Originally Posted by Goblin
I don't even know the difference between a waistcoat and a vest.
There is no difference. Just different words for the same thing. You almost never hear "waistcoat" in America, but it is used a lot in England. However, there is a strange difference in usage between front office types and the workrooms. Salesmen will say "waistcoat." So will most customers. But tailors call it a vest.
Are vests strictly to be worn as the third part of a three-piece suit, or can I wear them with sport coats or blazers?
There are suit vests and odd vests. Suit vests are made from the same cloth as the coat and trosuers of the suit. Odd vests are made from something different. A three piece suit, by strict definition, has a "self" (same cloth) vest. This is by far the most common way to wear a vest with a suit. Here are two, one with a DB suit, one with an SB:
You rarely see odd vests worn with suits, but it is done by men who like to dress, and it was historically a sharp look. The typical odd vest to be worn with a city suit would be plain wool or linen in a light color like cream or buff or dove gray:
Keep in mind that in 2007 this is an anachronistic look, and quite dandified. It looks great, but it WILL get noticed. Two other ideas:
The guy on the right is wearing a sweater vest. It is shaped nicely for a tie. I have a pet peeve with currently made sweater vests, that the "V" is too high and barely shows the knot and nothing else. The vest on the right is linen DB. Sharp, but conspicuous.
I would not try to "match" a vest to a suit if it didn't already come with one. Unless the cloth is exactly the same -- cut from the same run off the loom -- it will just look off. An odd vest should be obviously different -- not almost but not quite like the cloth itself. So, if you really want to wear a vest with a suit that doesn't have one, get something completely different from the suit.
Odd vests for sports coats (or odd jackets) can be in a vareity of cloths and patterns. Tatersall (a cream flannel with a blue and black or red and black windowpane) is a classic. So is brown suede. So are any number of other wool patterns. They give off a country look. Here is a nice pic; sorry it's not in color:
I think that vest on the left is suede, but I would have to read the original caption to be sure, and I don't have it handy.
Mixing patterns can be a little tricky. It generally looks too busy to pair a patterned vest with a patterned jacket. It can work if one or the other pattern is very discreet and quiet, but rarely (if ever) if both are bold. If one is loud, the other should probably be solid. Solid trousers are also recommended. For instance, for me this is just too busy:
This, however, looks quite good to me:
Note as well the DB vest on the right. You almost never see this anymore, and I'm pretty sure it can only be had custom made. Nonetheless is super sharp, and I love the ones I have. It's a great way to liven up an otherwise staid solid worsted suit.
In the 30s, one might have seen a coat and vest that matched worn with odd trousers. I have seen this in pictures and illustrations, anyway. I'm trying to recall ever seeing it in real life, and I can't. I have a terrific picture of this look in a book, but not scanned. I may add it later.
A word about cut and trousers. A lot of people (me certainly included) think that belts with vests just don't work. They add bulk around the middle and make the vest bulge in an unsightly way. You also certainly don't want to show trouser waistband or shirt under the vest. Thus, with vests, it's best to wear high rise trousers with suspenders. You avoid that pitfall, and the trousers will hang nicely, with the pleats lying flat and spilling out from the bottom of the vest:
That, BTW, is a seven button vest. Most have six. Tailors sometimes make seven for tall guys. Note how the last button is undone. The vest is cut so that it can't be done up. That's a Savile Row tradition that I rather like. Whether your vest is cut like that or not, there is an old tradition to leave the last button undone, which I also rather like.
Also, coat and vest were traditionally supposed to work together so that you see a little -- but not much -- of the vest peeking out beneath the coat when it is buttoned. This means that the "V" opening of the vest has to be lowish (showing much more tie than just the knot) and that the coat's buttoning point has to be at least at the natural waist and not lower. This is a good example:
Personally, I like three piece suits a lot and get everything for fall/winter made that way. When the weather warms up, I just find a vest too much.