Sometimes in life you need to look serious. The addition of a waistcoat to your suit makes a statement. It says you mean business. A tailored vest is the sartorial equivalent of the breastplate in a knight’s armour. It is a garment that has been used for centuries to help combat the cold, fight for affection, battle in the boardroom and engage in espionage.
George Lazenby, looking like he means business
The waistcoat is a unique garment, in that its origin can be traced to a specific moment in history, the design being attributed to Charles II during the Restoration of the British Monarchy. Diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the event on 7th October 1666, writing, "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".
Charles II, the inventor of the waistcoat
It is interesting to note that Pepys refers to the garment as a “vest”, rather than a waistcoat. Savile Row tailors (and US citizens) continue to describe it as such, whereas a more common understanding is that a man’s vest is his singlet or undershirt. Nomenclature aside, the Royal Decree of 1666 began a trend that had become universal by the 18th century, from which time no respectable gentleman would be properly dressed without one. Styles varied from single-breasted to double breasted, with or without lapels, but always cut long - usually to mid-thigh.
Single and double-breasted waistcoat styles from the mid-18th century
In the early 1800s, Regency dandies wore their vests shorter and closer to the body to show off their waspish waists. The extreme silhouette was usually achieved with the help of a corset. King George IV, who along with his close friend Beau Brummell contributed significantly to the fashions of the era, was known to wear such a device. They were not the most comfortable contraptions; the King was almost rendered unconscious on an occasion in 1821 due to severe constriction and heat.
"Laceing a Dandy" into his corset
Men of importance continued to wear corsets into the mid 19th century, including Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. However their son the Prince of Wales, who became something of a trendsetter himself, was not quite as keen on maintaining a trim figure. According to legend, his increasing girth led him to unfasten the bottom button of his vest to release the tension, subsequently creating a rule of dress that continues to this day.
Queen Victoria's son, "Bertie" Prince of Wales, preferred a more relaxed style
Vests remained popular until the mid 20th century, when a combination of wartime rationing of cloth and post war austerity saw a decline in their production. Centrally heated buildings meant that waistcoats were not required as a layer of warmth, and in terms of fashion, the rebellious attitude of young men in the 1950s influenced a shift away from formality. Jeans, t-shirts and motorcycle jackets were threatening the three-piece suit.
Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" (1953)
The international broadcasting of popular music, film and television meant that communication and awareness of fashion trends moved at a far quicker pace than in Beau Brummell’s day, but not everyone adopted a uniform look. In Britain during the 1950s, the “Teddy Boy” subculture popularised a combination of drape-coat, drainpipe trousers and brothel-creepers. The outfit was often completed with a contrasting waistcoat, allowing vest-makers to breathe a sigh of relief.
Swindon Teddy Boys at the Hammersmith Palais (1955)
The sharp-suited look of the Mod movement in the 1960s continued to keep tailors in business, and the waistcoat survived into another decade. In September 1962, Town Magazine published an article on the Stamford Hill Mods, featuring a 15 year-old Marc Bolan (who went on to front the 70s Glam Rock band T-Rex). Looking very much the budding rock star, Bolan stood out amongst his peers (and leather-clad biker gangs) in a bespoke vest... made out of leather.
Marc Bolan and the Stamford Hill Mods
A month after Marc Bolan had featured in Town magazine, James Bond appeared on screen for the first time. Anthony Sinclair famously dressed Sean Connery for the role of 007 in Dr No, and Connery was instantly recognised as the world’s best-dressed secret agent. It wasn’t until 1964 that he appeared in a three-piece suit... but it was worth waiting for. The grey Prince of Wales check ensemble worn by Bond in Goldfinger remains one of the most iconic outfits in cinematic history. The distinctive waistcoat with narrow lapels (known as a “collar vest”) set the suit apart from the rest, and over 50 years later, the Goldfinger Suit continues to be a best-selling design for Sinclair's company.
Sean Connery wearing the Goldfinger Suit, 1964.
The following year in Thunderball (1965), Connery wore another Anthony Sinclair three-piece suit in the opening sequence of the film. The style of the waistcoat had changed. It was a plain vest (without lapels) with a square hem (without points). Being a shorter model, the bottom button remains closed on this design (as it does in the double-breasted version).
Always remember to straighten your tie after you've tussled in a three-piece suit
Throughout the 1960s, waistcoats continued to be worn by the most stylish of gentlemen, but few appeared as cool and charismatic as Steve McQueen in the 1968 heist movie, The Thomas Crown Affair. The role was originally offered to Sean Connery who turned it down - a decision he later regretted. McQueen's suits were made by legendary London tailor Douglas Hayward, and included vests resembling that of Connery's in Thunderball... one of which incorporated slim, Goldfinger-style lapels.
Steve McQueen, keeping cool in both plain and collar vests
It is advisable to wear braces with three-piece suits (particularly with the above style) in order to avoid exposing shirt fabric between the bottom of the vest and the tops of trousers. A belt should never be worn under a waistcoat as the buckle would interrupt the line; it is considered a fashion faux-pas... well, you wouldn't want to argue with Steve McQueen.
Braces played a supporting role in "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968)
In 1969 there was a change of personnel at MI6, and George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery as 007. Lazenby continued the practice of wearing a vest, as did his successors, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan - particularly on important occasions such as reporting to their boss.
Four Bonds in three pieces
In an extraordinary twist of fate, in 1999, James Bond temporarily morphed into Thomas Crown, when Pierce Brosnan stepped into Steve McQueen's shoes for a remake of the original film. His suits were appropriately tailored - in three pieces, although in some scenes he appeared to have turned the historic Prince of Wales rule on its head by fastening only one button, rather than leaving only one undone.
Pierce Brosnan adapts the rules of dress in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
In advance of the 007 film Casino Royale (2006), roles changed again as Pierce Brosnan surrendered his license to kill to Daniel Craig. The new appointment was controversial. He was shorter than his predecessors - and blonde. The moment of truth arrived in the final scene of the movie when, armed with Heckler & Koch submachine gun, he ruthlessly disables his nemesis by shooting him in the leg, then boldly announces to the world that he is, "Bond, James Bond"... majestically attired in a three-piece suit.
Daniel Craig becomes James Bond in the final scene of Casino Royale (2006)