Your Guide to Wearing a Waistcoat

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Most guys keep theirs tucked away in the back of the wardrobe, only to be worn to weddings and black tie events. Our guide will give you all you need to know about how you can make men’s waistcoats a wardrobe staple for every occasion. 

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From a few pints at your local pub to events that call for black tie, waistcoats (or men’s suit vests) can be worn at pretty much any time and any place these days. With a little bit of confidence and the common sense to not turn up to an afternoon coffee in a black silk style, you should be able to pull one off just fine.

Style

Waistcoats are a practical addition to your outfit, as well as a stylish one; in the Winter they provide an extra layer of warmth and in the summer they allow you to strip off your jacket, roll up your sleeves, and still look put-together. If this is your first time dabbling in the world of waistcoats, then you’ll want to start with something simple; something of the plain variety that will go practically unnoticed under your usual suit jacket.

waistcoat outfit
Casual Waistcoat and Jeans
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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Once you’ve got used to wearing a waistcoat in a traditional style, you can start to play around with colours, patterns, fabrics and shirts to keep your look current and occasion-appropriate. As long as you follow the guidelines when it comes to the fit of a waistcoat, it’s reasonably hard to go wrong. The style of waistcoat you buy really depends on how you plan to wear it. They are only versatile if you have a decent collection of different styles; you can’t buy a “wedding waistcoat” and expect to be able to wear it to the office. Here, we give you a rundown of the different styles you’ll want to consider adding to your wardrobe.

Casual

If you want to wear a waistcoat every day you need to steer clear of the features usually associated with formality; shiny fabrics and matching colours. Instead, go for tweed or corduroy to add texture to your look and stop things from looking too sleek. Single-breasted waistcoats tend to work best for a casual look, as they don’t have lapels.

In terms of styling, don’t worry about matching your fabrics or colours when it comes to your trousers. That being said, you can’t quite get away with throwing on a pair of joggers; a pair of slim fitting jeans or chinos is your best bet. Doing away with your jacket is also an easy way to keep things casual. You don’t have to pay much attention to waistcoat etiquette when wearing one in a casual situation; don’t worry if it’s a little on the short side or slightly loose-fitting.

men waistcoat style
Man wearing a waistcoat
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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Formal

For work, dinners and parties which require you to dress up a little bit but aren’t strictly black tie, you’re going to want something slightly more formal. Stick to single-breasted styles, but opt for something in a slick fabric. As for colour, you can keep things traditional with navy or grey; or you can opt for an olive green or wine red if you want to stand out.

If you’re unsure on the dress code, then play it safe and match your trousers and jacket to your waistcoat. If you think there’s room to have a bit of fun, then try pairing a bright or patterned waistcoat under your usual suit jacket and trousers. A classic collared shirt is best, but ties are optional.

waistcoat formal what to wear
A waistcoat is a fundamental part of a three-piece suit
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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Occasion

Formal dinners, your Sunday best and weddings call for you to follow a few more rules. For this level of formality, you can’t ditch the jacket (well, at least not until after the bride and groom have hit the dance floor). A three-piece suit is the best way to go, although you can swap the matching waistcoat for something in soft lilac or pale yellow.

Now you’ve got a choice between double-breasted and single-breasted; lapels or no lapels; V-shaped neck or U-shaped neck. All of these are really up to personal preference, and what suit you plan on wearing. If you’re wearing a coloured waistcoat, the extra height of a V-neck will create a nice contrast against your jacket. A U-shaped neck can only be worn with a bow tie, or completely tie-less. Again, stick to sleek fabrics and ensure that it’s extremely well-fitting.

men waistcoats best
Two ways to wear a waistcoat
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

Black Tie

An event that calls for black tie requires you to wear a white dress shirt, black bow tie, black dress shoes, a waistcoat and a dinner jacket. The rules don’t leave a lot of room for deviation, and if you try to do something a bit risqué, chances are you won’t pull it off and you’ll end up sticking out like a sore thumb.

Checks Vs Stripes

Checks and stripes are both popular choices when it comes to waistcoats, and which one you choose is really down to personal preference. You can wear them as an accessory to a plain shirt, or match them to the rest of your suit if you’re feeling brave (although there’s a time and a place for that).

