Waistcoats (or vests to my American cousins) are an absolutely awesome item in a gentleman’s wardrobe. Despite this, many guys still wonder how to wear a waistcoat properly, in both casual and formal scenarios.
It’s such a simple item, but like everything, has rules and complexities attached to it, especially if you intend to wear one away from a standard three piece suit.
This ultimate guide covers 10 tips on how to wear a vest, including the correct fit, buttoning, matching of patterns, how to wear one both formally and casually, and where you can buy them from, which will allow you to pull off a daring waistcoat look with confidence.
How to Wear a Waistcoat Tips
- Make sure your vest fits properly
- Experiment with different waistcoat styles
- Follow correct waistcoat buttoning etiquette
- Wear a vest with a matching suit for simplicity
- Wear a non-matching waistcoat for complexity
- Introduce a knitted waistcoat
- Introduce a chain or pocket watch
- Learn how to wear a waistcoat casually
- Try wearing a vest with a turtleneck
- Don’t break waistcoat rules
- Find out where to buy the best vests
As you’re probably aware, the fit of a garment is the most important part of it looking good; with a waistcoat, this is no exception.
Simply, there are 7 points to a correct waistcoat fit:
- Your waistcoat shoulders should be flat and comfortable.
- The top of the waistcoat the sits over your shoulders should not extend over your shoulders.
- The armholes should be large enough to allow a total degree of movement, but not too big. This is not usually a problem, as I find they are usually cut quite generously, especially off the rack.
- Your vest should have trim fit in the mid section, that sits closely to your body – it shouldn’t be too tight that the buttons are ridiculously pulling (though I do enjoy a slight pull), but not too big that it’s boxy, and hanging off of you.
- Your waistcoat should be long enough to cover your trouser waistline the whole way around, ensuring no shirt fabric shows. (It’s a ‘waist coat’, after all!)
- Your vest should follow the curve of your back, and not be too tight, or have too much extra space.
- It should lie flat against your back.
If you have a double breasted waistcoat, it should also follow the same vest fit principles.
It’s worth noting that the waistcoat is known to be one of the hardest pieces of clothing to adjust for an alterations tailor, mostly in part due to the lack of fabric to work with, and the need for extreme precision.
It’s not impossible to tailor, but means that it is especially important that you get a good initial fit off of the rack.
Like most things, waistcoats come in many different shapes and sizes – so, why do I only ever see the same 5 button waistcoat style? (Aside from its accessibility, and lack of confidence of most men)
If you’re content with the standard single-breasted vest, then you can skip this section, I’m not judging! But if you want to take your waistcoat wearing to the next level, give a more adventurous style a go, and pay attention to the details that will make you stand out.
This next section will quickly go over each element of a waistcoat, and a few popular choices you have:
Waistcoat Buttons Configuration
As I’m sure you’ve seen, most vests are single breasted, and feature a single line of buttons that you fasten. This is the typical button configuration.
Alternatively, double breasted waistcoats do exist, and feature two rows of buttons.
This button configuration is more formal than its single-breasted brother, though can definitely be worn with a matching suit, or as an odd waistcoat by itself.
In fact, I utilise double breasted waistcoats a lot in my style – I think they’re elegant, classic and stylish, but without being overly flamboyant.
However, I would personally say that all double breasted waistcoats should:
- Have a rounded bottom, and not pointed.
- Have a lapel, either peaked or shawl.
- Have a standard double breasted configuration.
I feel that double breasted vests with a pointed finish look strange. On top of this, as the double breasted nature brings the formality of the waistcoat up, I feel that it should have a lapel to complete the more formal look.
As for the ‘standard’ configuration, double breasted waistcoats can come in different varieties, such as a ‘V button formation’. I personally think these don’t look very good, and should be avoided (though I’m sure some of you are stylish enough to pull it off).
Buttons (How Many Buttons Should a Waistcoat Have?)
I’ve already covered the ‘button configuration’, single or double breasted – but within these categories, you can have different amounts of buttons:
- On single breasted waistcoats, I would recommend you stay in the 5-6 button range.
