Menswear Marmite: why the waistcoat is fashion's most controverial garment, and how and where to wear one

Tomé Morrissy-Swan
Phil Neville has followed Gareth Southgate in making the waistcoat a trademark of his success - FIFA

David Beckham; the Peaky Blinders; Diane Keaton; members of the Bullingdon Club; Burt Reynolds; Aladdin; Ronnie O'Sullivan; everyone from Boyzone. These disparate entities don't have too much in common, but there is one thing – a propensity for wearing waistcoats. 

And yet none of them have done more to advance the cause of one of men's fashion's most controversial and divisive garments than the two current England football managers. Last year the men's coach, Gareth Southgate, caused a stir by showcasing a dark blue M&S vest at the World Cup in Russia.

The men's team reached its first semi-final since 1990; it was clearly, in no small part, down to the waistcoat, and sales of the item spiked back home. There was even a 'Waistcoat Wednesday'. 

A year on and the women's boss, Phil Neville, has not only matched his counterpart in reaching a World Cup last four, but has done so while wearing the exact same outfit. If one England coach achieves unprecedented success while wearing a waistcoat, we can put it down to coincidence. But when history repeats itself, perhaps it's time to pay attention to this hitherto unpopular menswear item. 

So the question is, should you be wearing one this summer? The truth is, no other garment in the male wardrobe inspires such a "Marmite" reaction. In online fashion articles with headlines like "Waistcoats are the hottest men's suit trend", its advocates claim they offer "impeccable structure", "clean lines" and are incredibly versatile, at home in both formal and smart-casual situations. 

Others, of course, say you'll end up looking like a cruise ship magician or Foxtons estate agent. Neither outcome is desirable. 

Gareth Southgate in his now-iconic waistcoat  Credit: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista 

"Waistcoats are one of my most loathed men's fashion items," says Telegraph men's style writer Adrian Clark. "I'm 52 and I've seen them come in and out of fashion many times over. They don't really serve any great purpose, other than to restrict.

"My mantra for style is all about looking effortlessly great but feeling comfortable. I don't even really like them as part of a three-piece suit for that very reason; they are just an unnecessary extra layer." 

The waistcoat is thought to have origins in Persia, and was brought to this country by travellers to the region. Charles II made it popular among the nobility, and the reason the bottom button is left undone is down to the (perhaps apocryphal) story of Edward VII, who was so fat he couldn't do it up. 

These days it's still a popular option for smart occasions. It can warm you up if wearing a suit in winter, or cool you down by allowing you to remove your blazer in summer. It can provide a slimming effect on the male torso, with writer Nicholas Lezard describing it as "probably the only item of male clothing that objectifies the body in such a way as to make it alluring." 

But it also smacks of 1970s French bistro waiter or old-school snooker player, and few would claim that anyone looks youthful in a waistcoat. "They scream mid-life crisis," reckons Clark. "I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and when I think of waistcoats I can't get images of people like Hurricane Higgins or rockers like Status Quo out of my head. The next wave of the waistcoat's renaissance was boy bands like Westlife and Boyzone – oh, and the Chippendales. Essentially, they have never been cool, they have always been fashion's tragic outcast." 

Prince William at Eton, and "Boy in a Red Waistcoat" by Paul Cézanne  Credit: AP Photo / National Gallery of Art /AP Photo / Ian Jones 

That may be so, but haven't Southgate and Neville brought the waistcoat back into the fold? Clark retorts that football managers have never been arbiters of style, despite a bit of brouhaha over José Mourinho's Armani overcoat or Pep Guardiola's £1200 grey cardigan. "For the most part, they dress like insurance salesmen," says Clark. 

"I don't think it was a conscious 'statement' when Southgate ditched his jacket. He probably did it in the name of comfort and, with the heatwave in France at the moment, I'm sure Neville's decision was based on the same criteria." 

So what's the best way to wear one in Clark's opinion? His answer is simple: "Behind closed doors." 

How to wear your waistcoat, tips from the experts 

Waistcoat sales shot up last year, and arguably Gareth Southgate is the person to thank – or blame, depending on your point of view. 

"Waistcoats have become a versatile option for any contemporary gent," explains Bethany Hamer, online fashion editor at Jules B. "The secret to pulling one off is to approach it with a bit of common sense. Think about the occasion. It's probably best not to opt for a silk dinner-style waistcoat for a night down at your local." 

For novices, Hamer suggests starting with plain, single-breasted styles. You can then experiment with different cuts, colours and fabrics, such as tweeds of checks which are better for casual looks. "The fit with these styles tends to be slightly looser, meaning you can steer clear of looking overly sleek or polished." 

Hamer recommends layering these waistcoats over an open-collared shirt and pairing with denim jeans or chinos. "This look is a fail-safe option, it will take you from the office to the bar effortlessly." 

"For more formal occasions we would suggest keeping your look controlled. Look to single-breasted styles in navy or grey and ensure these match your suit" – in other words, just like Phil and Gareth. Slim-fit cuts and colour co-ordinating will give your look a more serious formality: better for the boardroom, or the pitch, in Neville's case.

"For those special celebratory occasions you’ll need to adhere to a few more rules," Hamer continues. "Try experimenting with your next wedding-guest look by teaming your suit with softer-coloured hues in lilac or pale blue. If you opt for a U-shaped waistcoat then always go with a bow tie to accessorise, and never match a three-piece suit with a belt – braces always look the best."