The charm and swagger of waistcoats

The actress Charlotte Rampling sits back on a sofa, barefoot. She wears a waistcoat, white shirt and trousers
Charlotte Rampling pairs a mannish waistcoat with a long-sleeved shirt in 1974 © Mondadori via Getty Images

At a recent rural wedding in north Wales, I paired a pink waistcoat with matching trousers from the French label The Frankie Shop and was met with bemusement. “It’s so great they have female magicians now,” said one fellow invitee. “I see Ronnie O’Sullivan’s made the guest list,” quipped another. To my mind, I was channelling 1974-era Charlotte Rampling, not the snooker player. But that’s the risk you take when you don a waistcoat. It’s all about context.

Had I been front row at a fashion show, rather than in a field, I might have elicited a warmer reception. The spring catwalks of Saint Laurent, Jacquemus, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Burberry all featured waistcoats. So too the airport “catwalk” at Nice, where several weeks ago Marion Cotillard breezed in for the Cannes Film Festival nailing the “passport-control chic” dress code in a black waistcoat, jeans and giant sunglasses. And Palm Beach got the memo: taking a page from Bianca Jagger’s playbook, Nicola Peltz wore an all-white Dior tailored three-piece for the rehearsal dinner of her epic wedding to Brooklyn Beckham.

That said, women in waistcoats are nothing new. If Marlene Dietrich, Janelle Monáe and Kate Moss are anything to go by, once you discover a zest for the vest, it sticks with you for life. “There’s a lot of charm and swagger in such a small garment,” muses British designer Bella Freud. The Chrissie waistcoat from her eponymous line is a recurring style named after singer Chrissie Hynde. “She wears a waistcoat really well, in a way that’s hot and boyish and sexy. When you feel like you’re blending into the wall, it’s a good thing to wear.” Freud’s denim iteration is proving popular in helping customers stand out — in a good way. “Natasha Lyonne just wore it on Saturday Night Live,” she says. “You can get a good jacket in any market. But a good waistcoat that has a certain cut to it — it’s harder to come by.”

Model Kate Moss wears a black hat, shorts and black leather jacket. She carries a bottle of cola and a paper cup
Kate Moss in an open waistcoat at the 2005 Glastonbury music festival . . .  © Getty Images

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders playing guitar on stage, wearing a white frilly shirt and black leather waistcoat
. . . and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders in a leather waistcoat in 1980 © Redferns

The Italian tailoring label Giuliva Heritage is similarly becoming a waistcoat destination. “We’ve always included a waistcoat in our collections, inspired by Bianca Jagger and Studio 54 — and in the last two years, sales have really started to pick up,” reports Margherita Cardelli, who launched the brand alongside her husband Gerardo Cavaliere in 2017. The ivory waistcoat-trouser combo from its SS22 collection is one of the looks most requested by celebrities and fashion editors. “I designed it originally for brides — I thought it was a cool alternative to a blazer, a little bit sexy,” says Cardelli. Currently pregnant, Cardelli has been living in waistcoats. “It’s smart and tailored on the top but you can unbutton the bottom to make some room.”

Waistcoats make for a surprisingly foolproof workwear look, says the retail consultant Natalie Kingham, an aficionado since she acquired a fitted Ossie Clark red snakeskin-print style as a teenager. In her previous role as buying director of she often placed orders for waistcoats from Alexander McQueen, Bella Freud and Dolce & Gabbana. She herself considers them a surprisingly versatile day-to-night option. “I would often buy a waistcoat with the matching blazer because it felt like a no-brainer and it made my life easier,” she recalls. “It kind of works like a 9-to-5 dress, and it doesn’t feel too stuffy or strict. You can have your meeting wearing the blazer on top, and then you can have a cocktail wearing the waistcoat with nothing underneath.” 

A model on the runway wears a black waistcoat and sunglasses
Saint Laurent SS22

A model wears a bit waiscoat with bare arms, and a full-length pink gauzy skirt
Giorgio Armani SS22

Divorcing the waistcoat from its three-piece-suit origins and usual formal context also challenges its more traditional overtones. The three-piece suit has evolved into a symbol of aristocratic eccentricity (and a shortlived trademark look for England football manager Gareth Southgate). At Eton, for instance, the privilege of wearing a wacky waistcoat is reserved for prefects. Remember Prince William in his Union Jack-printed style?

In another context, Helsinki-born, London-based designer Ella Boucht approaches waistcoats from a queer perspective, having discovered the garment’s power during their masters degree in womenswear at Central Saint Martins. “Personally, I love wearing waistcoats as they make me feel unstoppable. I love the combination of the structured front and silky back, with exposure of arms and skin. It’s an erotic yet professional piece,” Boucht says. Boucht’s waistcoats, which often feature harnesses, have become a signature design that aims to “stir up the pot and bring queerness into a world heavily created for men”.

Bella Hadid steps out in open waistcoat and T-shirt in April . . .  © GC Images

. . . and Marion Cotillard opts for waistcoat and jeans for her arrival at Nice airport in May © GC Images

Waistcoat aficionado Janelle Monáe at the Grammy Nominations Concert Live in 2012 . . .  © FilmMagic

. . . and actress Elle Fanning at an event in Santa Monica in 2022 © WireImage

Tempted? Make like the model and designer TyLynn Nguyen and try a plain white tee underneath a gently oversized style. A fan of Skall Studio’s grey linen floaty pants and oversized vest, she says the ensemble is an elegant — but most importantly cool — alternative to a summer jacket. “It’s a light layer that creates the same ease as suiting,” she tells me. Lauren Santo Domingo, chief brand officer at Moda Operandi, owns a linen style from Michael Lo Sordo and advises: “You’ll find yourself reaching for the set when you feel like you have nothing else to wear.”

But watch out for buttons. “Something that buttons too high above the chest can be tricky to wear unless you are very small in that department,” she cautions. Instead, seek out a flattering V and adjustable strap. And don’t forget to have a magic trick on hand if things go awry.

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