"The king hath yesterday declared his revolution of setting a fashion for clothes which he will never alter. It will be a vest. I know not well how, but it is to teach nobility thrift and it will do good."--Pepys in his diary
The king was Charles II, the year 1662. Thus what began life as a cassock in the mid 1400's and evolved into a doublet by the first half of the 16th century underwent its final transformation to become a small, sleeveless jacket shorter in length and open in the front, providing ample opportunity for men of the period to show off their frilly shirts. The vest was born.
Others were less enthusiastic than Mr. Pepys. In his own diary of 1666 John Evelyn records how when the King "put himself solemnly into the Eastern fashion of the vest...divers courtiers and gentlemen gave his Majesty gold to wager that he would not persist in this revolution."
They should have kept their purses shut. For though the history of men's fashion is replete with styles that have come and gone (stove-pipe hats, spats, leisure suits), vests endure, and have for over four-hundred years, longer than neckties and collars.
A waistcoat, a "coat of the waist." Who needs a coat for the waist? No arms, no legs, no collar. A square yard of fabric--hardly enough to keep warm in. You can't tuck your pants or shirt into it. And those silly little pockets good only for pocket watches and snuff boxes, things no one uses anymore.
What good is a vest? You may as well ask what good are peacock feathers? Vests are made for showing off. Poor hairless and featherless man, his rubbery flesh available in but a few dull colors, his choice of suits even duller. And the necktie--that skinny, skimpy concession to individuality. A man needs more. Like the peacock he needs to strut his stuff, to show his true colors. Hence the vest!
It was another king, King George IV, who initiated the fashion of leaving the bottom button undone. He did so by accident, having forgotten to button it before attending a party in his honor. His friend, fashion arbiter Beau Brummel, quickly, so to speak, followed suit. The habit persisted.
As did vests, growing more functional in the 1800's, made of lush fabrics depicting everything from hunting scenes to naval engagements, their mysterious myriad pockets hiding everything from love letters to pearl-handled derringers.
There followed the age of the fop, whose extraordinarily expensive vests featured buttons of perfumed wood or mother-of-pearl, and floral fabrics which, according to Constantin and his Almanac des Belles Maniers, could "be seen from one end of the street to the other." Admired or loathed, the wearers of such vests were impossible to ignore.
Over time the brilliant expensive fabrics were replaced by plainer stuff, velvets and silks of rich but solid color, cypress greens and heady violets. In the late 1800's they came in paisleys, plaids, and checks, and these in turn were followed by still more sober fabrics, until vests grew as plain as the clothes worn over them, giving rise to the three-piece suit.
Today vests once again trumpet their rich fabrics, and so they should. For unlike a suit, the best is no starched-down disciplinarian, no buttoned-down banker, no stiff-collared preacher, but a colorful orator whose locutions are as inspiring as they are manipulative: the Elmer Gantry of garments.
But a vest is more than a manipulator. It's a seducer, a set of signals as subtle as whispers or as obvious as flashing ambulance lights.
Note the geometry of the vest, a series of V-shapes or chevrons aimed downward, indicating a man's belly as the way not only to his heart but to his other desires, the focal point of his libidinal urges, his masculine center of gravity. Sexual attraction may start with the eyes, but from there it heads south. Indeed, the "humble" vest, with its trail of buttons and V-shapes pointing to the groin, may fill a more vital need than any other garment in the male closet, namely that of procreation.
As a boy I instinctively felt the power of vests, out of fashion when I came of age in the early 70's and available in stores only as a dull component of duller suits. Inspired by a TV show called The Wild, Wild West whose James Bond-style hero wore tight ones of dazzling brocades, I had my mom sew me one. With a tight brocade vest, I, too, would beat up dozens of bad-guys at once, including Bobby Mullis, who went to St. Mary's and used to persecute me at the bus stop.
Off we went, my mother and I, to the fabric store, where like prospectors sifting for gold we sifted through bins and racks of elaborate brocades to emerge with one yard of the most expensive fabric in the store, along with six buttons no less ornate and costly. An hour later I stood watching from behind as mom stooped over her Singer, making sure she curved the lapels just right.
Two days later, at the bus stop, wearing my vest, when Bobby Mullins shoved me I shoved back. We exchanged blows. His broken nose spattered its blood across my gold vest. I left the stains there. Blood and gold.
Years later, when I worked as a caricature artist at parties, I wore dazzling vests that I designed myself. I needed to keep my drawing arm free and unencumbered by any sleeve. But that was just an excuse. It was the peacock, not the artist, who needed his vest. I had my tailor make me a dozen, each more showy than the last. Two years later I outgrew them all, my chest broadened from swimming laps.
Today I seldom wear vests, mostly because I never see any that I like. The referees of fashion can't seem to get it right. Vests shouldn't be loose-fitting or boxy. They should slim the wearer by emphasizing the V-shape of his torso, and should never come down to the thigh lest they resemble the doublets of yore. The buttons should be small, and thus avoid looking like coals on a snowman. A vest should have lapels; without them they look flimsy. As for the fabric, if it doesn't call any attention to itself what's the point? Not a moose-call, or a peacock dance, but more than a stage-whisper. The same fabric should be used front and back, black satin backs being a concession to cheapskates aware that backs wear faster than fronts, but since vests these days are worn often without jackets, they should look good from all directions. Finally, vests should never be made of recycled neckties, washable paper, or canceled American Express cards.
And remember: leave the bottom button undone. Who are we to argue with kings?