“Put me in a three-piece suit and I tend to resemble Roger Moore in his appalling early 1980s period, but without the raised eyebrow,” says London-based men’s wear designer Simon Carter. So why is he making such a feature of suits with waistcoats in his collection for this autumn?
Simple: his clientèle are asking for them. “There’s suddenly a revival of interest in the three-piece suit,” says Carter. “It’s actually a very versatile look, because you can add all kinds of detail to the waistcoat, such as extra pockets. Last year it was our biggest seller at Selfridges.”
Indeed, the recent return of the suit and a more dressed-up approach to men’s wear has brought with it the waistcoat. While some designers consider the reappearance of what Americans call the “vest” to be evidence that the much-vaunted return of the dandy is now fact and not supposition, others see the phenomenon as a more macho kind of development.
“I missed the three-piece suit the first time around because I’m too young, but I love them,” says solicitor James Tilbury, 31. “They’re masculine and actually very neat – they keep your shirt and tie in order when you’ve taken off your jacket. Since I’ve started wearing my three-piece suit in meetings, I’ve heard nothing but praise …There must be lots of men who would love to wear a three-piece suit and are just waiting to be told it’s back.”
“I think one reason people don’t wear three-piece suits any more is because they think they’re restrictive but, actually, they’re still really elegant and are very popular with our customers as they are quintessentially British,” says Sir Paul Smith, who created a City pin-striped suit with a two-button notch lapel suit jacket this season and another in traditional gamekeeper check in chocolate and camel. Ede & Ravenscroft also has pin-striped three-piece suits in its collection. Matthew Farnes, its bespoke tailor, is finding that younger customers who have not worn them before are beginning to ask for them.
Mark Donnor, 33, who runs a real estate private equity fund, has a collection of three-piece suits, including a morning suit, which he had made at Ede & Ravenscroft for his wedding. “It’s a very neat, sharp look,” he says. But it’s also very practical – you can use it for pens and notes when you’ve taken your jacket off in the office.”
“One customer told me that he feels really dressed up, really ready to work – the pin-stripe is always popular and has real impact,” says Farnes. “Waistcoats also allow men to show their individual style. I’ve made one with a purple backing, for instance, which looks very striking, a bit like wearing red braces. It’s also very functional because you’ve got those useful extra pockets.”
A two- or three-button singled-breasted jacket works best with a waistcoat, advises Farnes. Men can also wear their trousers higher, with the waistband under the waistcoat, for a more elegant, elongated silhouette, while today’s lighter fabrics mean that even with the extra layer of clothing, wearers will not feel too hot and encumbered.
“The three-piece suit felt right for the autumn/winter collection, even though for some time it’s been considered a little old-fashioned,” says Carlos de Freitas, head of men’s wear at Dunhill. “For our collection, we’ve created a new slimmer silhouette with a shorter jacket that has a contemporary edge. As men’s wear has become progressively more casual, it is good to have something in the wardrobe that is refined and sophisticated.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so. “Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen a general return in men’s wear to more sophisticated and elegant dressing,” says Robert Triefus, Giorgio Armani’s executive vice-president. “The waistcoat continues that direction, especially when it’s worn with tone-on-tone shirts and more fitted jackets. It combines for a very contemporary feel.”
Outside the office, waistcoats also work well. Tony Lutwyche, of London tailor Lutwyche Bespoke, finds that although some clients once associated three-piece suits with John Travolta’s brilliant white number in Saturday Night Fever, they increasingly appreciate how a waistcoat can make clothes more elegant for the evening and, indeed, other occasions. “With more men getting married in dinner jackets,” he notes, “quite often you find that the groom wants a really elegant waistcoat just to help differentiate him from the other men there.”
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