A vest or a waistcoat is a sleeveless clothing garment that covers the upper body. Though typically worn by men, there are also women's fashions that incorporate vests or waistcoats. The garments are made out of a variety of fabrics but the most common are leather, wool—these are referred to as "sweater vests"—and cotton. The garments are popular in three-piece suits as well as in the uniforms of food servers.
So What Is a Vest Exactly?
The term "vest" refers to many things, for example, a life-saving swimming accessory, a fashionable addition to a person's outfit or a warming layer worn in cold climates. According to the Etymology Dictionary, the word "vest" was first referenced in the 1610s, as a loose outer garment worn by men in Eastern countries or in ancient times. The sleeveless garment worn by men beneath a coat was introduced by Charles II.
And a Waistcoat Is...?
A waistcoat is, in fact, identical to a vest in appearance. It may be worn as part of a man's suit and in evening or day wear; the uniform typical of clergy members includes an article that is classified as a waistcoat. Dating back to the 1600s, this piece of clothing has a history rich in brushes with royalty, including Charles II. Worn by both men and women initially, waistcoats became primarily worn by men in the 20th century.
When comparing vests and waistcoats, the difference comes down to dialect and language. In form and function, the two clothing items are identical. The terms are, in fact, often used interchangeably, which may spark the confusion. Even attempts to explain the difference often become muddied with repetitious language. The British refer to the garment as a waistcoat; Americans use vest to meant waistcoat.
British Vs. American Terminology
In Britain, the term "vest" also means an undershirt or tank top while the term "waistcoat" refers only to the sleeveless garment. The term "vest" in the U.S., however, also has many meanings. It can refer to a hunting vest, a bullet proof vest or a life jacket. The form is identical as to a cloth vest or waistcoat, but the name of the object indicates the difference in function.
Styles of the Vest/Waistcoat
"Unlike suit jackets and trousers, vests have remained generally constant over time in the 19th and 20th centuries," according to Historical Boys Clothing. In fact, the only apparent change in vest fashion between the 1600s and present day, is the average length and the number of buttons. When first introduced into fashion, the vest was typically used in suits, however, now it is fashionable to wear a vest without a suit, wear a vest open and wear it over T-shirts.