Fundamentals of formalwear - A Guide to Waistcoats

Fundamentals of formalwear - A Guide to Waistcoats

At Favourbrook, we pride ourselves on having one of the most extensive and unique collections of formal waistcoats in the world. Our seasonal collections are available to purchase online but in both our London stores in the Piccadilly Arcade and Pall Mall, we have considerably more unique pieces for you to discover. Despite the waistcoat becoming all but redundant in casualwear these days, when it comes to formalwear and sartorial occasion dressing, the waistcoat is indispensable, not least because it is the largest piece of sartorial real estate on your body upon which you can build a semblance of personality and individuality.

Whether you are getting married or are attending an event with a formal dress code, your choice of waistcoat will go quite some way to determining if you look your very best. From considering the colour and fabric to the cut and style, choosing a waistcoat is not a decision to take lightly, which is why we have deep-dived into its history to understand its purpose and legacy in the annals of sartorial menswear. 

Vested Interest

It’s widely thought that what could be agreed as the original genesis of the modern waistcoat probably originated from Persia in the middle of the seventeenth century, before making its mark on King Charles II (in the portrait below by Tomas Hawker). He is purported to have borrowed the idea from adventurer Sir Robert Shirley, who in turn had borrowed it from the Persian court of Shah Abbas the Great. A ‘vest’ would be the most accurate description of the garment, popularised by Charles II who was persuaded that a more sober sartorial style should be adopted after the twin catastrophes of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London (in vast contrast to the  superficial extravagance on display in the upper echelons of French court and society. 

King Charles II

Far from being something that finished at the waist like the modern waistcoat, this vest was a well-fitted knee-length garment made mostly from cheaper fabrics as opposed to the lace preferred in more lavish times (although it wasn’t that long before this sartorial sobriety was forgotten). As time passed, the vest’s length gradually diminished so that by around 1700, many of the examples of the time had skirts that finished above the knee, a change catalysed for the most part by the demands of being on horseback. As the waistcoat evolved, the front became increasingly more cutaway in order to reveal the wearer's breeches.

As to the question of which came first - the double or single-breasted waistcoat - I’m not entirely sure, but what is more certain is the early popularity of the double-breasted style, at least during the early period of the 18th century. By this stage, the waistcoat had developed small flap pockets, had removed the sleeves, and were cut square to the waist. As the sobriety of earlier times receded, it became common for waistcoats to use patterned fabrics - mostly stripes - but by the turn of the century, the waistcoat had fully arrived in all its splendour, with conspicuous extravagance back in the form of decorative embroidery and luxury fabrics. Dandies were so enamoured with the opportunity to peacock their wares that they even took to wearing more than one at once.

 An illustrated guide to historical waistcoats

The 20th century was an entirely different story for the waistcoat however as extravagance made way for mundanity once again, before virtual extinction in common everyday dress. The three-piece suit did its best to keep the tradition going, and various subcultures such as the hippies, Teddy boys and punks put their own unique twist on the garment. Despite their best efforts, the casualisation of menswear has meant that the waistcoat as we know it today finds itself best amalgamated in the tradition of formalwear, where it has always felt most at home.

 

How to choose the perfect waistcoat

So that’s the history - here’s the nuts and bolts of choosing one for whatever occasion you might need it for. The first thing to consider is the style - single or double-breasted. The latter is typically considered the more formal option of the two and comes with a squared-off finish at the waist as opposed to the single-breasted versions angular front. The DB will in almost all instances come with a shawl lapel which accentuates the lovely sweep of the cut and is ideal if you have broad shoulders and are of a medium build. The single-breasted style will be better suited to slimmer chaps. 

Favourbrook waistcoats

 Sunset Culcross Double Breasted Waistcoat

Sunset Culcross Double Breasted Waistcoat

Dusk Halton Piped Double Breasted Waistcoat

Dusk Halton Piped Double Breasted Waistcoat

Teal Halton Double Breasted Waistcoat

Teal Halton Double Breasted Waistcoat

The fit for both styles should closely follow the contours of your body but allow for comfort in movement. If there is one unbreakable rule, it is that the length of the waistcoat should be such that no amount of shirt should be seen. Be mindful of this when trying on DB styles as they have a squared-off finish and the length can be easily misjudged. What’s more, length of the waistcoat can only be altered in one direction unless your tailor has the magical ability to conjure cloth from nowhere. Ideally, you want the waistcoat to finish about an inch below the trouser waistband and should cover a belt if worn. Any longer and the waistcoat will bunch at the waist which is not a good look. The front of the waistcoat should sit flat against your chest with minimal bunching at the back. Most waistcoats do come with an adjuster but that should be used to tweak rather than fix.

Two models wearing a ornate silk waistcoats by Favourbrook.

 Rose Davenport Waistcoat

Rose Davenport Waistcoat

Cream Belvoir Waistcoat

Cream Belvoir Waistcoat

 

Stone Bressingham Waistcoat
Stone Bressingham Waistcoat

The colour and pattern is entirely subjective but we would always recommend choosing a contrast colour to your morning coat, unless you are opting to wear a grey morning suit, in which case a matching waistcoat is absolutely appropriate (Prince Charles is a great case in point here). For summer months, a linen waistcoat in a pastel hue such as dove grey, champagne, powder blue or dusty pink is an excellent choice for weddings or Royal Ascot, but don’t be afraid to opt for bold silk patterns either. A floral pattern or a geometric print can be a fantastic way to inject colour and personality into your outfit.

 

To shop our selection of waistcoats online, click here, or drop by waistcoat boutique in the Piccadilly Arcade in London, or our flagship store at 16-17 Pall Mall.

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