- Double breasted vest button counts are often referred to by the total amount of buttons, and the amount on each side, for example, a waistcoat with six buttons, with three either side, is referred to as 6 x 3. I would recommend either a standard 6 x 3, or a 6 x 4 double breasted waistcoat.
Cut and Rise
Depending on the amount of buttons, a single breasted waistcoat can also be cut with a higher or lower rise.
For example, a vest with a low amount of buttons may have a low cut ‘horseshoe’ shape. These are more formal (and are usually found in tuxedo waistcoats), so I would reserve them for suiting and above.
Alternatively, a waistcoat with a higher amount of buttons may have a very high rise.
Double breasted waistcoats can be found with either a low or standard cut.
Low cut double breasted waistcoats usually feature the same amount of buttons, but just have them slightly lower.
As 95% of waistcoats don’t have one, one easy way to wear a waistcoat stylishly is by introducing a lapel, which helps to frame your outfit and chest area.
Your waistcoat can take on any lapel type, such as:
- Notched lapel
- Shawl collar
- Peaked lapel
Any of these options will set you apart, and make your look more premium. I would personally suggest that single breasted waistcoats with a notched lapel, and double breasted waistcoats with either a shawl or peaked lapel, look best.
Should Your Waistcoat Have a Lapel Or Not?
As aforementioned, I feel that double breasted waistcoats should have a lapel, to complete the more formal look. On the other hand, I think single breasted waistcoats look good either way, though, of course, single breasted vests with a lapel will obviously look more premium.
Until I really got into wearing them, I took it that the only way to tighten a waistcoat was through the typical back buckle, that features on 99.9% of vests.
However, some have alternate fastening mechanisms.
Some use buttons to cinch the fabric into your chest, and is advantageous because, unlike a belt, the position can’t move, and is permanently fastened. However, this means that there’s no give if you need a little bit of room – if the buttons are in the perfect place, then it is a great feature; if not, then you have to cut them off and re-sew them at a different location.
Alternatively, some waistcoats have shorter buckles on either side of the back.
It’s not really an important detail, but one that will push your vest from a 10, to a 10.1.
There are various buttoning rules for both the top and bottom buttons of your waistcoat that you should make sure that you follow – they are traditional, and functional.
When wearing a waistcoat, you should leave the bottom button undone. It’s not only traditional, but functional, as you will have a little extra space for comfort, and will mean that the vest won’t ride up as much when you lift your arms.
On a single breasted waistcoat, it would look something like this:
On a double breasted waistcoat, this buttoning etiquette is less important, though, you should still preferably leave the bottom right button undone:
You are also permitted to unbutton the top button of your single breasted vest. I have tried this before, and though I feel it doesn’t look bad, it feels wrong – however, this may not be the case with you.
If you decide to try this, you should also keep the bottom button unbuttoned:
This should only really be attempted on ‘standard’ single breaded waistcoats – those cut too low, or double breasted, won’t work with this.
You will most frequently see a waistcoat worn as part of a ‘three piece suit’. This is when someone wears a vest that is made from the same fabric as the rest of the suit, with the suit jacket and trousers:
It’s an easy and simple implementation that literally takes your suit to the next level.
Not only does it look awesome, but also practically helps to keep you warm, and hide your untucking shirt. In fact, some guys like to just wear a suit trousers and waistcoat, to dress the look down.
In any case, wearing a waistcoat with a suit is a more formal look that is very suitable for weddings or formal events.
How Do People Go Wrong?
You can’t go wrong when you do it correctly.
However, I have seen some cases where people try to make a two piece suit a three piece by wearing a waistcoat that is almost, but not quite, an exact match.
For example, someone wearing a navy suit with a vest that comes from another navy suit – the colour will likely be slightly off, or the material could be different.
In any case, such a closely incorrect match looks odd and draws unwanted attention, and will make you look like you’ve been caught out trying too hard. Avoid it!
I’ve talked about the simple way of wearing a waistcoat with a suit – it’s robust, but everyone’s seen it.
A more complex combination can be achieved by wearing a non-matching ‘odd’ contrasting waistcoat with either a suit, or a more casual sports coat outfit:
This waistcoat can be bought separately (as an ‘odd waistcoat’), or be part of another three piece suit.
