The waistcoat has been one of the standard pieces of formal dress in the West since the late sixteenth century, and it has gone through several changes over time. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, men's waistcoats were long-sleeved garments worn as middle layers of clothing, over a shirt but underneath a topcoat or justaucorps. Some men's waistcoats extended only to the waist, hence their name, while others continued several inches lower. Generally, they grew shorter as time passed. Waistcoats were buttoned down the front, and featured collars and pockets. By the eighteenth century, a man's formal suit consisted of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches, or pants.
Women also sometimes wore waistcoats between their outer-wear and underwear. Some were sleeved but most were sleeveless. Unlike menswear, however, women's waistcoats were considered intimate apparel, and were not meant to be seen by anyone but the wearer. Still, they cannot be classified as underwear. By the eighteenth century, women wore vest-like waistcoats as riding attire and white, snugly sleeved waistcoats as blouses with long skirts.
The first waistcoats for both sexes were usually made of linen. They were padded and textured like quilts and featured ornate silk embroidery, known as whitework. Though they might be highly decorated, the primary purpose of the early waistcoats was to keep the wearer warm.
In the twentieth century, the waistcoat took on a new meaning as the equivalent of a vest. Different styles are worn for different purposes. Some are luxury designer items that are embroidered or even hand-painted, and donned for dressy occasions. Others are lined and sturdily made, and are worn for such outdoor activities as hunting and fishing or simply when it is too warm to wear a jacket or coat but not hot enough to be outdoors without some form of outerwear.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Hart, Avril, and Susan North. Fashion in Detail: From the 17th and 18th Centuries. New York: Rizzoli, 1998.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.