Pinstripes are easy enough, just pair them with a white shirt and you’re good to go; they’re best saved for formal occasions. Checks are a bit harder to style; you don’t want to end up walking around looking like a human chess board. Smaller checks are more discreet and can be worn under a neutral blazer for a smart look. Bigger checks can be worn more casually, over a roll-neck jumper or with rolled-up shirt sleeves and no jacket.

mens checked waistcoat style
Richard Biudel wearing a checked waistcoat
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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Cotton Vs Tweed

The fabric of your waistcoat is an important thing to be considered; different textures will give your outfit a different feel. Traditionally, cotton waistcoats are formal and tweed waistcoats are casual.

Tweed is great for layering up with different fabrics, textures and patterns in the Winter; it goes perfectly with jeans and flannel shirts. Cotton waistcoats are typically paired with a suit for a smart look. If you want to mix things up you can wear yours with a short-sleeved shirt in Summer or an overcoat instead of a suit jacket in Winter.

Of course, you can rock the boat completely and wear a tweed waistcoat and jeans; or just go the whole hog and wear a full tweed suit if you’re feeling extravagant. Dressing a cotton waistcoat down is a much harder task; it will look awkwardly mismatched with a pair of jeans, so chinos are your best option.

Double Breasted Vs Single Breasted

Firstly, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page; single breasted waistcoats have one row of buttons, whilst double breasted waistcoats have two. Which one you choose is mostly down to personal preference.

Single breasted waistcoats are a bit more contemporary and usually come without lapels which gives them a sleeker appearance. They make a good “everyday” option; whilst they can still be worn to work or formal events, they are easily dressed down for a casual look.

Waistcoats of the double breasted variety are more traditional which in turn makes them more formal. They are usually reserved for social occasions with a strict dress code, making them a great option if you want to stand out on the streets with something a bit unexpected.

man wearing waistcoat and suit trousers men
Man wearing a waistcoat with suit trousers
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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Plain Vs Colour

Keeping everything colour-coordinated is a sign of formality. For work, weddings, dinners and other formal occasions, a matching three piece suit in black, navy or grey is the rule of thumb. Luckily, rules were made to be broken and you can now mix and match your colours as you please.

If you are keeping things matching, make sure your colours are an exact match; a slight difference in shade will leave your slick suit looking sloppy. As for more unconventional colour choices, a yellow waistcoat with a navy or sky blue suit is a popular combination for Summer. A dark green waistcoat with a brown jacket works well in Winter, and lilac is a favoured choice for weddings.

david gandy style waistcoat mens
David Gandy wearing a waistcoat
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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The Shirts

The most obvious pairing for a waistcoat is a classic collared shirt, which is certainly a good choice for the office. If you want to keep your look more casual, then a granddad or mandarin collar will give your waistcoat a contemporary twist.

Mixing up your collar type along with your shirt colour, pattern and fabric will ensure that you can wear your waistcoat day in, day out without accidentally looking like a waiter. Don’t be afraid to switch out your usual tie for a bow-tie; doing so can take your look from business formal to “fun guy looking for a good time”.

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Why a Waistcoat?

  • Waistcoats are actually a pretty functional item. If you’re in a setting that requires you to look smart then a waistcoat is perfect. They provide the same formality as a suit jacket but don’t restrict you in the same way.
  • They are a great way to stay formal, yet comfortable. If your office lacks air conditioning then you can easily switch your suit jacket for a waistcoat without breaking any dress codes. On the other hand, in the colder months, you can layer your waistcoat under your jacket and overcoat for added warmth.
  • Adding a waistcoat on top of your usual shirt and trousers helps to streamline your silhouette. The V-shape makes your chest look larger and your stomach look a bit trimmer. They can basically help you look like you’ve spent some time in the gym when really, you never left your sofa.
  • They can pretty much revamp your wardrobe. Even if you’ve only got a couple of suits and two waistcoats, once you’ve mixed and matched and worn the waistcoats without a jacket, you’ve created a dozen different outfits.

