A Royal History of Waistcoats

Photo by the Naval History and Heritage Command

The waistcoat is a distinctly British phenomenon. We wear them under jackets or on their own, with ties or without. However you wear one, a waistcoat can be guaranteed to add a good dose of traditional style and formality to your look.

What you may not know about waistcoats is that they have a royal pedigree. The garment was patronised by King Charles II in 1666 when he announced that waistcoats should be designated as proper court attire. The King’s waistcoats were inspired by the vests worn in the Middle East at the time. He wanted to create a new British style that would encourage his court to move away from French fashions.

The vests that had caught the King’s eye had been imported from Persia where they were worn in the court of Emperor Shah Abbas. This inspiration can be clearly seen in early British waistcoats which were brightly coloured, highly ornate and a very different shape than those familiar to us today. They had a high neck, were buttoned to the waist and then flared out over the thighs. 

Of course, fashion changes over time. By the mid 19th century dandyism was growing in popularity and these traditional waistcoats were no longer what people wanted to wear. In response to this, waistcoats gradually became shorter, more tailored and less ornate. 

The Industrial Revolution also played a part in this evolution. Fashion became far more utilitarian and the waistcoat ornamentation that had been popular in previous centuries almost completely disappeared. A style of waistcoat emerged that is very similar to the garments we wear today.

The waistcoat was a standard part of formal or business attire right up until the mid 20th century: no suit was complete without one. From then on it became an ‘optional extra’ and it’s everyday popularity began to decline.

Nowadays we see waistcoats as luxury tailoring perfect for adding personality to a look. They’re usually cut from cloth in sober colours such as grey, black or navy and ornamentation tends to be limited to pinstripes, checks or tartans. They’re a long way from the bright beaded waistcoats seen in the court of King Charles II! 

Want to know how to wear one? This will help: When and How to Wear a Waistcoat