Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… waistcoats

The Victorian waistoat craze that lives on today

Swellboy on… waistcoats

April 14 2011
Nick Foulkes

I suppose I must now resign myself to the fact that I am not going to be going to the royal wedding – a grave slight, not least because it will deprive me of the opportunity to experiment with slips, or demis. I first noticed this stylistic furbelow on the Prince of Wales some years ago; I forget the wedding, but I remember the little area of white marcella peeking up from inside the waistcoat and thought it most chic.

I consulted Messrs Rowley and Butcher at Budd shirtmakers and they explained to me that these strips of marcella were buttoned inside the waistcoat to impart a crisp edge to the look. I thought no more about it until strolling around the 19th-century collections of the V&A the other day when I came across the display of a man’s wardrobe of the period. If ever an object tempted me to smash a display case and make off with an exhibit, it was the bright tartan waistcoat: it literally looked as if someone had gone to the tailor with a shortbread tin and asked for a waistcoat to match, or needed to something to wear while dancing the Gay Gordons.

On its own, hanging blamelessly on a rail, it was already a vivid enough piece of kit, a sort of sartorial WMD. Then I remembered that the dandies of the 1830s used to wear more than one waistcoat, a fashion that reached its apotheosis in about 1836, when men such as d’Orsay, Disraeli, the radical MP Tommy Duncombe and the author William Harrison Ainsworth, inter alia, used to pile on the waistcoats and then garland themselves with gold chains and festoon themselves with rings before considering themselves fully dressed. I believe that the slips buttoned inside a morning coat waistcoat are a direct descendant of the multiple-waistcoat craze at the dawn of the Victorian period.

There are many things that I like about modern life, but to have lived then would have been to know real pleasure as a well-dressed man – the emphasis was on display and on piling as much effect as possible on to one body at one time. Gloves, for instance, were a potent male accessory (I recently found a pair of Berluti gloves in exactly the same shade of tan as a Valextra briefcase I bought years ago in Milan) and yet today we value them little beyond the climate protection aspect. Of course gloves come with the inconvenient property of covering the hand, thus obscuring from sight any of the rings that were mandatory male accessories. But the resourceful Victorian man about town simply wore rings over the gloves. It must have been like seeing Liberace dressed for the Rio carnival.

But what is best about this is that this full-scale male adornment was far from incompatible with seriousness; Palmerston, who is one my favourite British prime ministers, was known to wear rouge, and I seem to recall reading accounts of those who saw Disraeli as an old man still clanking with rings and jewellery.

It is just a shame that the photographic technology of the period leaves us only black and white images of the Victorians, which probably accounts for the fact that morning coat slips are available in any colour as long as it is white.

See also

People, Tailoring