But what exactly does this do? Well, it mixes things up, and is an incredible head turner – every time I do this correctly, I receive complements.
Consequently, as the vest is generally front and centre, this means that it will likely make or break your look.
It can be difficult to pull off when you’re first getting into it, but the main objective is to create a medium contrast.
Here are some rules that will help you match a non-matching ‘odd’ waistcoat with the rest of your formal outfit:
- Make sure the colour is clearly different. I’ve already explained the problem of closely matching colours – this can be avoided by, if you have a darker jacket, having a lighter waistcoat, and if you have a lighter jacket, having a darker waistcoat.
- Make sure the colour is complementary. For example, if you’re wearing a dark navy suit, a medium grey vest will be a nice colour match – it’s a good combination. However, a bright red waistcoat would probably not work as well as a better complementary colour.
- Wear an opposite pattern. For example, if you are wearing a plain navy suit, I would personally wear a checked waistcoat, to clearly break it up, and show that your vest is a separate entity. And, if you’re wearing a checked suit, you should wear a plain waistcoat, to avoid a clash, and a ‘busy’ look.
- Ensure your waistcoat is of a similar texture. You don’t want to wear a thick flannel waistcoat with a linen suit – it’s too much of a missmatch, even if all of the other points are fine. A thinner wool vest would likely be fine.
I have seen looks that work outside of these rules, such as when both the jacket and waistcoat are plain, but the above framework is applicable to 90% of the successful matchings that I see.
Again, it is all about creating a medium contrast – it might take a bit of experimentation, but when you get there, it will look absolutely incredible, and work for you.
Where Do People Most Frequently Go Wrong?
As I already mentioned previously, wearing a separate waistcoat that is too similar to your jacket looks bad. In the previous case, they were trying to get away with it – in this case, the problem is that there is too low of a contrast.
Another problem I see is when guys wear a vest that is too high contrast – they take the above advice, and turn it up to 112. For example, someone wearing a white waistcoat with a black suit – you should aim to create a cohesive look with a medium contrast.
To add to this, if you’re going to be trying this out for a formal setting, I would stay away from materials such as leather, and extremely bold patterns, as they could be too casual.
Knitted vests and cardigans are simply awesome, and can both be worn in the same was as a third layer.
They are a more casual take on the traditional waistcoat, but are still formal enough to be worn with a suit.
But, as they usually come in dark, conservative colours, you don’t have to worry about incorrectly matching them as much – as long as your suit and the colour of the knitted waistcoat is a decent match, you’re good to go:
For example, you can easily match a navy suit with a bottle green or burgundy knitted waistcoat, colours that might not look quite right with a traditional vest.
On top of this, the texture of the cardigan is the main part that sets the suit and vest apart, so there is no worry of it blending in.
It’s also worth mentioning that they follow the same rules as traditional vests – so, that means you still need a good fit, and to unbutton the bottom button (or two, if it looks better).
Personally, I exclusively wear cardigans (the long sleeved version), as I feel knitted waistcoats can look a bit dated.
How Do People Go Wrong?
There’s not much you can get wrong with knitted waistcoats, as most of the complexities are removed.
However, there are a couple of problems that I constantly spot:
- People wearing a baggy knitted vests/cardigans – it looks bad. Make sure to find one that fits you well.
- People not unbuttoning the bottom button – As per usual waistcoat button etiquette, you should keep your bottom button unbuttoned. In some cases, it may also be appropriate to unbutton the second to bottom button, to give it a more flattering drape.
- Wearing chunky cardigans – In my opinion, they rarely look good, and can risk you looking like a grandfather.
Where Can I get Good Knitted Waistcoats and Cardigans?
Knitted waistcoats and cardigans are available at most men’s retailers for a decent price.
I have personally tried Charles Tyrwhitt’s ones – they are good, though I feel drape slightly strangely, come up large (so I had to size down), and I have heard stories of them getting holes after being put through the wash.
