How to wear a waistcoat

The waistcoat is one of those items of clothing that can be pretty hard to nail down. But when you do it right, it can bridge the gap between formal and casual, being both smart and flattering.

While the waistcoat is the third part of a three-piece suit, that can sometimes mean it’s a spare part – bought and paid for, but often left out. Men can even feel a little self-conscious and overdressed in their waistcoat.

We think it’s just misunderstood, and when you see people wearing it well, the penny drops. Here’s our guide to wearing your waistcoat.

It’s all in the fit

The fit of a waistcoat is the most important factor. While a jacket can be relatively loose, a waistcoat should form a very close fit with your shirted torso. That doesn’t mean tight, by the way – just close. Much of the extra space in a jacket is to accommodate your moving arms, but your chest, waist and back are nowhere near as flexible, so you really can have a neat fit without it becoming misshapen.

If you’re having your waistcoat tailored, you should be in safe hands. If you’re buying off-the peg, remember to measure yourself properly at your chest, waist and back, and choose your size accordingly. Classically, your waistcoat should end below the waist of your trousers, so no shirt should be visible. Examine the pictures and details to ascertain the length, as styles differ. Finally, choose a retailer with a customer-friendly returns and refunds policy, as you shouldn’t have to put up with a bad fit just because you’re stuck with it.

It can replace the jacket

In the summer months, or if you’re indoors, why not simply opt for a waistcoat instead of a jacket? It makes perfect sense, even in a professional environment, and you won’t be losing any formality points as long as you have a quality shirt, tie, trousers and shoes. The jacketed men at your event will likely be a little jealous of you, if we’re honest.

When the formality is toned down, it’s a great way to show a flash of style and refinement without the weight of a jacket. Think how Gareth Southgate pulls it off at pitch-side – he can wave his arms around and stay active, but there’s no doubt who’s boss. If you’re considering wearing one at a wedding, the best man will often be down to his waistcoat by the time the wedding speeches arrive, too. It’s still a wedding, but the formal bits are done and dusted, and it’s time for some fun.

Use it for contrast

When you think of a three-piece suit, you probably imagine the whole ensemble in the same fabric. That’s logical, because it normally is. But does it have to be? Mixing it up a little with the waistcoat can make a refreshing change.

You could wear a waistcoat of a complementary colour, for example an olive green waistcoat under a dark blue suit, or pale blue waistcoat under brown or burgundy. Alternatively, a patterned waistcoat works a treat under a plain suit. Think tartans, florals, paisleys or polka dots – whatever look you’re going for.

Men's purple velvet waistcoat

You can also change the fabric itself – a glossy or lustrous finish against a matt suit, or a velvet waistcoat with a sharper, more tailored suit will catch the flash of contrast you’re after. They all bring a little fun to the party, and paired with skilful colour matching, the whole effect is pleasing, with or without the jacket. 

You can turn up the formality

Men's formal waistcoat with tie

The standard three-piece is, of course, a setup whose formal credentials might have had their edges removed as the look has regained popularity. If you’re looking for maximum professionalism and respect (shown and received), turn to accessories to make the difference. 

As always, a really good quality silk tie or bow tie will take you the extra mile. A pocket square in your jacket completes the three-piece look. And you can make the waistcoat a feature in itself with brass buttons, a pocket watch or a square of its own. That way, you’re good to go whether you’re wearing the jacket or not – your waistcoat itself is unmistakably outerwear.

Go casual

All this talk about three-piece suits has ignored another function of the waistcoat, which is as a strictly informal piece of upper wear. It’s not too hard to pull off – think Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson, who makes a waistcoat look like essential rock ’n’ roll wear. You can also count Mumford and Sons’ classic look in that category. Conor McGregor can certainly pull the look off, in his tweed waistcoat – with a tiny smattering of ego and swagger.

Men's low cut double breasted tweed check waistcoat

The trick is to tone down the other parts of the formal look. So go for jeans or canvas pants instead of suit trousers. Go tieless and open-necked with your shirt, or simply wear a T-shirt or sweatshirt underneath. A pair of chunky boots and a bit of a tousled haircut are the final pointers to informality, but over it all, there’s the waistcoat to keep you looking toned and stylish. 

More versatile than you think

We’d like you to think outside the box when it comes to waistcoats. Although they’re an integral part of the three-piece suit and are going nowhere in that respect, they’re also ripe for experimentation and bringing the formality levels up or down just as far as you like.

But whether you’re shopping for a mix and match look or want the strong uniformity of a three-piece, always choose quality, because that’s what really matters.