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How to Wear Waistcoats

Secrets of a Waistcoat Wearer


Waistcoats are tricky for the uninitiated. Maybe you remember as a child sniffing at a parental G&T before reeling at the noxious fumes and wondering what the fuss was about. Yuk. No thanks. But like most of us, since hitting maturity, you’ve probably broken through the pain barrier and been bothering your liver ever since.


Now, I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with this but bear with me. Becoming a waistcoat wearer is akin to breaking the booze barrier in a couple of ways. Firstly, wearing a waistcoat is not something you should consider under the age of 18 – yes, we know parents inflict this inappropriate sartorial torture on their off-spring for all manner of familial/coming of age events, it’s not entirely unforgivable but it is Wrong – just like underage drinking. Secondly, once you’re over the initial hump you’ll lose all your inhibitions and find waistcoat wearing a hard habit to break.


Sticking with the booze analogy for just a moment longer – I promise we’ll move on in a tick – the key to getting a waistcoat right is to go for quality and fit. A fine wine. A crystal clear Russian vodka. A retro cocktail. But never ever a cheap cider. The potential fallout of getting it wrong is the wardrobe equivalent of a really horrific hangover complete with attendant sense of a deep and persistent shame.


We’re talking synthetic materials, spiffy styling, and waiter-esque pairing with black trousers featuring stay-press crease. The type of waistcoat attire that is best accessorised with a large pepper grinder and a dodgy accent. Unless you plan to resurrect the ghost of Manuel then steer clear of such Fawlty Towers folly. Run away and don’t look back.


So, now that we’ve trashed juvenile waistcoat wearers and European waiters – children and immigrants are always such an easy target, don’t you think? You’re probably wondering if we’ll ever get around to telling you how you should wear a waistcoat?


Tailoring and Fit


Brook Taverner Doeskin Waistcoat in Camel, from A Hume.


Well, one thing matters above all others and that’s fit. Like any tailored piece a waistcoat will only ever look good if it fits. Finding a vintage tweed waistcoat in a thrift shop is all well and good. And yes, tales of unearthing of vintage treasures do make for wonderful anecdotes. But no one will care – deaf ears and derision all round – if you look like a trust fund wurzel in your ill-fitting waistie.


What you want is a waistcoat that sits flat across the shoulders, with nice, high arms holes that don’t gape. It should feel neat across the chest without puckering or pulling at the buttons. The front panels should cover the shirt and belt rising in a gentle taper at the sides. The back is generally cut slightly higher than the front and it’s OK to show a little shirt in the lower back – though make sure your shirt is pulled tighter than a hospital sheet. Great wafts of shirt fabric create an instant slovenly, corpulent effect, think Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty – not good.


Regarding the bottom button. It has become conventional among the cognoscenti to leave the bottom button on a waistcoat undone. And in the early 1900’s it may well have been practical for navies or farm workers, bending and digging, to leave the bottom button of their waistcoats undone – for reference you might want to look at Ford Maddox-Brown’s masterpiece ‘Work’; gentlemen buttoned/workers unbuttoned – but really there is no earthly reason why you should leave the bottom button of your waistcoat undone. Unless you’re engaged in a spot of recreational trench digging, or a particularly vigorous banjo session, such as Mumford & Sons.


If on the other hand you simply like, or feel comfortable liberating the outlying button, then by all means plough on. But if you prefer feeling the maximum snug of a well-buttoned waistcoat then you should do so confident that you walk the path of the sartorially righteous.


How to Wear It


Now, the fun bit. Styling.


But a word of warning, it’s just a waistcoat, and should never be used as justification to unleash all manner of excessive peripheral paraphernalia.


What I’m trying to say is – accessorise sparingly – adopt affectations like pocket watches, sleeve clips and hankies half-stuffed with apparent casualness into back pockets at your peril. Contrivance is the death knell for style.


Try. But do not appear to have tried too hard.


One way to ease into the secret world of waistcoat wearers is to embrace the three-piece suit. This is the dapper dial on max. Tom Ford is big on the old three-piece suit, cut sharp as shark’s teeth and fitted like a glove. Dan Craig is oft seen striding out in the full TF works. Or if you desire maximum country cred the tweed three-piece is where it’s at. For absolute perfection a made to measure suit in vibrantly coloured, contemporary tweed from Bladen is the ultimate choice.


Everyone is unique, one shoulder slightly higher than the other, a low waist, a high waist – you prefer an extra lean English cut, or a loose Hacking style? Imagine the luxury of a tweed suit tailored exactly to your specification and proportions. Men walk taller in made to measure and at A Hume we’ve been helping them do it since 1929 – more here; Bespoke Tailoring an Art form Perfected.


Wearing waistcoats as part of a suit is great but they also have a sense of independence and can be taken out to play on their own. Tweed, cord and wool are great for the cooler months. Experiment with Tattersalls shirts, denim, chinos, flannel shirts and trousers, jeans, use multiple layers for a highly textured look. Note: we love a wool tie.


These garments may sound traditional and perhaps if you’re a fully signed up Jack Wills/Superdry card carrier then even a touch dowdy but I’ll say it again – it’s all how you wear it, the styling.


If you sport a loosely cut wool waistcoat there is a small chance that you’ll come off looking like a 1960’s red brick lecturer from a Malcolm Bradbury novel, but…..But, if you combine it with a collarless shirt and sharply tailored suit, or even jeans, RM Williams boots and fine striped shirt there’s no danger. This is a good look.


Summer is more about linen, or cotton but the principles remain the same.


To recap: fit; quality, i.e. only natural fibres; texture and layering. Take the waistcoat pledge. You won’t look back.


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