Posted by Adam James

The History Of Waistcoats

We all wear them when we put our three piece suit on, but have you ever wondered where the waistcoat actually originated from and why it’s such a popular piece today? Well, here at Cavani, we have done our research and are letting you in on this iconic garment’s secrets in our history of waistcoats article. If you’re familiar with the history of tweed suits, you won’t be surprised to learn that the waistcoat originated from England!

Where Did It Come From?

There’s often a lot of speculation when it comes to dating clothing from centuries ago, but we can actually be as precise as possible when it comes to the waistcoat (originally known as a vest, later being called a waistcoat due to the simple fact that it reached the waist and no further) as it was English King Charles II who decided that a waistcoat should be a part of an Englishman’s correct dress, specifically in October 1666. We know this because of a very famous quote that you might recognise:

“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” - Samuel Pepys - October 1666.

Samuel had wrote this in his diary and we are glad that he did as it marks the date perfectly! Of course King Edward II didn’t actually fully invent the waistcoat himself though, similar designs were popular in Persia and India, as a vest style garment was often worn in these countries because it was too hot for a full jacket, but a suitable, smart, decorative item of clothing was still needed for practicality, so removing the sleeves of a jacket seemed like a great idea. The English version was adapted to suit accordingly by the King, just with similarities in design. As the King was now the head of the newly-restored monarchy and inspired by this, he wished to change the way fashion was seen in England and distance himself and his court from the over the top 17th Century French style, by adding in a waistcoat, he thought this was the perfect way to do that.

The History Over The Years

So now you know where it originated from, but what about the history of the waistcoat through the years up until now? The waistcoat started out as a simple item to differentiate between the courts of France and Britain, but it soon became adopted by many others. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the fashion for this garment was to be extremely decorative, bright, bold, flamboyant and extravagant. Of course we know that clothes depicted your wealth centuries ago, so having a lavish piece like that was a symbol of wealth and status. Court peacocks and popinjays were among those who made statements with their waistcoats, opting for rainbow colours, silks and satins… showing off how amazing an item like this can be and how much money they had. 

However, over time, fashion changes and once something new comes around, it’s out with the old, so instead of the waistcoat being a symbol of royalty and status like it once was, it was then adopted as more of a simple item in the late 1700’s,  this was partly due to the international influence of the anti-aristocratic French Revolution in 1789. People wanted to move away from what the waistcoat was known for and made changes to the garment itself.

The New Waistcoat Design

From 1810 onwards, the new style for the trendy waistcoat was much shorter in length, and it had a much tighter fit, similar to what we’re used to now, which meant this old fashioned vest could now become an undergarment, often being used as a garment that would slimline a larger mans frame, which then got even tighter.

The 1820’s saw the rise of the corset, as we know from historic paintings of the Regency era clothing, so it was fitting that waistcoats then emphasised the slim waistlines. To take this even further, some featured whalebone stiffeners and laces at the back, with reinforcement buttons on the front, making the waistcoat very close fitting and structured, to show off the figure. Some men even wore a waistcoat over the top of a corset, to emphasise the small waist even more. 

As time changed again and the 1850’s rolled around, the arrival of Edward VII meant that the waistcoat began to expand in style and shape to suit the owner instead of moulding them into the garment itself. He decided they should be a bit looser and it was understood that this historic vest should be the same colour as the rest of the clothes, blending itself into the outfit, rather than standing out. This is when the three piece suit became popular and men were seen everywhere in close fitting waistcoats worn underneath their jackets. It even went as far as if you were seen without a waistcoat underneath your suit, it would equal the same as being undressed. It was a must have piece that completed the look of the three piece suit - it was mandatory.

The Working Mans Attire


If you read our history of tweed suits article, you will know that a traditional three piece suit was often the choice of wear by the working man when the 1900’s rolled around, which leads me to another bit of information you might find interesting - why do we leave the bottom button undone? The simple reason for this back then is because it helped with fit, and since manual labour was prevalent around this time, it made for easier manoeuvring without restrictions, so it was a necessity, however there are other stories that it was actually Edward VII who couldn’t do up the bottom button due to a more fuller figure, so the rest of his courtship had to follow this trend as well, creating a new style. These two ideas are not dissimilar from each other, due to the fact the buttons were restrictive, so I can see both being true - take your pick.

As more decades went by, the waistcoat was such a functional piece, being used to store pocket watches within it, or to house functional items, making it perfect for working and business men, to which it still stands as functional today, just not for a pocket watch as we have wrist watches. Just like we spoke about before in the other article though, as time went on the three piece suit started to be seen as a richer mans costume and suitable for business wear only, not being worn by workers at all, so the need for it eventually started to drift out and casual wear became a thing of popularity in the 1970’s.

The Punk Rebellion

We all know fashion changes though, but the waistcoat wasn’t being hard done by! In the 1980’s, giant shoulder pads and loose trousers, sans a waistcoat was the trend, but designers came up with new styles for the waistcoat and it was often worn by indie kids and even in the steampunk style circles, just in a different way (remember the Young Ones?). The waistcoat/vest was now more like a jacket with cut off sleeves, coming in leather, denim, and other casual fabrics, being adorned with pins and badges, or embroidery etc., making way for the punk revolution, often worn over t-shirts. Changing its name to more of a sleeveless jacket or a vest, it was a symbol of youth and rebellion, a far cry from the origins of royalty and riches.

Fast forward to today, there’s now a distinct difference between the two. Causal vests still exist and are worn by the younger, edgy population, while the waistcoat which is part of a three piece suit is worn for smart, classy occasions, namely a wedding. Fashion has no boundaries these days though so men can even wear a different coloured waistcoat to their suit, a printed waistcoat, or even just a waistcoat on its own with a shirt and jeans to dress up an outfit a bit more, but not go all the way.

It’s good to know that a garment as popular as this though is still here after 400 years, which means it’s most likely here to stay for a few hundred more! I hope you enjoyed the history of waistcoats and learned something new today! As for that bottom button, it’s up to you really if you wish to do it up or not.


Image Credit: Men's Suits, PinterestTea In A Teacup & Historical Emporium


  • Posted On February 14, 2019 by David

    Loved this! Keep up these great articles. I love how informative and well written they are! Bottom button undone! X

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