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.
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
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
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
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
The material is silk in a satin or grosgrain
finish to match the facings of the dinner jacket lapels and is
However, this overlay’s informal nature makes it an ideal mechanism
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.