Definition - Definitions
A waistcoat (called a vest in Canada and the US) is a type of garment. Today, it usually refers to the third piece of a three-piece male business suit, to distinguish it from other types of vests. Once a virtually mandatory piece of men's clothing, it is rarely seen in today's world of casual dress.
A waistcoat is a sleeveless garment which buttons in the front and is cut from the same material as the rest of the suit. It can be either single-breasted or double-breasted. It is worn above a dress shirt and necktie and beneath the suit coat. The term "waistcoat" derives from the fact that the coat is cut at waist level, since when it was coined, men's suit coats were cut well below the waist (see frock coat or morning coat). Before the popularization of wristwatches, a gentleman would keep his pocketwatch in the front pocket of his waistcoat, attached to one of the buttons with a watch chain and fob. It is considered bad form to wear a belt with a waistcoat; instead, one should wear suspenders (braces in the United Kingdom) underneath it.
The waistcoat is one of the few pieces of clothing whose origin can be precisely dated. King Charles II of Great Britain introduced the waistcoat as a part of correct dress during the Restoration of the British monarchy. Samuel Pepys, the diarist and civil servant, wrote in October 1666 that "the King hath yesterday in council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how". This royal decree is the first time a waistcoat is mentioned (originally referred to as a "vest", the American usage being the original one). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, waistcoats were often incredibly elaborate and brightly-coloured, even garish, until fashion dictated in the late nineteenth century that waistcoats be the same colour as the rest of a man's suit.
The waistcoat was a required part of men's business clothing, and even casual dress, until the mid-twentieth century. Part of its popularity stemmed from the fact that it added an extra layer of warm cloth between one's body and the elements, but the strict rationing of cloth during the Second World War, the increasing popularity of pullover sweaters and other types of heavy tops, and the increasing casualness of men's clothing in general all contributed to its decline. Today, it is rare to see a business suit worn with a waistcoat in North America, although it is still popular among conservative-minded businessmen in the rest of the world. Some of the last professions where a waistcoat was de rigeur were banking, law, governmental agencies, and the professoriate, as a waistcoat typically added an element of maturity, stability, and gravitas to its wearer. Many people nowadays, however, regard them as stuffy and affectatious.
It used to be said that you could tell that a man was a 'real gentleman' if he left the lowest button on his waistcoat unbuttoned. This is said to be a result of the the habit of King Edward VII. While he was Prince of Wales, his balloning waistline caused him to leave the bottom button of his waistcoat undone. The story goes that his subjects took this as a style indicator and started doing it themselves.
Although waistcoats are no longer considered an essential part of a suit, they will always remain a correct part of business and formal attire for men.