A waistcoat (sometimes called a wescot, vest or a vestee in Canada and the US) is a sleeveless upper-body garment worn over a dress shirt and necktie (if applicable) and below a coat as a part of most men's formal wear, and as the third piece of the three-piece male business suit. Once a virtually mandatory article of men's clothing, it has become uncommon in contemporary dress in the English-speaking world, although it has returned to fashion as part of businesswear in Germany. Waistcoats have now become a popular item of clothing amongst the youth of Britain as style icon Kate Moss and the members of indie band Razorlight wear them over casual shirts and jeans for a day-to-day fashionable look.
A waistcoat (as distinguished from other vests, such as the tank top), has a full vertical opening in the front which fastens with buttons or snaps. Both single-breasted and double-breasted varieties exist, regardless of the formality of dress, but single-breasted examples occur far more commonly in all cases. When producing a three-piece suit, manufacturers cut the waistcoat from the same material as the jacket and trousers.
In white tie and black tie dress the waistcoat normally matches the tie. However, white waistcoats are sometimes acceptable in black tie (for example, with a white jacket ); and waiters and other servants at white-tie events sometimes wear so-called grey tie to distinguish themselves from guests: the tailcoat of white tie with the black waistcoat and tie of black tie dress. Morning dress permits more variation. Less strict modern formal dress (seen for example at weddings) often permits colored bow ties in otherwise black or white tie dress, and the waistcoat may match these as well.
Before wristwatches became popular, a gentleman would keep his pocket watch in the front pocket of his waistcoat, attached to one of the buttons with a watch-chain and fob. This remains acceptable, though uncommon. Wearing a belt with a waistcoat counts as bad form; instead, one should wear braces (suspenders in the United States) underneath it.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men often wore incredibly elaborate and brightly-coloured — even garish — waistcoats, until fashion in the nineteenth century restricted them in formal wear, and the development of the suit dictated that informal waistcoats become the same colour as the rest of a man's outfit.
After the French Revolution of 1789, anti-aristocratic sentiment in France (and elsewhere in Europe) influenced the wardrobes of both men and women, and waistcoats followed, becoming much less elaborate. After about 1810 the fit of the waistcoat became shorter and tighter, becoming much more secondary to the frock-coat overcoat and almost counting as an undergarment, although its purpose and popularity were larger than ever. With the advent of dandyism in the early 19th century, the waistcoat started to change roles, moving away from its function as the centerpiece of the visual aspect of male clothing, towards serving as a foundation garment, often with figure-enhancing abilities. From the 1820s onwards elite gentlemen — at least those among the more fashionable circles, especially the younger set and the military — wore corsets. The waistcoat served to emphasize the new popularity of the cinched-in waist for males, and became skin-tight, with the overcoat cut to emphasize broader shoulders, a pouting chest, and a nipped-in waist. In the absence of a corset, men's waistcoats often featured whalebone stiffeners and were laced in the back, with reinforced buttons up the front, so that one could pull the lacings in tight like a corset to mould the waist into the fashionable silhouette. Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, had a reputation for his tight corsets and tiny waist; although he lacked popularity during his early years as the husband of Victoria, men followed his style, and waistcoats became even more restrictive. This fashion remained throughout the 19th century, although after about 1850 the style changed from that of a corseted look to a straighter line, with less restriction at the waist, so that the waistcoat followed a straighter line up the torso. Toward the end of the century, the Edwardian look made a larger physique more popular due to the popularity of Edward VII and his large figure.
The waistcoat remained 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. In the United States the waistcoat began declining during the 1940s when double-breasted jackets became popular, and by the 1960s they had become a rarity. The waistcoat remained visible in the United Kingdom until the late 1960s. During the 1970s the waistcoat once again became a popular and fashionable garment with many businessmen and youngsters wearing it along with the rest of their suits. Movies like Saturday Night Fever helped popularise the waistcoat as a fashionable piece of dresswear. The three-piece suit quickly became associated with the disco culture. The backlash against disco quickly led to the demise of the popularity of three-piece suits: men such as Steve Dahl, who disapproved of disco and organized a campaign to get rid of anything associated with it, criticized waistcoats as "effeminate". By 1983 waistcoats had become a rare sight. Today one rarely sees a business suit worn with a waistcoat in North America, although it remains popular among conservative-minded businessmen in the rest of the world. Some of the last professions with de rigueur waistcoats included banking, law, governmental agencies, and the professoriate, which considered that a waistcoat added an element of maturity, stability, and gravitas to its wearer. Nowadays many regard waistcoats as stuffy and affectatious. Professional snooker tournaments, though, usually require that participants wear a waistcoat: in this case without a jacket.
In Germany, the waistcoat has made a surprising return to popularity since approximately 2000, in a country where casual and smart casual dress had previously come to predominate even among white-collar workers. It has once again become a common part of business attire: many German politicians wear waistcoats, such as Left Party member Oskar Lafontaine. Many commentators see this as part of a general return to more traditional norms of dress, deportment and working-patterns in the workplace, attributed to Germany's sustained period of economic uncertainty.
Popular opinion once claimed that one could identify a man as a "real gentleman" if he left the lowest button on his waistcoat unbuttoned. This allegedly originated from the habits of King Edward VII while Prince of Wales: his ballooning 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. Others consider the practice to derive from the habit of undoing the lower button to stop the waistcoat riding up when on horseback.