As the old adage goes, "Wear a vest, if you want to look your best." While we can't say for certain who said it first—or if anyone ever did at all—it's catchy and it rhymes. And there is, of course, some truth to that pithy statement. No matter the occasion, a vest will always add a higher degree of style to your formal ensemble when you wear it right. Aside from the extra points you'll receive on style and elegance, a vest also has the innate ability to keep you extra warm during the looming colder parts of the year without having to bring out the heavy overcoats and winter sport parkas.
But not all vests are created equal. With a variety of styles and fabric options available, it can be sometimes hard to differentiate between what is acceptable at the office and what should be worn only on the golf course. Tuxedo vests, or waistcoats as they are also commonly known, are pretty straightforward; with black-tie dress codes, there isn't too much wiggle room on the rules, so these traditional pieces of clothing are rather uniform across the board, with only minor variations in style. Vests that are more commonly worn with suits, however, offer a broad range of patterns, lapels, and button styles that are excellent articles of clothing to have if you want to keep your wardrobe a little more interesting than everyone else's. For example, a double-breasted vest combined with a tie worn with a half Windsor knot can really add a sense of prominence and sophistication to your outfit, and doing so doesn't take too much extra effort at all.
In this article, we'll give you a rundown of the various common vest types, as well as the not-so-common for those of you who want to make an even bolder fashion statement at your next event or office party.
The Formal Waistcoat
You're probably most familiar with the waistcoat in the context of formal black-tie dress code, as it is commonly worn with a tuxedo and a bow tie. Its name even comes from the fact that the vest is cut for the bottom to fit just above the waist rather than below the pelvis, as many vests previously did long before modern formal attire evolved into its current form. This type of vest is also notable for having very few buttons and staying low to the waist so it does not obstruct any part of the tuxedo shirt when worn with the standard black-tie dinner jacket. Black is obviously going to be the most common color choice for this purpose, but there are other shades that are popular, especially when you're dealing with an event that is black-tie optional. In any case, the vest should match the color or pattern of the tuxedo, and if you do decide not to heed our warnings, keep the color contrasts to a minimum. You can get a little more creative when you're sporting a normal suit or a summer ensemble saturated with vibrant pastel colors, but when it comes to black-tie dress, less is almost always more.
Another style tip to keep in mind with formal waistcoats is that when paired with tuxedos, they should always be worn with either braces (suspenders) or bare, never with a cummerbund and certainly not with a belt; as a rule, if pants have belt loops in them, they're not tuxedo pants at all.
Try saying that five times fast and perfecting it might end up taking longer than it does to tie a bow tie. Double-breasted vests, while not usually worn with tuxedos for black-tie events, make great additions to suits in most other formal settings. The following rule is not set in stone, but it is advisable to match a double-breasted vest with a double-breasted suit, just as it is to go with single-breasted vests with normal single-breasted suits. One of the largest draws to a vest from a style standpoint is that it's supposed to look good if you plan on taking your jacket off at any point during the workday or an evening event; as a plain white shirt tends to wrinkle throughout the duration it is worn, a vest will keep your overall look much cleaner than if you decide not to wear one.
Another rule to keep in mind is that anything that is double-breasted is always considered more formal than its single-breasted counterparts, save black-tie attire; while double-breasted tuxedos do exist, this is far from the norm. Aside from the style enhancements, double-breasted vests tend to be warmer than their single-breasted counterparts, so once that mercury starts to drop, they are very useful accessories to have in your closet, especially for those chilly nights walking around the city.
In contrast to their double-breasted counterparts, single-breasted vests are far more common and therefore better from an availability standpoint. Not that many people need to run out in the middle of the night to buy formal attire, but single-breasted vests offer more versatility and style options, so if you're the type of person who likes to keep things simple, having a few of these in your wardrobe is just good planning. Who knows? If you ever find yourself in a situation where you spill coffee or spaghetti sauce on your white shirt just before you're headed out the door to a formal event, throwing on a vest is much faster (and cheaper) than pleading with your local dry cleaner to perform miracles.
