Waistcoats, also known as vests, date back to the 15th century with King Charles II of England. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves—what even is a waistcoat?
Source: Fashion History FIT
A waistcoat is a "sleeveless, close-fitting waist-length garment worn over a shirt, typically without a collar," according to Google. There are several variations of waistcoats, but generally, they are all built similarly and look similar in style. Vests are androgynous, going beyond binary gender rules, although they originated as a masculine pieces.
Vest originally stems from the Latin word "vestis," meaning "clothing." The word “vest” derives from the French word “veste,” meaning “jacket or sport coat,” and the Italian word “veste,” meaning “robe or coat.” Because it was cut at the waist and was typically worn by men as a layer beneath their coats, it earned the name "waistcoat."
Source: Fashion Heritage
Back to its recorded 17th-century origins with the king. Like the style icon he was, he popularized the waistcoat among his court and other English socialites, dubbing it a staple in English men’s fashion.
Popularizing the waistcoat was actually a political statement to show that he was anti-French. At the time, tensions between France and England were high. He was known to have spent much time in France, but as king, he needed to gain favor in England. Accomplishing his mission, he is remembered for being foppish and the “merry monarch."
“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” his councilman wrote. The Persian court of Shah Abbas the Great (1571–1629) inspired the king’s idea for the waistcoat.
Because the king's influence was like a word from God, waistcoats were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, though not in the form we know today. “Originally [it resembled] a floor-length coat in the 17th century” and was brightly colored and elaborately designed with embroidery. Quoted by FIT from The Dictionary of Fashion History (2010), around the 1660s-1670s (time of King Charles II), the vest for men was:
“A knee-length coat with elbow sleeves, generally confined at the waist by a sash or buckled girdle, and always worn under a tunic or surcoat. This tunic and vest, mainly a court fashion in England, was the forerunner of the coat-and-waistcoat style and the origin of the man’s suit.”
As the 18th century progressed, vests cut off the skirts and sleeves, stopping at the waist, hence the term waistcoat. As time went on, the idea of a waistcoat began to cheapen. They transitioned from being made with silk and woven with metallic threads to less expensive “fabrics like linen or wool.” They slowly began to lose prestige as they became everyday wear, even by soldiers in the army, when they were once mainly worn for formal and special occasions.
Source: The Met
In the 19th century, the waistcoat slowly resembled how we know it today. The length was cut fitting at the waist, the neckline formed a slight "V," “and the pockets had become smaller and more subtle”. Back then, waistcoats were still being built to fit the male physique with broad shoulders, skin-tight cuts, padding in the chest, and cinched in to flaunt their tiny waists.
Though still popular and “meant” for men, more women were documented as being seen in vests around the late 19th century. The vest had become a symbol for Queers by the 1920s. Wearing traditionally male clothing was popular among women at the time as a means of defying and rejecting the concept of gendered clothing. Queers, in general, have a history of creatively defying gender norms.
Around this time, we can begin recognizing queers as modernists for introducing the androgynous look. Exploring fashion as a part of culture took off in the queer community when they "experimented more openly with gender fluidity." Women and queers were sporting waistcoats, trousers, short haircuts, and collars. This was them claiming fashion as a symbol and tool of power and gender expression.
Vests have fallen out of favor, with the exception of the business professional world, where they have long worn three-piece suits due to advances in modern technology. The sleek storage waistcoats once provided became obsolete as technology advanced. However, with all the available styles and cuts, many people today have one in their closet. The vest is again a popular item, particularly recently in the last few years, as Y2K-inspired fashion has been in style. From suit vests and sweater vests to safety vests and gym vests, here are a few styles of vests most people have in their closets now.
The vest has come a long way since kings. It has shed some fabric as new silhouettes and advances in technology have evolved its purpose. It's a staple piece in so many people's closets, working for many different styles from streetwear like gorp-core to nostalgic aesthetics like fairly core. In its many forms, the vest still radiates elegance and prestige in fashion.
Source: Gentleman's Gazette