The waistcoat (or vest, as Americans tend to call it) has gone through several transformations since its introduction in the 17th century. While both shape and size have changed considerably, so has the garment’s association. It has gone from being a flashy show of opulence to a more muted display of somberness and back again. Today’s waistcoats are typically reserved for special events or for those with high-profile careers where dressing formally is an everyday requirement.
Let’s take a closer look at the many ways this garment has been used over the years.
King Charles II Kicks Off the Trend
King Charles II was facing a dire time in his reign. His people had undergone the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, and it did not seem appropriate for the king to be decked out in flashy lace while most of his subjects were in mourning and recovery. The French court was known for its excessiveness, so he wanted a style that was pared-down, simpler, and would use fewer lavish materials. The waistcoat was a fitted, knee-length garment that had cuff-length sleeves.
By 1670, nobility across the land wore the trend, but they had forgotten or discarded the king’s initial desire for understatement. Instead, they used the trend to stand out. The designs became more and more lavish. At the same time, the shape and size began to change. It grew shorter, and collars and sleeves became less common as well.
Waistcoats for Sporting Men and Women
By the 18th century, British waistcoats were popular for both men and women, particularly for sporting activities. This trend continues to this day as the waistcoat is considered a staple of British “country” clothing. The most iconic of these waistcoats is the tweed variety.
While waistcoats are primarily considered to be men’s clothing, women have similar garments. Women’s versions became more popular in the late 19th century. These short bodices would be worn over a full evening gown, giving the silhouette a sharp contrast.
The Men’s Suit Evolves
At one point in the evolution of the waistcoat, it was popular to wear one under a jacket with a sash or buttoned girdle around the waist. This may sound familiar as it is the precursor to today’s modern men’s formal suit, complete with cummerbund for the most formal modern events.
While today’s version is mostly associated with weddings, there was a time when the three-piece suit was considered everyday wear for just about every man. The reason? They had to know what time it was, and the waistcoat provided a convenient pocket in which to store a watch. As the trend moved to wristwatches, though, there was less need for a waistcoat, and it ceased to be a widespread daily piece of attire.
In the 1960s, the waistcoat was again adapted, this time to fit the needs of the countercultural hippie subgroup. Their version was still form-fitting and buttoned up, but it was longer—often reaching to the knees. They also added the colors and patterns that have come to be associated with hippie culture including floral designs and patchwork in bright colors.
The Dolce and Gabbana spring 1993 line took influence from these hippie versions of the waistcoat. Female models walked the runway sporting chokers adorned with peace signs and colorful versions of suits and vests. The brand continues to play with suits (including waistcoats) for women as an androgynous and chic display of fashion.
Today, the waistcoat is not considered an item of everyday wear except for in elite circles. While some high-level executives and lawyers may don a waistcoat on a daily basis, most people see them as special occasion attire. Even on these special occasions, they tend to be more muted in color and style and rarely have the flash and detail that they had when associated with nobility. However, the waistcoat has seen many different twists and turns in its evolution, and maybe we will one day see a return to the bright and flashy versions of yesteryear.