In the dog eat dog world of morning dress, waistcoats sort the men from the boys… and the dogs. Barring the cut of your morning coat, the decisions you make in regards your waistcoat have the most potential to make or break your outfit. Don’t get scared now. Although at first glance the choice of waistcoats seems phenomenal compared with those for the coat, on closer inspection you will find they all fall into two major categories – single or double breasted. Once that decision has been made (see below – it may take some time) you can move onto the question of the colour and fabric. At this point I should say that the waistcoat should not be seen as an opportunity to ‘show your personality’ – no one wants to see it, especially if it’s made of lime green polyester brocade. Best to play it cool, at least until the wedding disco. Let’s look at the choices:
Single breasted waistcoats have a long pedigree and, if they could talk, would probably claim they came over to Britain with the Norman conquest, countersigned the Magna Carta, and preferred ‘Just A Minute’ when Derek Nimmo was still alive. Over time, the popularity of the waistcoat has ebbed and flowed. These days they are rarely worn with lounge suits and have been predominantly substituted with cummerbunds for black tie, but where morning dress is concerned, a waistcoat is essential. The majority of people plump for the default single-breasted design but, occasionally, single breasted waistcoats with lapels can be obtained, and these look slightly more interesting.
This is what you’ve been waiting for. Double breasted waistcoats haven’t been seen much in standard menswear for half a century, but when it comes to morning dress, they really come into their own.
The classic colours for morning dress waistcoats are black (to match the coat), dove grey or buff. Departing from these hues is perfectly acceptable, though as a rule of thumb we would recommend sticking to a pale, muted palette. Needless to say, your choice of colour should harmonise with the rest of your outfit.
It is not uncommon to see waistcoats for formal day or evening wear made up without backs, instead sporting a neck and waist strap. The purpose of leaving off the back is to improve comfort and reduce the risk of overheating at a summer wedding. Debrett’s online morning dress guide insists on avoiding backless waistcoats on the grounds of them looking untidy when the coat is removed. This is nonsense. You shouldn’t really be removing your morning coat anyway, and wearing a backless waistcoat can help you resist doing so.
You will find morning coat waistcoats cut from a variety of cloths. Generally lightweight wools and linens come off better than silks and silk lookalikes. The final choice of fabric is down to personal choice and the season.
Sometimes a waistcoat will feature an additional buttonhole for the purpose of attaching a watch chain. On single breasted waistcoats, this is generally found in line with the front buttons, usually in a vertical orientation. On double breasted waistcoats they can appear either in the dead centre or hidden underneath the lapel. These are fairly rare and are generally found on vintage models only, though some modern makers, such as Hackett, still include them. They are by no means essential, however, and if you find your waistcoat doesn’t have one, don’t worry: there are plenty of other ways to attach a watch chain if you choose to wear one.
Are you the kind of person who loves waistcoats so much that you wish you could wear them all at once? Slips are another rare feature of waistcoats that date back to an early 19th century fashion of wearing two waistcoats at the same time in contrasting colours.
Of course, nobody does that now, that would be ridiculous. Instead, the waistcoat slip was devised which essentially consists of a small strip of stiff cotton, often marcella, that buttons into the neckline of the waistcoat to give the impression of a second. It’s unlikely you will find a waistcoat complete with slip without a great deal of searching, but a good tailor can add one to any of your favourite waistcoats, for a fee.
Most people already know the etiquette regarding single breasted waistcoats, that being that the bottom button should be left undone. There is no point going in to the reasons why this may be – there is no hard evidence fo corroborate any of the myths as to its origin – the bottom line is, you should leave the bottom button of your single breasted (day) waistcoat undone at all times. However, what to do with a double breasted waistcoat is less clear. You may see some bottom buttons left undone on double breasted waistcoats, but there doesn’t seem to be any historical precedent for this, so it most likely an over-generalisation of the single breasted rule. On balance, it is our opinion that you should fasten all buttons if you are wearing a double breasted waistcoat.
Finally, you may be thinking that waistcoats are old fashioned and why should I wear a waistcoat at all? Generally, in this guide, we want to avoid absolutes – saying you must wear this and you mustn’t wear that, but in this instance, I think it is safe to say you must wear a waistcoat with morning dress. Occasionally you will see people in morning dress without a waistcoat (even Edward VIII did it) but frankly, as this Marks & Spencer model proves, it looks awful.