The history of men’s vests

Model 2 wearing Wool-mix vest in camel from Samuel Windsor

The humble vest has a long and interesting history
Image: Wool-mix vest in camel from Samuel Windsor

The men’s vest – that sleeveless garment you wear under a jacket – was born in Great Britain, brought forth by Royal decree, and immediately cemented as the staple of a man’s dress code.

Since then, this garment has occupied every niche in menswear. From the regal to the mundane, the vest has done it all. Here we take a look at the fascinating history of the vest – 400 years of men’s fashion in five minutes.

Men’s vests rise to fame by Royal Proclamation

Charles II portrait

Charles II made the vest his uniform
Image: Peter Lely / Public domain

When you consider that his dad’s head had been chopped off – you can see why, in 1660, the newly restored British monarch, King Charles II, was concerned to distance himself from his late father’s extravagant ways.

While the elaborate dress of pre-English Civil War days continued unabated in the French court, Charles decided that the English aristocracy would be more restrained. He would cut down on the amount of cloth the toffs would wear. As the legendary diarist Samuel Pepys records in his diary in 1666,

““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…”

As a bulwark against decapitation, it might seem that a vest would offer little in the way of protection, but since the present Queen of England continues to wear her head atop her shoulders, the strategy evidently worked. The vest was born and has been a mainstay of men’s fashion ever since.

Vests taken up by the dapper dandies

Embroidered vest from Smithsonian Design Museum

Dandies made even their vests dazzle and shine
Image: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Public domain

Vests might have been intended as a means to dress down before a potentially regicidal public, but during the 17th and 18th centuries, reserve once more gave way to decadence.

Despite the fact that the late 18th century now saw the beheading of the French king and queen for their outrageous opulence, over in England, the so-called ‘dandies’ reigned supreme.

It was then the practice for aristocrats at the English court to try to outdo one another by the sheer sensory onslaught of their attire. In this, the vest proved to be a vital part of an over fed, overstuffed man’s armoury. The dress sense at the time was for men to be bright, gaudy and covered in bling, and what better way to bring a blast of color to an outfit than by sporting a bejewelled vest?

In fact, one vest frequently wasn’t enough, and court peacocks and popinjays often wore two, the better to display wealth and privilege.

Vests grounded through Victorian reserve

Victorian man wearing a vest

Victorian vests saw the restoration of understatement
Image: Shutterstock

Thankfully, fashions change, and by the middle of the 19th century, order was once more restored when men in the UK and further afield in both Europe and America returned to more measured sartorial tones. By this time the vest had become a workaday mainstay of menswear, affording the wearer extra protection from the elements and making a smart suit a little smarter still.

Vests were no longer intended to make the wearer stand out from the crowd, but instead formed part of a uniform of sorts. A man’s ensemble was, with rare exceptions – think gamblers, gunslingers, and snake oil salesmen of the Old West – designed to make the wearer blend in. Three-piece suits were de rigueur, and the look was rigidly sober.

Why the vest’s bottom button is left undone

Model 2 wearing Thurston tweed vest from Samuel Windsor

Leaving the bottom button undone allows for ease of movement
Image: Thurston tweed vest from Samuel Windsor

Wondering where the trend for leaving that bottom vest button undone comes from? Wonder no more. It would seem there are two broad schools of thought on this obscure menswear custom, one involving another king, the other, horseback riding.

King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 until his death in 1910, was merely overweight by today’s standards, but back then, he would have been considered really quite rotund. It’s said that the king was so fat that he found it uncomfortable, or perhaps even impossible to do up the bottom button of his waistcoat.

Whether Edward’s court, in following the British king’s lead, brought about the trend for leaving the bottom button undone is, however, a moot point because it might equally have originated in the fact that gents of the day got about on horseback. Try sitting in the saddle with your bottom button done up – you’ll either pop it, or give yourself a hernia.

It’s up to you whether you continue the tradition, but in our humble opinion, we think it’s always nice to acknowledge history. And in any case, modern man might not spend much time atop a horse, but he still spends a lot of time sitting at a desk.

Vests become the smart choice again

McQueen wearing a tweed suit and vest

McQueen keeping the limelight firmly on the vest
Image: Unknown author / Public domain

Scoot forward to the middle years of the 20th century and the vest was no longer an essential part of a man’s everyday wardrobe. Sure, it could be rolled out for a special occasion, but more often, the lounge suits of the day were two piece garments rather than the three of yesteryear.

But there’s just something about a vest that lifts an outfit onto a higher plane. More than any other item of menswear, the vest always makes you look smarter; it completes your suit. Modern fashion combines the best of the past and present too, meaning your vest can be bright or somber, matching or contrasting, flat or textured – it’s all up to you.

Heading to a job interview? Your three-piece suit wins over those lesser dressed men in pants and jacket only. Getting married? Your three-piece will give you photos your grandkids will marvel at. Dressing down? A vest, cords and a brushed cotton tattersall shirt will keep you warm and comfortable without casting style to the wind.

Whether you opt for single or double breasted, the vest is like a good friend – it makes you more than a sum of your parts, has your back, and you’re always better off with at least one, than without any.

How do you wear your vest? Show us your photos – head over to our Facebook page and inspire others!

Posted in Men's Style Inspiration.

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