Vintage Waistcoats and Cummerbunds
The prototype for modern evening wear was the dark blue/black-and-white dress ensemble fashioned by Beau
Brummell at the turn of the nineteenth century. This included
a single-breasted waistcoat of white marcella or black plain fabric
that was cut straight at the bottom. In the 1820s collars were
introduced that were either notched or “en schal” (shawl).
Evening waistcoat from early English Regency (1807). ||
||1833 American waistcoat with colored
Late in the 1820s dandies deviated from the formula when
they developed a taste for waistcoat models in “all
the colors of the rainbow” featuring lavish
embroidery and rich plain or figured silks and
The garment also
grew longer around this time
leading to the return of the late eighteenth-century
under-waistcoat. At first this was a sparse undergarment meant
to project just beyond the edges of the overlying version. It
then evolved into a full-blown torso covering with lapels,
decorative buttons and gorgeous colored materials designed to
contrast with the upper-waistcoat which was often left open at the
top for better exposure.
All of these embellishments were
highly visible thanks to the new style of tailcoat tailored to
remain open in front.
By the 1860s Victorian conservatism had overcome Regency flair and
the evening waistcoat was generally cloth or silk and once again
limited to black or white although British etiquette authorities
advised that white was unfashionable and should be restricted to
only the most formal of occasions. The V-shaped openings were cut
increasingly low while the waist became gradually higher so that by the 1850s
the bottom was usually cut straight across instead of featuring
points as it sometimes did earlier in the era.
By mid-century the shawl
collar was typical and hip pockets began to appear.
Buttons were either material covered or gilt or fancy stones.
A trouser loop was introduced to evening and wedding waistcoats in
1840. The Regency under-waistcoat died out by the 1850s due to
the aforementioned shortened waist of the overlying vest. For
a brief period it was sometimes replaced by the slipped waistcoat, a
pseudo under-waistcoat now more commonly associated with morning
In the mid-1880s the newly introduced of U- or
shield-shaped openings were favored over the V shape partly because
of their effectiveness at displaying the formal shirt front.
Single-breasted models were initially preferred but the
double-breasted grew in favor from 1890. Collars were usually shawl style
although many models did not feature lapels (aka revers).
1854 English patterned dress waistcoat.
English slipped waistcoat featuring a low-cut
English "dress vest" in black featuring new U shape.
In England white
piqué gradually ousted black fabric which became consigned to
informal dinner wear. Conversely, black waistcoats to match
the dress suit were the norm in the United States where white
versions were considered a luxurious alternative because of the
associated laundering expense.
When the dinner jacket was
introduced in the late Victorian era it was simply considered an
informal substitute for the tailcoat and was therefore worn with the
same accoutrements as prescribed for full dress including the
standard white or black waistcoat.
English preference for white piqué waistcoats with full dress caught
on in America and by the end of World War I black waistcoats were
becoming relegated to informal evening dress in that country too.
Double-breasted styles had become as popular as single-breasted and
both began to develop pointed bottoms once again as their fronts
followed the lines of the newly angled tailcoat fronts. The
U-shape opening remained the favorite style and shawl collars were
almost universal. An emerging trend
was the matching of the waistcoat’s piqué pattern with that of the
full-dress shirt and bow tie. These sets of matching linens were
custom-made and expensive and therefore had limited popularity at
Circa 1902 English
"dress vests" in single-and
double-breasted models, latter with U- and
From 1918 Vanity Fair article comparing
vest on left with tasteful black grosgrain on
||1915 Brooks Brothers
evening waistcoats with increasingly rare example of black vest
being worn with full dress.
With the informal dinner jacket there was at first a
variety of choice: black wool to match the jacket, black or grey
figured silk, or white linen. As the era progressed the black
wool option was increasingly preferred and the white full-dress
model was increasingly prohibited. This period also marked the
beginning of the trend for black silk waistcoats to match the silk
of the jacket’s lapel facings and the bow tie. Cuts and styles
were largely as for full-dress waistcoats although they were much
less visible since dinner jackets were being worn closed by the
During the Jazz Age white came to be
considered the most formal color for the waistcoat because of the
aforementioned expense of frequent laundering and starching.
Consequently, black models ceased to be an alternative for
full-dress suits while white models became increasingly popular with
dinner jackets at occasions which would have required tailcoats
prior to the First World War's relaxation of social standards.
A stylish mode for the white waistcoat was the straight-waistlined
"tub" fashion that had been revived in America in 1921, a year after
its re-introduction in England. Available in single- and
double-breasted models it was popular with both informal and formal
evening dress because its high-waisted cut and lack of points could
better accommodate the height and fullness of the new trouser style.