For the advanced snazzy dresser, if you’re looking for ‘straight cut’ knitted waistcoats, I can direct you for Hawes & Curtis, who offer them.
How to Wear a Waistcoat Watch or Chain
I have personally never worn a chain or pocket watch with a vest, but I really do appreciate the look, especially on an outfit like Steve McQueen wears in the Thomas Crown Affair.
It’s elegant, and can be functional.
This post won’t go into how to wear a pocket watch in detail, as there are many separate resources on this, such as this article, or this gentleman’s YouTube video:
Tie Clip With Waistcoat
Though you can wear a tie clip with a waistcoat, it doesn’t serve any functional purpose, as the tie is held in place by the vest material.
If you decide you like the look, you would wear a tie clip the same way as usual, and follow the correct tie clip rules.
I’m not a huge proponent for doing this, as a waistcoat is a formal item, but some people enjoy wearing a waistcoat casually.
In this circumstance, you can bring in most colours, patterns and materials. However, I would stress the importance of simplicity, as I feel the look can come off as a bit pretentious if you’re rocking around everywhere in a bold double breasted number.
Here are a few rules that I would recommend about wearing a waistcoat casually:
- As I have already said, it’s safe to keep your vest simple.
- If you’re wearing a more complex waistcoat, keep your shirt simple.
- For your upper half, make sure to only wear it over some sort of long sleeved smart shirt, like an oxford. Don’t wear a vest over t-shirts or polos – these don’t work.
- Make sure the colour of your shirt and trousers work to provide a ‘medium contrast’ with your waistcoat. Your vest shouldn’t blend in to your trousers or your shirt.
Additionally, you may have heard that you ‘should never wear a belt’ with a waistcoat – in this circumstance, I would argue that you could potentially bring in a vest and belt combination, if you know what you’re doing – just make sure it looks nice, and isn’t intrusive.
You may also have heard that you should ‘always wear a waistcoat with a tie’. This is, again, not necessary with casual wear.
How to Wear a Waistcoat With Jeans
A lot more guys are wanting to wear their vests with jeans and denim, and this is absolutely fine. Again, I would stick to the idea of creating a medium contrast, and making sure that the colour isn’t too similar, or wildly dissimilar.
Also, I would try to match the thickness of your waistcoat to your jeans. For example, if you have heavier denim fabric, wear a thicker waistcoat, and if you have a lighterweight jean fabric, wear a lighter waistcoat.
A Good Casual Waistcoat Outfit to Start With
As a general pointer, an outfit consisting of the following items is a good place to start when wearing a vest casually:
- White oxford shirt
- Dark, slim fit medium weight denim (jeans)
- Smart boots
It’s pretty much a blank canvas, which will allow you to insert any waistcoat you want over the shirt with ease.
You can even roll up your sleeves to enhance the casual idea.
Some of you might hate me for this – I know I’d question it if someone told me it – but you can wear a waistcoat over a turtleneck.
But it goes back to the idea of ‘even if you can, it doesn’t mean that you should’.
You can make up your own mind – I never would – however, I’ve seen it look really nice in more formal situations, such as this look from Brian at He Spoke Style:
- To get a killer fit
- For your waistcoat to be long enough to cover all of the turtleneck’s lower down fabric
- To tuck the turtleneck into your waistband
- To keep the waistcoat and turtleneck simple, preferably within a three piece suit
But there’s one thing for sure: people will definitely remember this look.
Compiling all of the faux pas previously mentioned in this guide (and throwing in a few new ones for good measure), here is a concrete list of things that I would avoid doing when wearing a waistcoat:
- Unless you’re wearing a waistcoat casually, avoid not wearing a tie. Though I have seen it done well (notably by Fred from First Dates), I think it’s very difficult to pull off the vest and no tie look. A waistcoat raises your formality level, so it’s a bit counter intuitive to remove a large aspect of the formal dress code.
- Wearing a waistcoat that almost matches your jacket, but doesn’t exactly. A super low contrast.
- Wearing your waistcoat with a short sleeve shirt. I’ve never seen this done, though I’m sure it has been done somewhere, at some point – hideous.
