A Five-Minute Guide to Waistcoats and Vests

Today, waistcoats, or vests, are the essential third piece in the traditional three-piece male business suit.

Historians can precisely date their origin to King Charles II of England (1630 – 1685), who introduced the vest to the English court as part of correct dress.

Diarist and civil servant Samuel Pepys wrote:

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

The King of England was essentially trying to outdo the French King Louis XIV—a tall order indeed.

Portrait of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland by Thomas Hawker, 1660
Portrait of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland by Thomas Hawker, 1660

Charles II had borrowed the idea from English traveler and adventurer Sir Robert Shirley (1581 – 1628), who in turn had borrowed it from the Persian court of Shah Abbas the Great (1571 – 1629).

Sir Robert Shirley and Lady Shirley by Anthony van Dyck, 1622
Sir Robert Shirley and Lady Shirley by Anthony van Dyck, 1622

Originally a longer coat, the “vest” as it was initially called, later became the “waistcoat” as fashion demanded a shorter waist-level cut.

c1710. British. Linen, silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c1710. British. Linen, silk, metallic thread. metmuseum

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men often wore elaborate and brightly-coloured waistcoats.

But changing fashions in the nineteenth century demanded a more subdued palette to match the new lounge suits.

1730. Italian. Silk twill and plain weave (gros de tours) with silk- and metallic-thread discontinuous supplementary-weft patterning bound in twill (lampas). LACMA
1730. Italian. Silk twill and plain weave (gros de tours) with silk- and metallic-thread discontinuous supplementary-weft patterning bound in twill (lampas). LACMA

As the eighteenth century progressed, waistcoat skirts became shorter and eventually disappeared.

Complementing the coat and breeches, luxurious fabrics and decoration were emphasized for the visible areas, while those unseen were made of cheaper fabrics like linen or wool.

1740. British. Silk, linen and possibly horsehair, hand woven and hand sewn, silver. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1740. British. Silk, linen and possibly horsehair, hand woven and hand sewn, silver. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1750. French. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé) on satin foundation. LACMA
1750. French. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé) on satin foundation. LACMA

Reserved for the most formal occasions, the shimmering waistcoat below would have been used for court appearances or high ceremonies.

Woven entirely out of metallic threads which were difficult and costly to work with, it would have been a very expensive purchase.

1750. British. silk, metal, linen. metmuseum
1750. British. silk, metal, linen. metmuseum

Troops of the regular army would wear waistcoats made from old worn-out overcoats turned inside-out so that the reverse-colored lining was on the outside.

Regular British Soldiers and an Officer. Credit Tommc73
Regular British Soldiers and an Officer. Credit Tommc73
1760. British. Cotton plain weave with cotton corded quilting. LACMA
1760. British. Cotton plain weave with cotton corded quilting. LACMA

From the inventive floral sprigs composed of different flowers, down to the bull’s-eye motif of the buttons, the embroidery on this vest is a particularly noteworthy remnant of 18th-century men’s wear.

1760. French. silk, cotton. metmuseum
1760. French. silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. British. Brocaded silk. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1765. British. Brocaded silk. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Outstanding naturalistic leaves and petals and intricate floral motifs on this vest show the refinement of 18th-century embroidery.

1780. French. Silk, metmuseum
1780. French. Silk, metmuseum

Depicting Aesop’s (620-560 BC) tale of “The Wolf and the Crane”, the embroidery motifs on this vest show a crane removing a bone from a wolf’s throat.

Indicative of the status of the waistcoat as decoration was a playful style to the beautiful embroidery work.

1780. French silk, cotton. metmuseum
1780. French silk, cotton. metmuseum
1780. French. Silk. metmusem
1780. French. Silk. metmusem
1785. French. Silk satin with silk embroidery and silk grosgrain ribbon. LACMA
1785. French. Silk satin with silk embroidery and silk grosgrain ribbon. LACMA
1790. Europe. Silk satin with silver-metallic and polychrome-silk thread and silver sequins. LACMA
1790. Europe. Silk satin with silver-metallic and polychrome-silk thread and silver sequins. LACMA
1800. French. silk, linen, metal, cotton. metmuseum
1800. French. silk, linen, metal, cotton. metmuseum
1810. American. Silk, linen. metmuseum
1810. American. Silk, linen. metmuseum

Beginning in the 1820s, elite gentlemen of the more fashionable set—particularly the younger crowd and the military—wore corsets.

Emphasizing the masculine body shape for men, waistcoats became skin-tight and cut to give a broad-shouldered look, with pouting chest, and nipped-in waist.

1830. American. silk, cotton. metmuseum
1830. American. silk, cotton. metmuseum

If no corset was worn, then the fashionable male silhouette could be still be maintained with whalebone stiffeners and reinforced buttons up the front.

To help mold the waistline, the lacings in the back could be pulled tight.

1835. American. wool, cotton. metmuseum
1835. American. wool, cotton. metmuseum

Shawl collars and patterned textiles were a prominent feature of vests in the 1820s and 30s.

Vividly contrasted glass buttons and wool pile embroidery set against glossy velvet lend a unique touch to this vest.

1838. American. Silk, cotton, wool, leather, glass. metmuseum
1838. American. Silk, cotton, wool, leather, glass. metmuseum
1840. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1840. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum

Popular throughout the middle of the 19th century, a padded chest and nipped in waist helped achieve the expected male body shape.

Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was known for wearing tight corsets sporting a tiny waist—a style that many men followed.

1845. American. Silk, cotton, leather. metmuseum
1845. American. Silk, cotton, leather. metmuseum
1845. British. silk. metmuseum
1845. British. silk. metmuseum

Although vests of the second half of the 19th century were more somber, the elaborate texture of this vest harks back to a more decadent era.

1850. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1850. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1855. French. Silk. metmuseum
1855. French. Silk. metmuseum
1858. American. Red and black striped wool lampas, silk twill. philamuseum.org
1858. American. Red and black striped wool lampas, silk twill. philamuseum.org

Inspired by French paisley shawls, the patterning of this vest proved very popular in the 1860s.

Adapted by Europeans from the Indian boteh form, goods featuring the paisley motif were imported from India by the East India Trading Companies in the 17th century.

Paisley has since become one of the most popular designs in fashion history.

1860. American. Cotton, mother-of-pearl. metmuseum
1860. American. Cotton, mother-of-pearl. metmuseum

Paired with a black evening suit, this vest made for a very elegant appearance, with intricate details such as the curve of the pocket mimicing the textile pattern and the embroidery detail.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Edwardian look made a larger physique more popular.

King Edward VII is said to have started a trend to leave the bottom button undone to accommodate his expanding waistline.

1885. American. silk, cotton. metmuseum
1885. American. silk, cotton. metmuseum

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David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.