350 Years of the Not-So-Humble Waistcoat

12 Oct 2015


The ubiquitous waistcoat (previously known as a vest) is one of the rare items of clothing whose origins we can date accurately, thanks to the annals of English history.  As is the custom today, where travel reveals a fresh aesthetic perspective, the vests of the 16th century were first seen and then adopted by travellers returning from Persia.  The most famous of these travellers was Sir Robert Shirley, Persia’s ambassador of the court of St James.  

During the Restoration of the British monarchy,  on October 7, 1666 to be exact, King  Charles II introduced the vest as part of the dress code for his newly reformed kingdom.  Emphasis was to be placed on the fabric and the cut, rather than the ruffles and highly embroidered silks that were fashionable at the time.  These practically outlawed the flamboyant and rich styles of the French King Charles, who was known to dress more neutrally,  and dictated a long waistcoat made of English wool which would be worn with a knee-length coat.  The significance of this is emphasised by the diarist Samuel Pepys who noted "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; but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.  There are many references in Samuel Pepys’s diary to vests, my favourite reference, made on May 9, 1669, addresses the fact that Samuel sometimes wore two waistcoats (a style which you can see referenced in our Pinterest Board: How to Wear a Waistcoat):

Thence towards the Park, but too soon to go in, so went on to Knightsbridge, and there eat and drank at “The World’s End,” where we had good things, and then back to the Park, and there till night, being fine weather, and much company, and so home, and after supper to bed. This day I first left off both my waistcoats by day, and my waistcoat by night, it being very hot weather, so hot as to make me break out, here and there, in my hands, which vexes me to see, but is good for me.'

The Dandy Movement of the 1760’s was established in London by a group of aristocratic English gentlemen who, following a trip to Italy,  were greatly influenced by the elaborate and flamboyant fashions favoured by the Italians which included layer upon layer of elaborate silks, gold embroidery, buckles, stockings and red shoes!  As with all fashionable groups they had to name themselves, thus the Macaroni Club, and the look that they championed, was formed.  As with the young, influential ‘IT’ girls of today, this clique had a very profound influence upon fashionable London. In fact, they were so influential that the American patriotic song "Yankee Doodle” even refers to them: "Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.”

Fastforward a century, where English men were almost never seen without their waistcoat.  It was a sign of poor taste or even considered "undressed” to be seen without one. Waistcoats were made in all textiles (according to your budget) and museum pieces include waistcoats of silk, wool, linen and cotton. When adorned, they were painted, embroidered, quilted, brocaded and even finished with silver or gold lacing and buttons. They became the centre piece of a man’s wardrobe. However, it was during the middle and later years of the 18th Century that the old world and its ideas began to pass away through a series of revolutions. The new ideas of freedom, liberty, equality and self determination were at the forefront of the minds of millions of people around the globe and spurned history shifting unrest including the American Revolution (1760−1791), The French Revolution of 1789 and The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804).

During the Restoration, it is clear that clothing is influenced by societal changes. However,  as a result the 18th Century Revolutions, the new ideas of equality and also the fear of the upper classes of flauniting their wealth, the waistcoat became less elaborate and more utilitarian. Again,  a societal shift signified a change of fashion and the place of the waistcoat. Now less flamboyant, the waistcoat moved into the background with the outer coat taking centre stage. It became much more of a foundation garment and a practical one: i.e., a place to keep one’s essential timepiece.

Having gone through many revolutions of change, the waistcoat has arrived at is modern day incarnation through the influence of the most famous Dandy of all, George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell. As a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, Brummell occupied an influential place in society. Somewhat of a minimalist, Brummell shunned the elaborate and ornate fashions of the London and Oxford set for a more toned down, crisp look based on dark coat jackets and full length trousers (rather than stockings and breeches). His look was sharper, subtler, more sober and more conservative than any looks that had been seen in the fashionable cities of the world. Thus, the modern two-piece suit and three-piece suits (with the addition of the waistcoat making frequent appearances) were born, and that is how it has remained for over 250 years.


