the waistcoat part slightly at the centre, avoiding it ruffling up through the waist. This is one of the guidelines you can break if you feel strongly enough about it, but I like the tradition it carries and the practical benefits that come with it.
Wearing waistcoats casually: If there’s one thing which would be nicer to see, other than longer iPhone battery life and world peace, it’s waistcoats being worn more casually and as separates (still the most enjoyable way to dress, even if more thought is required to get it right). A separate waistcoat can replace a sleeveless cardigan (something I’ve never felt at home wearing, not that there’s anything wrong with them) and can easily be worn with jeans or chino’s. Again, trousers height needs to be right, so finding jeans which sit a little higher can be an issue. But if you can manage to do that, then separate waistcoats are ideal. Obviously the belt guideline doesn’t apply here, as you’re not aiming for the same level of formality and clean lines that you would in a suit. Wear them with sleeves rolled up and without a tie (or a knit tie, if you’re going to wear a tie) and it adds a style to an otherwise very basic outfit.
Texture matters most in this instance (see article on how to bring an outfit together with by choosing the right textures). You wouldn’t wear a more formal “suit” waistcoat with jeans (see article on how to wear the right jacket with jeans and dress down Friday’s), the clash of textures pulls the outfit apart. You want to use similarly informal textures in separate waistcoats which would be worn this casually. Look for flannels, tweeds, or cloths with some added surface texture. Bold patterns tend not to look right, but cloth with some flecks of colour, or a small subtle pattern scattered throughout will work well, think of a grey waistcoat with a little bit of charcoal and white woven in to it, or a caramel waistcoat with a bit of brown and creme mixed in.
Finally, don’t wear a satin backed waistcoat, for the same reasons for not wearing a suit waistcoat with jeans; clashing textures. Instead, use the same cloth for the back as you have for the front and it will relax the whole feel of the look.
Separate Suit Waistcoats: An in between of waistcoats with jeans and waistcoats as a part of a suit, is a separate waistcoat to be worn formally or semi formally. This can often work when combining items of two suits or simply more formal separates on their own. To get this right, you just want the textures, patterns and cuts to be a similar style in both items. The simplest combination would be a navy waistcoat with grey trousers. If you have plain grey suit trousers (without belt loops) then wear them with a plain navy waistcoat, shirt (white, blue or pink all work) and a tie. With the above points factored in, the only guideline to follow from there is to choose colours which work well together (cream trousers, brown waistcoat etc).
Waistcoats are far easier to wear than most men think and like most things in menswear and style in general it’s just a matter of understanding the few underlying guidelines which make something work, then experimenting with what you’ve learned, to find something which reflects your own style and where you feel most comfortable.