A few years later another waistcoat innovation was rapidly
gaining in popularity: the backless model. Premiered by the
Prince of Wales, this design replaced the full back of the waistcoat
with just two small straps that held the front in place thereby
allowing the vest to retain much less body heat and making it
particularly ideal for tropical climes. In
fact, waistcoats were often worn with the new double-breasted dinner
jackets designed for tropical evenings. This seems to be an
unnecessary layer of clothing for a warm-weather outfit but the
intention may have been to keep the waist covered even when a man
opened his jacket to sit more comfortably. Also, double-breasted
jackets of the 1920s typically had a narrow overlap when buttoned
which revealed much more of the shirt front and, consequently, the
edges of the underlying waistcoat. Not surprisingly, the
practice died out when the minimalist cummerbund was introduced to
warm-weather black tie in the early 1930s.
continued to be the norm for evening waistcoats although there were
occasional appearances of models with peaked lapels or no lapels at
1920 American; very early (re)appearance of
collar-less dress vest.
1920 American dinner jacket waistcoat incorrectly
described as "full dress vest".
1921 US full-dress waistcoat worn with tuxedo and
featuring new drooping shawl collar.
1921 US white waistcoat worn with tuxedo;
features extra wide and notched lapels and tub style
1922 new backless style sold in single- and
double-breasted models; buyers were asked to indicate their
shirt size and shirt bosom length when ordering.
1922 rare double-breasted black waistcoat for "informal spring and summer wear
with a dinner coat".
1928 Men's Wear survey of "summer
evening dress styles in New York" showing the
popularity of white waistcoats with tuxedos
(tailcoats were not worn in summer).
"Waistcoats have become a high style
item,” observed Apparel Arts in 1933. “No more of the thick
ill-fitting affairs but today a suave and sleek arrangement.”
Dapper dressers personalized their formal and semi-formal evening
suits through their choice of single-breasted or double-breasted
models, usually with a narrow V-shaped front opening, as well as a
seemingly endless variety of lapels and cuts. By 1936 the backless
design became the preferred choice in London and was rapidly gaining
favor in the U.S.
Notable developments for the full-dress
waistcoat included the Prince of Wales’ export of the W-shaped
double-breasted bottom of the daytime waistcoat into full evening
dress. He also introduced rounded points as well as
straight-bottom models styled without revers.
1920s fashion of wearing a full-dress waistcoat with the informal
dinner jacket remained popular in Europe in the early
‘30s but by autumn 1933 the inaugural issue of
Esquire was reporting that “The white waistcoat has at last been
allowed to rejoin its lawful but long estranged mate, the tailcoat,
and the new dinner jackets are matched with a waistcoat of the
jacket material, with dull grosgrain lapel facing.” The
renewed popularity of the tailcoat in the latter part of the decade
further reduced the appeal of the mixed-breed combination although
some etiquette experts would continue to recommend it as a formal
middle ground for decades to come. (Emily Post prescribed it
for the most formal of black-tie occasions right up until the
Full-dress models from a 1932 Apparel Arts
|1934 US ad for evening waistcoats
available in black or white; many are shorter than "regulation length"
to wear with
English rise trousers.
||1935 evening waistcoat ad and bow tie ad from American haberdasher periodical.
Around the same time that the white waistcoat fell
out of favor some avant garde dressers began to augment their
tuxedos with styles fashioned of colored silk. However, the effect
was a subtle one due to the evening waistcoat’s traditional low cut
which limited its visibility under a closed dinner jacket. The
rising popularity of double-breasted dinner jackets
prompted fashion authorities to remind men that
waistcoats were not necessary with such jackets.
aftermath of the First World War, it was a markedly more informal
world that emerged from World War II and consequently many of the
sartorial flourishes of 1930s evening wear disappeared. The
declining interest in full dress, along with its highly conservative
nature, meant that by the 1950s the
rules for the white-tie waistcoat were pretty much set in stone
for the remainder of the century.
While the tuxedo continued
to be much more relevant than the tailcoat, the post-war informal
interpretation of black tie meant that the cummerbund was now the
waist covering of choice. The waistcoat essentially went into
sartorial exile emerging briefly in the early 1960s to enhance the
Continental Look that was popular at the time. Now commonly
referred to as a vest in America, the waistcoat was typically part
of a three-piece formal suit. The same type of trimmed edges
featured on the jacket’s lapel was also used on the waistcoat’s
revers until they began to disappear in the mid-sixties.
The extravagantly ruffled shirts, double-breasted jackets and
“formal jumpsuits” of the late ‘60s and 1970s once again rendered
the evening waistcoat largely obsolete. When it did appear it
was more likely to be cut higher like the vest of a three-piece
business suit, a style which became standard by the 1980s despite
its aesthetic incompatibility with the low cut of traditional
single-button tuxedo jackets. It could either match the
tuxedos (often colored during this time) or be of a contrasting
color, texture and/or pattern.