The Ethical Consumer Magazine Conference

02 Oct 2015
Sustainable Clothing

No sooner had we entered the Amnesty International building in Shoreditch than we were greeted by the affable Simon Birch.  After 2 minutes it was clear that Simon had done his homework on the goings on at Cock & Bull Menswear. After a quick chat he chaperoned us down to the main venue room where the talks were being held via a welcome beverage break en route.

A quick perusal highlighted approximately a hundred and fifty attendies and instantly made me feel that I was part of a burgeoning community that was actively striving for an ethical world. It felt empowering. With everyone focused and pens to the ready we had a brief but valid, attention-grabbing talk by Rob Harris (a co-founder of the ethical consumer group) on ethical market and the age of austerity. Rob displayed a number of graphs from the research on ‘How The Ethical Consumer Operates’ within the ethical marketplace that proved a useful insight in how best to work within this particular market or practice  (this information can be found on their website)

Next on the timetable were talks from a panel of people within the  industry ranging from Barbara Crowther, Director of policy and public affairs at the Fairtrade Foundation to Amy Jackson, Senior Credibility Manager at the ISEAL Alliance and both spoke in turn about differing areas in the challenge that is ethical labeling in conjunction with their own work experiences which are a frequently debated topic within not just the ethical market but product based companies in general. This is mainly due to the increasing importance of total transparency within companies that heighten consumers’ understanding. With the correct labeling and a greater knowledge on how the products we produce are made and by whom we in turn take big strides towards reaching our goals to increasingly create a larger demand for ethical products. Explanation and transparency being the key components of helping us to achieve this challenge.

After some light and pleasant intermingling with other guests and a very appealing vegetarian and vegan buffet we reconvened for, what was for me, the most engaging talk of the day.  It was given by Kate Soper: Emerita Prof of philosophy and writer of 'alternative hedonism' and an advocate of the pleasures of reduced consumption’ and the best ways to achieve this ‘ultimate challenge’.  The talk provided us with a different perspective on the issues we face when trying to tackle some of the biggest problems around everyday ethics and our efforts to become ever more green and socially conscious.

After attending one of five choices of discussion groups (all of which can be found on their website) I found myself sat in front of the next panel of guest speakers who were involved in a number of large ethical companies such as Charlotte Borger, Director of Communications, Divine Chocolate and Huw Davies, Head of Personal Banking, Sales and Marketing at Triodos Bank in which they all discussed ethics at scale in relation to each of their companies. It put the issues we face into perceptive whilst offering up a somewhat daunting list of tasks that need to be addressed. That said it was indeed inspirational to be shown the vision of possibility and success from each of these businesses both large and small for they had each proven that there is indeed a market in which ethical businesses can thrive and that it flowed out, not just into those shoppers that purposely choose to buy ethically but also interested a mainstream audience whom it was interesting slowly but surely by the values it purports

The day was wrapped up with drinks delicious goodies generously supplied by Triodos Bank and Divine Chocolate. It gave us all one last opportunity to chat with the other attendees each involved in creating and managing their own unique pathway towards an all encompassing effort for furthering and broadening the practise of encompassing a high regard for ethics with business practice.

According to Mintel’s Ethical Consumer - UK 2015 report, 76% of UK adults say the ethical and sustainable credentials of products and the reputation of companies or brands behind them are important when making a buying decision. This is very good news but that also means that 24% of UK adults do not feel that the sustainable and ethical credientials of a company are important to them. Additionally, while the 76% might say that the credentials are important to them, the question is how many of them actually act on what they care about?  As a pioneering brand, Ethical Consumer Magazine has done a lot of work over the years into the ethical consumer and, no doubt, has seen some change.  Their research suggests that at one end of the spectrum 5-10% of consumers are 'always ethical', while at the other end  20-30% don't care, so that leaves 60-75% of us who consider buying ethicalling during our decision making process. We would expect this to be great news for us at Cock & Bull Menswear but the truth is that while the average consumer may be considering the ethics behind the purchasing in their food basket, skincare choices, detergents and fuel, it is only the most enlightened who have begun to make choices around the clothing that they buy. 

