As with waistcoats in most formal settings, this really should only ever be seen underneath a jacket - such is the
dress etiquette surrounding this rather humble garment. In some circles it’s considered correct to wear braces and
never a belt with a waistcoat, while it remains proper if pointless to wear a waistcoat with the bottom button
undone - reputedly after King Edward VII, who did so to make room for his ballooning paunch. Some 40 years after his
death, Neo-Edwardian Teds loved the waistcoat again, albeit on somewhat slimmer, ration book frames.
And yet the waistcoat, arguably, is also the only formalwear garment that’s been able to fully transcend that
inherent formality to become something properly rock ‘n’ roll. Dispense with the other two of your three-pieces and
- assuming you can get beyond looking like you’re ready to take someone’s order, sir - what’s left is a piece of
clothing that can be worn with jeans and a t-shirt. It’s pure Springsteen. Or Keith Richards. It’s Francis Rossi. Or
Brian May, who has even designed his own guitar-print waistcoat. This is cousin to the waistcoat of flouncy-shirted
bohemian pretensions, whether that be Byron or Bob Dylan. This is the waistcoat of cool - with his pork-pie hat the
only garment Top Cat needs to wear in order to be “the most effectual, the indisputable leader of the gang”.
The waistcoat goes back a long way, naturally. It’s been part of men’s dress since the days of King Charles II, who
by royal decree in 1666 made it part of court attire, largely to trump the dire influence of fashion from France.
Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that the king had, rather confidently, “declared his resolution of seeing a fashion
for clothes which he will never alter - it will be a vest”.
Back then every waistcoat was jazzy, brash and elaborate and initially had sleeves. By the 1750s the sleeves had gone
(“snakes have no arms - that’s why they don’t wear vests,” as Steven Wright has quipped), and by the late 19th
century it had evolved into a shorter, closer fitting and more sober part of the modern suit. But it’s the style’s
associations less with court as with corralling that has allowed it to have a foot in camps both smart and more
Its place in cowboy attire - probably more in fiction than in fact, but either way to the extent that the waistcoat
has become part of the wild west stereotype - has given it a dual purpose: there’s the degree of respectability
afforded by it, important in a time and place where knowing who to trust could be a life-or-death matter, but also a
practicality. Coats and other more tailored clothing restricted movement in the way the waistcoat - or vest, as the
early immigrant Americans would have called it - did not. The waistcoat provided warmth, protection and pockets
that, unlike those in one’s trousers, were accessible while in the saddle.
Never mind Jack Palance in ‘Shane’, Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’, Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name or just about
everyone in ‘The Wild Bunch’ - yes, every classic western is a veritable vestern too - it’s still Woody from ‘Toy
Story’ who stands out for his cowhide waistcoat. That said, most true cowboys wore theirs thick and dark - akin to
Hansen’s high lapel waistcoat - the better to hide the dirt, often in leather too. There’s a direct line from that
to the ‘cuts’ worn by hairy bikers - those leather or denim jackets that have had the sleeves removed; less good in
an accident, but better for the weekend warrior to ride a-posin’ in.
Indeed, it’s exactly the same thinking that links ‘Red River’ to ‘Pot Black’. We’re back to sport. What transformed
snooker from a back-street game, frequented by the beered up and boiler-suited, to a global, mega-bucks sport, was
TV - specifically the British TV programme of the same name. Ostensibly embraced to show off TV’s new colour
technology, it became a surprise hit - and in no small part due to the insistence of organiser and commentator, Ted
Lowe, that all players sign contracts obliging them to wear dinner suits. Of course, much as cowboys didn’t work in
coats, the likes of ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Steve Davis didn’t play in their jackets. They played in waistcoats, the
garment that in no small part made snooker respectable. De Petrillo’s scoop-fronted waistcoat or Kit Blake’s
cornflower blue option would have been ideal.
They’re likely too va-va-vest for most occasions. It was, after all, always the too cool saloon gambler who wore the
double-breasted brocade waistcoats in the cowboy pictures - even if he often got shot for his troubles. Something
plain and knitted is the safer, all-occasions choice. Some might question whether this is waistcoat enough. Some
might rather call this a sleeveless cardigan. But that would be to pick holes.