English officers serving in
British East India in the nineteenth century adopted the local
practice of wearing a sash around the waist. According to
The New Etiquette (1937) the purpose of the sash was "to keep
the middle of the body warm, which was a great protection against the physical ravages of the excess heat and humidity."
However, warming up the waist to cool the body seems paradoxical.
A 1932 Apparel Arts article claimed it was originally used
to prevent night chill but this explanation is equally puzzling as
the traditional waistcoat would have done the job much better.
The most likely explanation for the officers' adoption of the sash
on the subcontinent was as a cooler substitute for the traditional
In the late Victorian period they adapted
this kamarband into evening wear and exported it back to Europe
where it was hardly a resounding success as a replacement for the full-dress
French fashion magazine described it in 1873 as a “wide belt that
constitutes yet another grotesque fashion whose slovenly appearance
hardly requires mention.”
The Handbook of English
Costume of the Nineteenth Century contains an 1889 period description of
the original cummerbund as a crimson or black silk "sash" wrapped
around the waist four times. In 1893 it was described as a
black "waistband" and was noted for having become popular with
morning dress in colored silks wrapped twice around the waist.
In 1895 it was described specifically as a "cummerbund" made of silk
or colored twilled drill (a hardy cotton fabric most often used for
khaki clothing) that had become "hopelessly vulgarized".
Despite its apparent fall from fashion in the late
Victorian era the cummerbund appears again in early
Edwardian sources, this time in the style of a cut-off waistcoat.
Circa 1902 (UK) -
tailored from the bottom part of a waistcoat
1907 (UK) - "kamarband" intended only for "hot weather and
In 1924 a US patent
application was filed for what was described as novel style of a
"waistcoat or vest for dress wear" in that it consisted
only of the
bottom portion of the traditional waistcoat thereby eliminating the
tendency for stiff dress shirts to bulge out of the open front of said
waistcoat. Two variations were illustrated, one being similar
to the Edwardian cummerbund except that it fastened in the rear with
a buckle like a belt rather than buttoning in the front like a
waistcoat. The other variation was the modern pleated style of
Ilustration of vest-style
and pleated-style cummerbunds from 1924 patent application.
Note tab for attaching to trousers.
In 1928 a Men’s Wear article
covering the Palm Beach scene noted an increase in popularity for
the cummerbund which it described as "a black silk sash used as a
replacement for the waistcoat on warm evenings".
A British tailor-made cummerbund from the late
1920s. The front has neither pleats, buttons
nor pockets and the back fastens with two buckles.
The pleated style of cummerbund became popular in
1933 thanks to the mess jacket craze of the early thirties.
Advertisements from that era indicate that it was originally made in
belt sizes. By 1937
The New Etiquette was describing it
as a “popular and chic” waist covering for informal evening wear at
resorts. “It is meant for hot weather to obviate the necessity
of having the harness of a waistcoat over the shoulder and back when
it might be uncomfortably warm. On the right people at the
right time it is decorative and correctly in the spirit of colorful
gaiety.” Colors were generally limited to black or maroon.
Like waistcoats in the 1920s, cummerbunds were sometimes worn with
double-breasted jackets up until the mid 1930s.
Mess jackets with cummerbunds were all the rage in
1933, a number of self-figured moiré patterns.
||1933 Apparel Arts
recommendations for adding color to the
||Detail of another 1933
cummerbund as worn with a mess jacket.
1940s - 1960s
Formal standards were
relaxed after the Second World War and by the 1950s the black
cummerbund was considered appropriate year round. In fact, the
cummerbund pretty much eradicated the waistcoat until the late
1970s. The adjustable version
seems to have been invented in 1959 according to another US patent
application (below) depicting a cummerbund with an adjustable rear
strap specifically intended to eliminate the need for custom sized
Tuning in to America’s
growing taste for flair and comfort in formal wear, After Six
introduced a riot of color, pattern and fabric to cummerbunds in
1954 and sold them with matching pre-tied bow ties in “formal paks”.
They also featured a variation known as the cummervest which
was essentially a throwback to the Edwardian-era cummerbund styles.
By 1959 upscale haberdashers were offering their own
variations with matching self-tie bow ties and by 1967 After Six was
advertising a whopping 164 varieties.
Rear view of late 1940s summer cummerbund with no
|| 1954 US ad for matching cummervest and cummerbund sets.
of adjustable size cummerbund from 1959 patent
After Six matching cummerbund and tie set circa 1955.
1970s - present
conservatism returned to formal wear in the late 1970s the color and
pattern introduced during the Peacock Revolution of the sixties was
stripped from all garments with the notable exception of waist
covers and matching ties.
Solid colored cummerbund sets were particularly popular with
young American males throughout the 1980s which may explain the
formal sash’s fall from favor in the 1990s.
By the turn of the millennium men much preferred either a
waistcoat or uncovered waist to the formerly ubiquitous cummerbund.