Classic Waistcoats and Cummerbunds
Dressing the Waist
Thanks to the practice of prom dates and young grooms being dressed by their female companions, the role of the formal waistcoat or cummerbund is misconstrued by many today as a palette for matching women's dress colors. In actual fact these garments play an important part in formal wear's refined minimalism by helping to conceal its working parts. Just as dress studs replace common shirt buttons and silk stripes cover trouser seams, a formal waist covering discreetly hides the trouser's exposed waistband and the shirt bosom's bottom edge.
Black tie’s original waist covering was the evening waistcoat worn with its full-dress progenitor, the tailcoat. Then in the 1930s the dinner suit gained a slightly less formal alternative to call its own: the cummerbund. Although this dressy sash was initially appropriate only for warm-weather evenings, it has been acceptable year-round since the fifties. Consequently, both garments are considered authentic and correct.
Either covering may be paired with either style of dinner jacket lapel, but the expert consensus is that the formality and pointed tips of the waistcoat harmonize best with the angularity of the peaked lapel while the informality and curved outline of the cummerbund best complement the streamlined shawl collar.
Neither garment is required with a double-breasted jacket because it is worn buttoned up thus hiding the wearer’s waist from view.
The obsequious high-buttoning formal vests available from today's formalwear retailers are essentially glorified three-piece suit vests and as such are definitely not classic. Rather, the traditional evening waistcoat is distinguished by a low-cut design intended to reveal as much as possible of the formal shirt’s elegantly decorated bib. It should be just tall enough to peek out beyond the lapels of the closed dinner jacket.
The classic waistcoat is acceptable in either single- or double-breasted models. In the former case the bottom of the vest typically ends in two points that can be angular or rounded according to taste.
Evening waistcoats can have either a full back or may be the more common backless variety introduced by the Duke of Windsor as another of his contributions to after-six comfort. The latter style remains fastened in front when being donned and instead attaches behind the lower back and behind the neck by means of adjustable straps.
The body is constructed from the same material as the dinner jacket or is made entirely from silk to match the jacket's facings. Also unique to the evening waistcoat are its shawl-style revers (lapels) which are usually self-faced when the body is silk or match the jacket lapels when the body is wool. Like the waistcoat’s bottom, the revers’ lower edges can be square cut or rounded.
Single-breasted waistcoats typically take three buttons while double-breasted models take four. Buttons are usually covered in satin or grosgrain although on better models they can be replaced by waistcoat studs to match the shirt studs. Both models are completed by two single welt pockets which once served as a convenient holder for a gentleman's pocket watch.
Another characteristic of finer quality waistcoats is a tab that attaches to a trouser button to keep them from riding up and exposing the waistband. Also, the neck strap on backless versions is adjusted with buttons rather than a metal buckle.
The cummerbund was imported to England in the Victorian era by British officers serving in India. It was originally a long, brightly colored sash that was wrapped around a tunic and called a “kamarband“ (Hindustani for “loin band”). In the 1920s it was adapted into its modern incarnation with pleats replacing the folds of the sash. Although it covered the trouser waist as effectively as the waistcoat, its comparative simplicity designated it as a less formal alternative best suited to a shawl collar jacket and a soft-front shirt.
The material is silk in a satin or grosgrain finish to match the facings of the dinner jacket lapels and is traditionally black. However, this overlay’s informal nature makes it an ideal mechanism for introducing tasteful color into black tie.
Pleats are worn facing up, the vestige of a time when dress trousers did not have pockets and gentlemen would often carry their opera tickets tucked into their cummerbund. (The oft repeated claim that the pleat direction allows a cummerbund to catch crumbs is as ludicrous as arguing that the extra fabric in French cuffs is intended for wiping one's mouth.)
Better quality models are distinguished by a gentle curve along its top line, a small hidden pocket for storing tickets or cash and, like the formal waistcoat, an elastic loop for fastening to the trousers.