While many gentlemen prefer vests without any lapels on them, plenty of formal vests do come equipped with peak or notch lapels, and these extra features can add a degree of sharpness to your outfit, especially if you plan on showing off your vest more so than your jacket. Different button styles abound as well, ranging from vests that are very low cut to give more prominence to your shirt to ones that button up almost to the knot in your necktie.
As a brief refresher, notch lapels are lapels with notches at the top facing outward like sideways Vs, with each point being even and symmetrical without extending past the other. This is generally considered less formal than peak lapels, but having any lapels on a vest at all usually signifies a slightly higher degree of formality than no lapels. A vest with notch lapels is a stylish option for a variety of formal events, and it looks great if you plan on removing your jacket and showing off the rest of your outfit. The general guideline is that the lapels on your vest should match the style of your lapels on your jacket for symmetry and consistency, but you could feasibly get away with a notch-lapel vest with a peak-lapel jacket. Trying this the other way around, however, might not be so advisable. More prominent style features should be on the outermost layers of your ensemble while less prominent attributes fare better on the inner parts.
If you want a vest that does in fact feature more prominence and a sense of boldness, you might consider opting for peak lapels. In contrast to notch lapels, peak lapels extend slightly above the point of the top notch, giving the shoulders an accentuated and more powerful look without the use of shoulder pads or bigger armholes. Peak lapels are also considered sharper and more formal than their notch counterparts, and vests with peak lapels can look stunning when they're matched with British-style or especially Italian-style suits, given the sleek tapered appearance of the jacket and pants. When opting for peak-lapel vests, we would suggest pairing them with jackets that also come equipped with peak lapels to maintain consistency, otherwise your formal ensemble might come across as a little uneven or mismatched. Vests with peak lapels also pair quite nicely with double-breasted suits, as they will greatly accentuate your personal sense of style once that jacket comes off on the wedding dance floor.
Wearing a vest without any lapels at all is probably the most common style preference for the majority of men. Vests without lapels can either be formal or informal, and because of this versatility, they can be worn for just about any occasion. In addition to the more minimalist toned-down look that a vest without lapels provides, it also tends to be more comfortable than vests with lapels, as there is less fabric to get bunched up underneath a suit jacket. A vest without lapels will feel lighter, so this might be a better option if you want to rock a vest during the summer months without sweltering in the sun or suffering through a wedding ceremony in a venue with no air conditioning. Vests without lapels also tend to have more variety in the button styles, as the material does not need to make any extra room for notch or peak lapels, so if you prefer vests that button up on the higher side, you'll find more options with straight no-lapel single-breasted vests.
When it comes to vest fabrics, you'll want to pick something in the same way you would choose a fabric for your custom suit. Wool and cotton are always going to be the premier choices, as these fabrics tend to breathe better than everything else out there. Wool also has the added benefit of giving your formal outfit a little bit of extra warmth without the need for bulky overcoats or heavy scarves if you want a sleeker, more minimalist look for the fall and winter seasons. If you like the extra style and color options that vests provide during the summer months, linen is also another option worth considering, as the material is very light and won't leave you too hot when you're out and about. Just as you would want to avoid synthetic materials for your suit jacket and trousers, it's best to have the same mentality when it comes to vests. Synthetic fibers don't breathe very well, and a vest made from polyester has the tendency to add to your overall level of discomfort, and this is especially true on hot days or in banquet halls with poor ventilation. Natural materials also tend to last longer, so you'll end up saving money in the long run in spite of the initial higher price point.
In short, vests are great for accentuating your personal style with the added benefit of keeping you a little warmer when the temperature starts to drop. Double-breasted vests are more formal than single-breasted ones, and all vests can be worn with or without a tie, as well as with or without a full suit. If you feel like spicing up your tuxedo for a black-tie event, consider wearing a vest instead of a cummerbund. Keep your color contrasts to a minimum, and if you decide to opt for a vest with lapels, do your best to match them with the lapels on your jacket.
A custom suit can say a lot about your personality, and adding a vest to your ensemble can foster confidence and that extra tinge of style you might have been missing. When shopping for a custom suit, be sure to check out our vest offerings, and our expert clothiers here at Enzo Custom will gladly assist you in choosing the best vest to go with your personal style, no matter what next big event is just ahead in your future.