Given a choice between Pilates or a waistcoat, I’ll take the body-hugging garment with a string of buttons at the front, a silk back and adjusters any day. Because, frankly, there is nothing in any of the currently fashionable posture regimes that can touch the immediate impact on a man’s bearing of a well-fitting vest, as it is called in the US.
Put simply, a chap can’t slouch in a waistcoat. It straightens the back, holds in the tummy, puffs out the chest and gives him – well, a sense of purpose. You don’t have to take my word for it. This is what designer Tom Ford says: “It’s the male corset. It holds everything in and can transform saggy pecs and flabby abs in the way that Roman armour made every man look like a god.”
That may be what Charles II had in mind when, during the Restoration of the British monarchy in the 17th century, he adopted the vest – as it was then known in England – adapting it from those worn in Persia, and decreed that it must be worn as part of correct dress in court.
The descendants of those richly embroidered Persian garments have been the default choice of courtiers, bridegrooms, power-brokers, politicians and snooker players ever since. And while there is still a huge market for such distinguished occasion wear, the 21st-century version is an altogether softer, more bucolic affair. In short, the waistcoats keeping the nation’s men in shape today are generally more casual, and are usually made in wool or cotton – something for a Sunday pub lunch, or a day at the beach.
Hackett’s Expedition version (£145) captures this new spirit, with its four poppers and flat pockets for day-out paraphernalia. It’s a similar story with Polo Ralph Lauren’s striped cotton waistcoat (£255), although this one is shorter, and instead of the front sections ending in two points, it sits flat on the belt. It looks great with a pair of jeans or white ducks.
For a more traditional look, John Simons, noted for its classic American menswear, has introduced a stunning line of very English squire tweeds (from £175), while City brand Crombie offers a single-breasted navy chalk-stripe waistcoat with horn buttons (£150), a grey herringbone wool option (£195) and a lovely beige dog-tooth check (£150), which can be bought individually or as part of a three-piece.
The resurgence of the waistcoat is part of a drift towards a more romantic style of dress that also includes cravats and brogues. Everyone I speak to attests to the fact that waistcoat sales are rising exponentially – from Savile Row to the shires. To find out what is going on I pay Oliver Spencer a call. He is the owner and motivation behind Favourbrook, the country’s, and possibly the world’s, foremost designer, manufacturer and standard-bearer of the waistcoat. There are more than 700 to choose from in his small store in London’s Piccadilly Arcade.
By the door is a black waistcoat festooned with pheasant feathers, attached individually by hand (£990). Further inside there are packed rows of 12 basic shapes (£160-£320): single and double breasted; with or without lapels; high and low break. They come in linen checks; in tweed and plain wool; and dressier silk designs, with piping and shawl collars (£260), which will doubtless be out in force come Royal Ascot next month – although they can also look terrific dressed down with jeans and an open-necked shirt.
“When we opened the shop we had a terrible time. Then Four Weddings and a Funeral came along and it went ‘whoop’,” says Spencer, who has been selling clothes for 20 years, beginning with a stall in London’s Portobello Market. “Now we’re doing fantastically well. In fact, this has been our best year since the millennium.
“The thing is there are so many different permutations. If you’re a big man it hides your stomach, and if you’re stick-thin it adds perspective to the body,” he continues.
The key thing is fit, says tailor Jason Regent, founder of Regent Tailoring, based in Salisbury. “You have to wear a waistcoat to the point of it being tight,” he says. “It has also become fashionable to wear a tweed waistcoat underneath a tweed jacket. After years of being a bit fogeyish, I think people are getting more daring with tweed.”
Two of Regent’s most popular waistcoats are a tweed with blue/purple over-check (£99) and another, equally dynamic, green tweed with an electrifying orange silk back (£99). Its range also includes a design with a Nehru collar (£169) and another with patched pockets and optional padded shoulders (£250). Sales of both bespoke (£160-£275) and off-the-peg (£90-£120) are up 100 per cent on this time last year, helped by the popularity of Regent’s “cut, make and trim” scheme that lets clients have a waistcoat made up in their own fabric (from £160); coats made from waste. It’s a nice idea, and it sits well with a theory, albeit unproven, that the word “waistcoat” originates from a garment fashioned from small pieces of material left over after the trousers and jacket of a suit have been made.
In contrast to traditional men’s outfitters, fashion brands have tended to shy away from waistcoats. Paul Smith is one exception. He has a wool/mohair-blend version (£200) designed to have a higher recovery rate from creasing, while his Trim Waistcoat (£420) – worn on the catwalk over a jacket – is a slim-fitting, two-button double-breasted confection, with slit pockets and leather trim, and a rock’n’roll aesthetic.
Elsewhere, there are knitted waistcoats, too, such as those from Dunhill in Mongolian cashmere (£275) with an “engineered fit” – another way of saying tightly tailored. And from Ralph Lauren, there is a silk/linen-mix version with two pockets (£300).
The heyday of what we recognise as the modern, traditional waistcoat was before the advent of central heating, when houses were draftier than open-topped sports cars, and these garments provided an extra layer. It was also a time when fob watches, secured by a chain, were concealed in one of the pockets. As our homes warmed up, and timepieces began to be worn on the wrist, the fate of the waistcoat appeared sealed.
But talk of its demise for everyday wear certainly seems premature today. Many of Charlie Baker-Collingwood’s clients are proof of this. The proprietor of Henry Herbert Tailors, who zips around London’s West End on two wheels measuring up gents for waistcoats (from £270), as part of his Savile Row by Scooter service, recently customised one for a politician, for example. “He wanted a pocket sewn into the inside of the back,” says Baker-Collingwood. “He said it was for his papers, but my friend said it was for his expenses!” The tailor also reports a growing trend for double-breasted waistcoats, with Irish Donegal being the most popular tweed.
Ironically, the most bitter argument I have ever had with my tailor was over something the size of a 5p coin. It was at the bottom of the waistcoat I was trying on during the final fitting for a suit. The reason for the altercation was my insistence on it being buttoned up and he, correctly as it turned out, insisted it should be left undone.
Fulminating, with a chalk in one hand and pins in the other, he recalled the story of Edward VII, who, in an effort to accommodate his rapidly expanding, girth, undid the bottom button of his waistcoat, prompting all around him to follow suit. My tailor was adamant: a king gave us the waistcoat and another showed us how to wear it.
Needless to say, mine has remained undone ever since. Kings and tailors always know best.