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.


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