Odd waistcoats—waistcoats or vests that contrast with a suit or jacket—are having a renaissance right now, but they are still an unconventional piece of clothing. They have only been a small part of James Bond’s style, with their most notable appearance in the M’s office scene in Goldfinger, but they are nonetheless a garment worth considering.
While a three-piece suit is slightly more formal than a two-piece suit, an odd waistcoat has less of an effect on an outfit’s formality. Some odd waistcoats are formal and dress up a suit, while others are sporty and dress down a suit. More than anything, the odd waistcoat is a dandy touch when worn with a suit.
Odd waistcoats are just like the waistcoat of a three-piece suit, except they’re made in a fabric that differs from the suit or jacket. The style and fit is the same as a waistcoat from a three-piece suit: they usually have five or six buttons, they usually have a back made of lining like a suit’s waistcoat, they may have two or four pockets, and they may or may not have lapels.
Odd waistcoats are very difficult to wear well, not being as straightforward as a matching three-piece suit. They’re often poorly done, either looking like a mismatched suit or clashing with the rest of the outfit in colour, texture, weight or formality. Like when pairing an odd jacket with trousers, an odd waistcoat should contrast in colour and texture while matching in weight and formality. Following tradition is the easiest way to wear an odd waistcoat.
The most traditional and typical use of the odd waistcoat is with morning dress. Here one contrasts their black morning coat with a pale-coloured waistcoat in linen, wool gabardine, wool plain weave, wool doeskin or silk. Light grey, light blue, buff yellow and cream are the traditional waistcoat colours. Pink, beige and other light colours are less common but are entirely acceptable.
While Bond does not follow traditional British morning dress customs when dressing for Felix Leiter’s wedding in Licence to Kill, the wedding party wear a classic light grey wool gabardine waistcoat with shanked smoked mother of pearl buttons. Favourbrook in London’s Piccadilly Arcade sell very similar waistcoats for morning dress.
These formal waistcoats are commonly found in both single-breasted and double-breasted form, and as formal waistcoats they can be worn interchangably. Q wears a taupe wool gabardine double-breasted waistcoat with morning dress in A View to a Kill.
These waistcoats can also be worn with black lounge, which is like morning dress but replaces the morning coat for a black lounge coat. The only time James Bond wears black lounge is for his own wedding in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but he takes an irregular approach to the waistcoat and trousers.
Traditionally, a black morning coat or black lounge coat take the wool, silk or linen waistcoats previously mentioned along with dark grey striped or checked trousers. For Bond’s wedding, he opts for matching light grey waistcoat and trousers in lightweight worsted wool, probably in a plain weave. While this is unorthodox, the lightweight waistcoat and trousers keep Bond cool in Portugal while also creating a harmonious look. The formality is slightly lower than it would be with traditional morning dress accessories, but it’s roughly the same formality as a three-piece worsted suit.
In most cases, a waistcoat from a worsted wool suit does not pair well with other suits. This broken suit look that some Italians call spezzato is difficult to wear well because the texture of the waistcoat will be too similar to that of the suit. The waistcoat should contrast in both colour and texture with the suit or jacket it pairs with. For Bond’s wedding look, the waistcoat and trousers made from lightweight light grey suiting pairs well with the heavier black jacket because there is contrast in both colour and texture, but both are made of formal materials.
Any of the classic morning dress waistcoats can also be used to dress up a dark worsted suit instead of a matching waistcoat. These formal waistcoats are best paired with suits of worsted wool. The doeskin waistcoat, however, can also pair well with suits in heavier wools like flannel or tweed.
Doeskin waistcoats are amongst the most versatile of waistcoats and have the ability to dress up or down. They are not only a traditional complement to morning dress but also to city suits, country suits and sports coats for cool weather. Doeskin is a flannel wool with a special finish that gives it a short and lustrous nap that makes it a dressier than a regular flannel. Doeskin waistcoats are commonly are found not only in grey and beige but also in in vivid or deeper colours like gold, burgundy, forest green and navy. In pale colours, a doeskin waistcoat is more formal and is appropriate with morning dress while the darker colours are better for suits and sports coats.
In Goldfinger James Bond wears a brown houndstooth check woollen flannel suit with a beige doeskin waistcoat, which complements the texture and weight of the suit. Despite the added waistcoat in a light colour, the formality of Bond’s suit in Goldfinger isn’t raised by the beige waistcoat. A brown houndstooth check flannel suit will always be a somewhat sporty suit that is more appropriate for the country than in the city, and the colour of the waistcoat was chosen for how it complements the suit rather than for its formality.
In the film Woman of Straw, Sean Connery pairs the same beige doeskin waistcoat with a brown barleycorn tweed hacking jacket and fawn cavalry twill trousers for extra warmth outdoors in the countryside. The jacket and trousers are the same ones he later wears in Goldfinger. The formality of the waistcoat is flexible and pairs just as well with this sportier outfit as it does with the houndstooth check suit.
A woollen flannel waistcoat could replace a doeskin waistcoat when wearing a flannel or tweed suit or a sports coat, but it will be slightly lower in formality than a doeskin waistcoat.
A velvet waistcoat is a good alternative for a jewel-toned doeskin waistcoat with a suit, but with its sheen its a little more formal and a little flashier.
The moleskin waistcoat is related to velvet, but with less sheen it’s much sportier and pairs better with sporty suits and sports coats, like ones in tweed, and not with dressier suits. The classic tattersall waistcoat would be worn the same way.
Knitwear in the form of a sleeveless cardigan or sleeveless pullover can be stylish and practical alternative to a waistcoat, but they are too casual for a suit and should only be paired with sports coats. The only suits that knitwear works with a casual suits like ones made of tweed or corduroy.
A waistcoat is best worn as an addition to a jacket, not in place of a jacket. It’s a good addition to a suit or a jacket and trousers for both style and for warmth. Without a jacket it conjures the image of a labourer, but today men do not labour in a tailored waistcoat. Without a jacket, a waistcoat can be a good look at home or at the office, but when dressing up to go out, a waistcoat without a jacket is usually an incomplete look.
There are exceptions to this when a waistcoat can look good without a jacket, but it should be kept to casual wear with sportier waistcoats made of materials like moleskin, flannel or tweed, and it helps if the waistcoat has lapels and pocket flaps so it looks more finished. It can also help is the waistcoat has a fabric back instead of the usual lining back.
For further reading, Gentleman’s Gazette has a fantastic article about odd waistcoats.
The best sources for ready-to-wear waistcoats are Favourbrook and Cordings. Oliver Brown and Ede & Ravenscroft also have an excellent selection of formal waistcoats.