Trick question: Have you ever wondered what a waistcoat is actually for? If so, fret not as you’re not alone. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, wondered precisely what a waistcoat (or vest, by another name) actually was when he penned this note about its creation, “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.” That was 1666. Question answered: the waistcoat was invented, styled and worn in order to make the British Royal Court look better than the French one. Job well done – everyone still desires their suits to be made on London’s Saville Row.
But that was then. Now, France doesn’t even have a Royal Court. Little has changed for us men however. Standing out and looking attractive in a suit still goes hand in hand with wearing a three-piece one. But therein lies a dilemma: if a waistcoat is one of the visual pinnacles of men’s fashion, what’s a man to wear when a waistcoat seems out of the question?
A waistcoat. The trick lies solely in the styling. So if I may interpret some of the looks you’ll have seen on my Instagram account, here are 4 ways to make a waistcoat an essential part of your casual and ins formal wardrobe.
When it’s hot, ditch the jacket, not the waistcoat.
My past summer was played out in hot cities. The heat in Lucca was at times stifling, Pisa reduced me to little more than a puddle, St. Tropez thankfully involved a lot of time in the pool, while New York’s September-heatwave gave me a firsthand understanding of exactly why locals like to escape to the Hamptons as soon as the sun bares down on Manhattan. Across two months’ travel I was never without my waistcoats – I merely ditched my jackets.
But why wear an outer layer at all when the weather is so hot? Because it looks good. Damn good. As men, we’re somewhat limited when it comes to our summer fashion choices. There isn’t the menswear alternative of a pretty summer dress, half of us hate wearing shorts, and t-shirts often look like so plain they probably repel those we seek to impress. Whether your t-shirt is from GAP or Givenchy the end result is often the same: you look like every other average guy.
A waistcoat changes that. It can be layered over a short sleeved t-shirt or over a long sleeved Henley shirt, the Henley’s sleeves naturally rolled up. Or you can wear it over any one of the shirts you already own. No matter which you prefer, the result is going to be the same: you’re going to look far more dressed, far more polished. You’re going to stand out.
Daniel Dykes in New York in two pieces of a three-piece linen suit. Photographed by Doina Ciobanu.
Stay that way in the cooler months too.
The perfect layering piece in summer, your waistcoat doesn’t have to disappear below a blazer in winter. Whether it’s a separate (I pick mine up at Reiss) or borrowed from a three-piece suit, consider the waistcoat a winter extension of your summer look. In autumn, wear it as part of a warming layer that stands out when your light trench coat comes off. And treat it the same in the depths of winter when you enter an over-warmed room and remove your overcoat and scarf.
Three piece suit, two and three piece contrast.
Some men’s fashion rules are made to be broken. Here’s one you can discard without hesitation: the idea that your waistcoat must exactly match what you’re wearing. To hell with that – if you’ve confined your waistcoat to the rules of three-piece suits you’re limiting your potential. A grey waistcoat with blue denim, a blue waistcoat over white jeans, denim, cotton, linen, wool, plain and patterned… The trick is to mix and match, a lot works. And don’t forget to look beyond the casual – just because your suit came in two pieces doesn’t mean you can’t layer a contrasting waistcoat under its jacket.
One bonus tip here: don’t be afraid to wear two parts of a three-piece suit with a completely different bottom element. Casual jeans or contrasting tailored pants and shorts can make for a great statement.
And this is how you make it really special.
Let’s be honest: if you’re reading a ‘how to style a waistcoat’ article, it’s probably not because you’re a man with a passing interest in fashion, but rather a man who wants to stand out from the crowd. For many a man, fashion isn’t about self expression, it’s about sex and success. You know that looking good can lead to both of those things, and that’s probably why you’re here, several hundred words in. So here’s one final rule to break, one final idea for making a waistcoat look really good:
Wear a pocket handkerchief / pocket square in the breast pocket and style it like a blazer.
Traditionalists will baulk at this idea, the breast pocket of a waistcoat simply wasn’t made for the wearing of pocket squares. But it can be done, and it adds that extra, masculine something.
In breaking this rule, however, it’s only fair to point out that it raises another one: never wear a pocket square in your waistcoat if you’re also wearing a suit jacket or blazer on top. Sure, wear one when your waistcoat is layered underneath an overcoat, but never when it’s part of a three-piece look.