Now, there are those who believe, today, that a waistcoat is nothing more than a mere bagatelle in the arsenal of a gentleman’s wardrobe. A thing to be trotted out with morning dress for weddings, with tails to achieve appropriate white-tie-ness, and even, should one be of a foppish disposition, with a dinner jacket. Of course, should one ride to hounds, one may also sport a natty windowpane check with the hunting pink.
But if this is your narrow definition of a waistcoat’s virtues, then I hesitate to mention it, but you are a Philistine. A Visigoth. A mere dabbler in the higher realms of sartorial elegance.
In the early part of the 19th century, a gentleman’s waistcoat performed a number of essential functions.
First off is warmth. The houses were dashed cold and routinely damp. Thus, in the colder months or the colder houses for that matter, one might wear two waistcoats, one of them quilted and perhaps lined with wool wadding.
Second, there is of course, protection of clothes. A buckskin waistcoat offered a groom or farrier, for instance, both the wind-breaking qualities of a sheepskin coat, but like full chaps, kept his clothes clean of the grime associated with his daily work.
For this is an era too when the ideals of classical culture and erudition have taken hold of the educated thought. The beauties of classical sculpture are on display in the form of the Elgin marbles, lately ‘liberated’ from their native soil of Athens and on display in London.
And there are the other Greek and Roman statues, also, er, ‘liberated’…the which countless young men have brought back from their travels on the Continent (before Napoleon so rudely put an end to this delightful and educational pastime with his incessant wars…) And all of them on display in homes and gardens across the country.
So, put this through the synthesising genius of someone like Mr. George Brummell and what do you have? You have a new fashion in waistcoats. A new statement of manly beauty and understated strength.
For in this new era of fashion you see waistcoats as a refining feature. The idea being that when a gentlemen is seen from a distance without his coat, in his tight pale breeches and pale form-fitting waistcoat, he will resemble the muscular form of some naked Greek or Roman deity carved in marble.
The colours of choice are thus pale–for both waistcoats and breeches. Buff, light grey, fawn, off-white, tan, pale drab–anything that replicates the colours found in classical statuary. And if there is interest to be added to this classically imaged garment, it may be in the weave. Or the patterning will be subtle (like the copper engraved silk, above left), and if it’s brighter it will be upon a pale background.
But above all, its purpose is to elevate–in the eye of the beholder–the masculine form to resemble that of the gods.