- Wearing a low cut waistcoat casually. I’ve already mentioned this, but a low cut vest should be reserved for formal suits and black tie only.
- Buttoning your jacket button while wearing a vest, especially if the top of the waistcoat peeks out from a buttoned jacket. It looks unflattering.
- Wearing a belt with a waistcoat in a formal setting.
So, now you know everything about how to wear a waistcoat properly – but where are the best places to get them from?
Well, if you’re going down the ‘as part of a suit’ route, wherever you buy your suit from. Most suit retailers give you the option of purchasing a vest with your ensemble, giving you the opportunity to pull off that sweet three piece look.
However, in some cases, they won’t produce a matching waistcoat for a suit you already own. In this case, there’s unfortunately not a lot you can do to get the complete ‘three piece’ look. Don’t purchase a waistcoat in the same colour hoping that it will complete the suit, as 99% of the time, the fabric and colour won’t be exactly the same, creating a strange look.
Unless you can buy the vest from the original product listing, or in the exact same place in the shop, don’t bother, and just purchase a whole new suit with a waistcoat option.
Alternatively, I you’re looking to wear a waistcoat either separately, or not matching with the rest of your suit, there are a a couple of options that I can highly recommend to you:
SuitSupply waistcoats are completely unlike anything you can find in other shops.
The brand has a dedicated section just for vest separates, meaning you’re going to get a robust, one off piece. I have a couple of their waistcoats, and I find them to be of extremely good build quality.
On top of this, as they offer a special selection, the styles are a bit more adventurous than typical brands, as most brands just offer vests as part of a matching, conservative suit.
With SuitSupply waistcoats, you will be able to find:
- Bold, but classic, patterns
- Waistcoats with lapels, such as peaked, notched and shawl
- Alternate fabrics, such as alpaca blends, and linen
- Different fastening systems, such as buttons instead of a belt
It’s this attention to detail, coupled with the build quality, that puts SuitSupply waistcoats, in my opinion, in a cateogry of their own, and a cut above the rest – if you’d pardon the pun.
Typical off of the rack waistcoats cost around £99 at SuitSupply, which isn’t cheap, but worth it for what you’re getting, especially compared to other brands.
What’s more, SuitSupply offers a couple of custom services:
The first is a full custom experience, where you go in store, and talk with a specialist who measures you, and builds a custom vest (or suit, trousers etc) with you.
The second is an online custom experience, where you can pick the fabric and fit of your waistcoat, and have it mailed to you for as little as £130. They don’t offer a full range of styles, such as shawl collars, though, but you will still be able to create something absolutely unique and elegant.
As you may know, I used to work for Charles Tyrwhitt, which gave me the opportunity to take a really deep dive into their product line, and styling options.
They only offer matching waistcoats for a suit, and lack a designated range, however, you are able to purchase them separately. As they are quite a conservative company, this means that most of their vests are plain navy or charcoal, and don’t feature any special features – they are decent quality, but standard.
However, every season, Charles Tyrwhitt sell ‘luxury’ suits, which are categorised by a higher price tag, and feature English or Italian fabric. Another difference of these pricier suits are the details, which, among other things, includes a double breasted waistcoat with a shawl collar:
The good thing is that they still allow you to purchase the vest separately from the suit, giving you another really good option if you want something a bit more unique.
This is especially true as most of these luxury suits feature bolder patterns, usually with checks.
And, hey, if you want, you can purchase the whole suit, with a matching funky waistcoat.
So, those are the only two brands that I have tried and can personally recommend, but here is a post from FashionBeans covering some of their favourite waistcoats (though I do have some reservations on some of the recommendations).
How to Wear a Vest Conclusion
So, now you know how to wear a waistcoat, and where the best places are to get them.
But, as a super quick summary of the most important points in this article:
- Make sure it fits properly (not too tight, and not too loose)
- Always unbutton the bottom button
- If you’re wearing an ‘odd’ waistcoat, make sure you have a ‘medium contrast’ with your outfit
- If you’re wearing it as part of a three piece suit, make sure it matches exactly
All that’s left for you to do is implement a vest into your wardrobe, and reap the rewards of an awesome look!