mens grey waistcoat and suit

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How Should A Waistcoat Fit

  • The waistcoat is the slimmest fitting garment in menswear so it should sit very close to the body.
  • It should skim the torso without feeling tight; the adjuster at the back can be loosened to maintain comfort levels after a big meal.
  • If you can see wrinkles in the side and back of your waistcoat, or you simply can’t breathe, then it’s too tight and the adjuster needs loosening.
  • The length should cover the waistband of your trousers without showing the bottom of your shirt.
  • A standard waistcoat often has five buttons, but taller gents might want to opt for the seven-button style to suit a longer torso.
  • Unlike a jacket, you want slightly larger arm holes so your movement is not restricted.
  • The neck hole should sit against the back of the shirt collar, helping to keep your waistcoat in place.
  • If, when you lift your arms up, you don’t reveal a little bit of shirt at the waist, then your waistcoat is too long.
how a waistcoat should fit diagram
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

Who’s Wearing it Well

Some of the most well-known faces in fashion wear waistcoats on a regular basis; take your cue from them for a fail-safe look. A classic three-piece suit, favoured by the likes of David Gandy, will keep you looking put together at formal occasions all year round.

A textured suit with a patterned tie and pocket square will help you stand out from all the other suit-wearing businessmen. Pulling off a checked three-piece suit is no mean feat; Idris Elba makes it look easy, so take your inspiration from him. A faded check pattern stops this look from being too in your face, whilst a roll-neck jumper adds a casual edge.

For a more casual look in the warmer months, Johnny Depp and Ryan Reynolds demonstrate how you can dress your waistcoat down. An unbuttoned, short-sleeved shirt is a risky choice, but one that can be pulled off with a pair of sunglasses and the right amount of confidence.

An unbuttoned waistcoat is typically a cardinal sin, but by mixing various shades of blue and a pair of desert boots, Ryan Reynolds makes it work. The fact that he’s Ryan Reynolds probably helps.

Street Style

If dressing like the likes of David Gandy seems like a bit of an unrealistic goal, then some inspiration from the streets might be helpful. A boater hat is a popular choice of accessory for a particularly fashion-forward look; pocket watches are optional.

Bow ties, patterned socks and sunglasses can all be worn whilst still maintaining an air of formality; formal shoes and trousers are a necessity to stop your outfit from slipping too far down the smart-casual scale.

For a really laid-back look, cover your waistcoat up with an overcoat and throw on a pair of Converse; it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it works surprisingly well. To keep things totally classic, a matching three-piece suit is the only way to go to ensure you look smart from head to toe.

Further Reading: History

Waistcoats have always been an integral part of men’s formal wear, although in recent decades they have become an optional piece that has also integrated into casual wear. Waistcoats were originally known as vests for men and first came about in 1666; King Charles II had them imported from Persia to be worn in the courts.

For the next 200 years, waistcoats were brightly coloured with intricate detailing; once the 19th century rolled around, they were tailored to a tighter, plainer style. Waistcoats were a staple item in every businessman’s wardrobe, as suits were not to be worn without one. Today the rules aren’t so strict, but the waistcoat remains synonymous with sophistication. Whilst other garments and styles have changed dramatically over time, the waistcoat has stayed the epitome of men’s formal wear.

david gandy waistcoat mens style
David Gandy wearing a three-piece suit
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

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How to Wear a Waistcoat

  • It should create a streamlined shape and a poor-fitting waistcoat will leave you looking scruffy.
  • If you need to look smart, button-up.
  • Make sure your tie sits neatly underneath the waistcoat.
  • Finally, mix up your fabrics and textures; a cotton waistcoat with a cotton shirt and trousers will leave your outfit looking flat.
men wearing waist coats street style
Men’s Suit Vest
PHOTO CREDIT: Morts and More

On That Note

It’s time to integrate waistcoats back into your wardrobe and with all of the different types of mens coats our there, it’s east to incorporate one into your wardrobe. Whether you plan to wear yours unbuttoned and with a t-shirt or as part of a slick three-piece suit; each style has its place. Waistcoats are now accepted as casual pieces too.

Gone are the days when waistcoats were just a compulsory part of men’s formal wear; now they are loved by businessmen, hipsters and your average gent alike. They can be matched with all types of coats and an array of bottoms. A good fit is the most important factor when choosing yours; it’s even worth visiting a tailor to ensure the fit is perfect if you’ll be wearing it regularly.

Whilst there are a lot of rules when it comes to the fit of a waistcoat, there are surprisingly few rules when it comes to styling. Unless you’re going somewhere that strictly calls for black tie, there’s plenty of room to experiment with colours, fabrics and textures. As one of the longest-standing pieces of menswear, there is really no excuse for not having one, or five, in your wardrobe.

Author: Kathryn Jamshidi

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