Operating in an arena that promotes obsolescence means that a 360º change of thinking has to be undertaken in how we think and relate to our clothing. We will need to become more aware of where our clothing is coming from, how and by whome it is made.  While our vanity around how we dress and whose clothing we choose to buy to bolster our egos may not be abated in the near future the question on why we need so many items and why we need to update those styles so frequently is one that we need to continue to question. The challenge for ethical clothing brands to get noticed among the behemouth of the fashion industyr and become viable alternatives to mainstream non ethical and sustainable brands is one that must be embraced and attacked creativily from all sides. 

We left the conference more enthused by the massive changes that have taken place in consumption but still aware that there is still a long way to go to engage with the 60-75 who might consider our organic cotton shirts that we make just a mile away from our studio, or the tweed waistcoats that use genuine hand-woven tweed from the highlands of Scotland and keeps a beautiful tradition alive, but who, in the end opt for an alternative that continues to pollute the planet or is made in exploitative or dangerous conditions.

In conclusion, Lizzie Harrison of SustainRCA, a research hub within the Royal College of Art, says: “Up to this point, it’s fair to say that most of the fashion industry has been directed by compliance rather than innovation. So they have done what they have had to do rather than taking sustainability as a springboard to do something very exciting.” She says sustainability tends to reside  in the corporate social responsibility arm of fashion companies, far from the design department. “That presents a real challenge in terms of bringing sustainable innovation into the heart of an organization.”

Tweed Weddings: Made in the UK

25 Aug 2015
New Collections | Tweed | Made In the UK | Organic Underwear | Artisan Production

Bespoke Tweed Wedding Suits

We have been having fun over the last 2 years making wedding outfits for various grooms which mainly consisted of 4-piece tweed suits (which included a tie), 2-piece tweed suits or simply a tweed waistcoat teamed with an off-white shirt, 8-piece Ramber cap and/or tweed bow-tie.

The resurgence of the tweed look has been gaining momentum over the last 5 years as the classic English Country Gentleman look has grown in popularity again. So it should not have been a surprise to us that the bespoke wedding outfit for grooms would follow on the shirtails of the trend (excuse the pun).  The provenance of tweed is part of the attraction along with the benefits and properties which are wideranging and significant.  The vibrant colours (reflective of the landscape in which it is made), sumptuous texture, artisan production heritage all add up to a luxurious and discerning option for a special occassion.

I've always had an affinity with colour: the subtlties of the shades, the emotions that they evoke, the memories that they underpin.  My earliest memories growing up in my grandparents four storey Victorian house in Camberwell (teased and spoiled by 3 aunties and 3 uncles) is of being surrounded by abundant colour.  My grandmother's choice of softfurnishings and curtains ensured it was a warm enviornment reminiscent of the Caribbean sun.  The women dressed like a rainbow tribe but the men were more subtle and so sharp in their shot teal suits, plum knitted ties, crisp shirts finished with tie-pins and cufflinks. They definately had outfit pride!

I am always very excited to be involved in the special day of the grooms (and couples) who choose to include us in their outfit planning.  It is always a pleasure to discuss options from our tweed range that is produced exclusively for Cock & Bull Menswear by Breanish Tweed as well as discuss the finishing touches and accessory options that can make the outfit extra special.

New Collection Tweed Wedding Suits

As the Cock & Bull Menswear is about producing lifestyle items that journey into our everyday life we never planned to cater for weddings or special occassions so it has been a pleasure to have something that we did not set out to do become a small part of the Cock & Bull Menswear collection for 2016. 

We have not yet told the story of how a Scottish artisan mill now weaves exclusively for us (that is the subject of another blog), but we are blessed and privileged to be in that very posiiton.  We would like to now offer a ready-to-wear selection of 2-piece and 3-piece suits from early 2016. 

Current Tweed Waistcoats, Tweed Caps & Tweed Cufflinks

Our range ready to wear Tweed Waistcoats available 12 in colours.

Our range of 8-Piece 'Rambler' Tweed Caps available in 14 colours.

Our range of Tweed Cadet Caps available in 6 colours.

Our range of Tweed Cufflinks available 6 in colours.

Please do get in touch by email at orders@cockandbullmenswear if you are planning a wedding for later this year or 2016 and would like to consider a tweed wedding suit as part of the look.

Free delivery on all UK orders
Free delivery on all UK orders

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