The gentleman’s wardrobe: the waistcoat

You can’t see much of the waistcoat in this publicity still, but it does show off the exquisite embroidery, not to mention James McAvoy.

I don’t know about you, but one of the many things I love about the Regency period is the elegance of its fashion. From contemporary portraits, fashion plates and surviving clothing, it’s clear that both men and women of the time had the same interest in what they wore as we do today, and what they wore has a stylishness that seems to appeal to our modern sensibilities.

This waistcoat from the 1820s shows the sort of pattern and colours that could be worn.

Regency men certainly knew how to accentuate their masculine assets. They probably would have appreciated the skinny jeans and shaggy coiffures of today’s young men.

Yet they would also have been aghast at the fashion for showing one’s underwear—or worse!—above the top of one’s low-slung pants.

So it struck me, when I was looking for pictures to illustrate this post, how many Regency-set films feature the hero strolling about in his waistcoat and bare shirt sleeves. From what I understand, in Regency terms, that would be tantamount to my husband wandering the neighbourhood in his boxer shorts. Not going to happen (well, at least until dementia sets in).

“Gilet de Casimir” from 1817. Courtesy of http://www.

The waistcoat was an indispensable part of the male wardrobe, and one means for a man to express his individuality. In Some Like It Haute, I gave my hero a passion for wearing waistcoats that draw the scorn of the heroine, initially, for being rather lurid.

Some men wore plain and unassuming waistcoats, of course, often in plain white or black, but these items of clothing could also be made in striped or patterned fabric, or feature embroidery. I noticed in some plates from the period that the waistcoat itself might be white or cream, but have a thick trim or piping around the collar. This looks particularly effective with the stiffened high standing collars that were typical of the Regency waistcoat.

This French fashion plate from c. 1804 shows the standing collar and contrasting trim.

Whilst the standing collar remains fixed throughout the period, it seems that lapels came and went. In the opening years of the 19th century, wide lapels seem to have been popular, whereas through most of the Regency proper, waistcoats tended to feature small lapels or, very commonly, none at all, and were designed to be buttoned up to, or nearly up to, the top. Occasionally, a simple shawl collar can be seen. They could be cut single- or double-breasted, and worn with either style of coat.

Whatever the style, the back of a waistcoat would be sewn to curve in to fit the man’s back, and possibly be tightened with lacings or a belt. It was generally cut square at the bottom, and would cover the top of the breeches or trousers. When a gentleman’s coat was closed, the bottom couple of inches of waistcoat would be visible at the front.

This still from the 2007 adaptation of ‘Persuasion’ shows off both the hero and his lapels.

No gentleman would be caught showing an expanse of shirt front without a waistcoat, regardless of whether he chose an inconspicuous style or something that would draw attention a mile away. To me, that combination of garments is very sexy. There is just something very alluring about the contrast between the softer, snowy white linen of shirt and cravat, and the structured tailoring of the waistcoat.

And I can’t think of a better excuse to post photos of ridiculously good looking actors in Regency waistcoats (with or without coats) …


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