The waistcoat was an essential part of formal and informal wear in the Victorian
period, when every gentleman would have possessed several, and these stylish garments are seen today as increasingly collectable.
The predecessor of the waistcoat was introduced to England by Charles II when he returned from exile in 1660. Instead of a doublet (a short and close-fitting jacket) he favoured a coat worn over a long vest, known as a 'Persian vest', and breeches. These colourful Persian vests were fairly long garments, and sometimes had long sleeves, but during the 18th century they gradually grew shorter until they reached waist level.
During the 19th century, men's clothing became much more sombre than it had in the 18th, and the waistcoat - still maintaining its colourful tradition - was the one form of peacock-like ostentation likely to be found in the Victorian gentleman's wardrobe.
The type of fabric and the amount of embroidery on a waistcoat depended partly on the occasion for which it was being worn and partly on the unfathomable whims of fashion. Dress waistcoats were usually made of silks or satins at the beginning of the Victorian period, when there was a great liking for bright patterns on a dark background. After about
1860 there was less use of silk and more of harder-wearing woollen fabrics.
In addition to normal day and evening wear, a whole range of waistcoats was made for the outdoor activities in which Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen delighted. There was the
single-breasted woollen golf vest edged with braids; Newmarket and Tattersall collarless checked waistcoats were the choice for horseracing enthusiasts, while those riding to hounds sported waistcoats embroidered with hunting motifs.
In the 1870s a trend developed for wearing a three-piece suit in which two parts matched and the other contrasted. The waistcoat was not necessarily the contrasting part, so it did not always stand out. If the trousers were the contrasting part, it was they that caught the eye, so the waistcoat suffered something of an eclipse. There was a revival of the fancy waistcoat in the 1890s but it tended to lack the verve of its earlier counterparts.
As the 19th century, and Queen
Victoria's reign, drew to a close, fashionable society took its lead from her son, Edward, Prince of Wales. He was very fond of horse-racing and other sporting activities and dressed stylishly for such events as well as on highly formal occasions. After he was crowned
King Edward VII, he set several trends in men's clothing. One of these was the practice of leaving undone the bottom button of a waistcoat. Opinions vary as to whether this was because of his increasing girth or simply an unhappy oversight caused by dressing too hastily.
Of all items of antique gentlemen's clothing, waistcoats have survived in by far the greatest numbers. They were rarely worn out, and the sheer,
eye catching quality of examples like this meant that they were hardly ever thrown away.
WAISTCOAT COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The value of antique costume pieces such as waistcoats depends largely on their condition.
Dust, light and damp are the natural enemies of fabrics, so garments in good condition are most
likely to he found through specialist dealers with the necessary skills of storage and
conservation. Victorian and Edwardian waistcoats, however are at the less rare end of
the market and are still in good supply from antiques shops and galleries. Bargain buys are
unlikely to have been kept in the best of conditions, but you can still get a good deal of satisfaction from less-than-perfect garments.
Once you've acquired a piece of antique costume, you should treat it as carefully as
possible. Waistcoats are best hung from padded hangers and individually protected by polythene sheets in undisturbed sections of a
wardrobe. Never seal a waistcoat in plastic, however, or you will promote mould growth. If
you want to store them flat, wrap them in sheets of acid-free tissue paper and keep them in
cardboard boxes. Woollen waistcoats require protection from moth damage.
Limit display to times when you actually want to study the garments; even then they shouldn't be exposed to strong light.