At the same time that King Charles II brought the cravat back from France to his Restoration Court in 1660, he also brought the waistcoat, which was long in the front and did not become the shorter modern prototype for the vest until the end of the eighteenth century. The Koti, a long, armless gilet, buttoned to the neck with a stand collar, has been found in parts of Asia for a very long time and is still with us.
Both the cravat and the waistcoat were incorporated into Restoration Court dress and then they gradually became incorporated into dress for town and country. Indeed, the evolution of the coat (soon worn with an English turn-down collar), waistcoat and breeches from this time marks the point from which the elements of modern men’s dress become discernible and the Regency men, led by the Prince, in the footsteps of Brummell, simply made the transition from the gorgeous cloths of the late eighteenth century (created into clothes by tailors such as Louis Bazalgette), to dark Bath coating and woollen superfines; worked by Weston, Meyer and the rest of the new generation of tailors in the post-revolution age.
The modern vest comes in several different types and there is something for every occasion. Twentieth century protocols even made distinctions between different types of white evening waistcoats: long points and four buttons were suitable for certain social occasions but three buttons and short points were de rigueur for alternative Court Dress (basically ordinary, full evening dress). Nowadays, of course, such prescriptions no longer apply and, as with much else, and within reason, anything goes.
There are the formal vests for full morning dress and these are often buff or grey (either single or double-breasted) or they may be black in the same cloth as the coat, worn with white slips around the neckline, in imitation of the layers of vests that the Georgians wore. Indeed, white slips may also be worn around buff or grey morning vests. Vests are also still part of the short morning coat outfit; otherwise known as the ‘stroller’ or the ‘Stresemann’. They are seldom seen but white morning vests are very fine. Double-breasted vests are called ‘Ascot vests’ by the tailors, as they are often worn at the Royal Ascot race meeting.
There are black tie evening vests, cut low down the front, to display shirtfront and studs; and these have a three button, single-breasted closure and lapels. White waistcoats with evening dress coats are similar and may even be worn with a dinner jacket and black tie. In fact, there is a portrait in Buck’s Club (with its strong transatlantic links), of its founder, Captain Herbert Buckmaster (‘Buck’), in a dinner jacket, black tie and white evening vest. We recently had a friend to stay and, for the occasion, he had Messrs Gieves & Hawkes make him an ecru, barathea dinner jacket with corded silk shawl collar and lapels, together with a claret cummerbund and tie. I have to say (for all that I have said before about such coloured evening combinations), in the context of a tropical dinner jacket, it all came together very well indeed and a coloured cummerbund deserves to be less despised than it sometimes is.
Lounge suits can come in three pieces and a double-breasted vest with a single-breasted suit (although once regarded as ‘fast’) is very effective; as is a single-breasted vest with a double-breasted suit. However, I have also seen a double-breasted vest with a double-breasted suit coat; although I would not go for that myself. Moreover, a contrasting, light vest can also set off a dark suit; while a coloured doeskin (maybe in claret, scarlet, mustard or green), or a Tattersall checked vest makes a nice contrast with a tweed suit or sporting coat.
The Victorians quite favoured fancy, brocade vests and, although I am not against them as such (as they can considerably brighten up social events), I tend to leave those to others.
Words by Nicholas Storey