On November 19, 2014

Vests without jackets: another menswear column

By Brett Yates

I’m going to my friend’s wedding in a few days, and because I’m a groomsman, my outfit has already been picked out: along with the rest of the men in the wedding party, I will be wearing black slacks, black shoes, black socks, a white shirt, and a black vest. No jacket.

This will be the second wedding of the year for me. The last one took place in August. I was a groomsman in that wedding as well. There, too, the uniform was a vest with no jacket. The colors were gray and lavender, yet the groomsmen again had that odd look of incompleteness. Clearly a trend has emerged. What exactly is going on here?

As you may know, the vest—known in the U.K. (and occasionally here, especially when referring to the low-cut iterations worn beneath tuxedo jackets) as the “waistcoast”—is a sleeveless garment typically worn beneath a jacket as the third part of a three-piece suit. For a time in the 19th century, vests had restrictive properties—like corsets for men—that helped sedentary aristocrats cut a trim figure, but now vests basically serve no function in formalwear other than to lend a suit that somewhat greater measure of elaborateness that any non-essential addition brings to an outfit.

To wear a vest without a jacket is not conventional, yet I suppose one can look at wedding photos from the elegant olden times and see men—particularly in sunny, outdoor settings—who, presumably after a couple drinks, have begun to let loose, have taken off their jackets, and now pose, grinning raffishly, with those same jackets slung over their shoulders and their vests fully exposed. I wonder whether these photos aren’t basically to blame for what’s happening now, with their suggestion that the real fun of a wedding begins when those dark, airless jackets come off.

“If that’s the case,” wonders the fun-loving groom, “why not let the groomsmen ditch the jackets altogether? Our wedding isn’t going to be some stuffy ceremony; it’s going to be a party!”

Of course, I have no idea whether the above thought ever actually entered the mind of either of the two unfortunate grooms who, having bestowed upon me the honor of appearing in their weddings, are now repaid in the form of a published indictment of their fashion sense.

There are other reasons to favor the vest-and-slacks duo. For one thing, it’s cheaper than a suit.

Suits are expensive. That’s why groomsmen customarily get together and rent matching suits from a suit-renting place instead of buying them. But if, for example, your wedding party is flying in from all over the country to attend the ceremony and certain members are not due to arrive until the evening before, it’s a lot easier to have everyone purchase his matching garments from the website of a popular corporate chain clothing store and have the outfits all set to go before boarding the plane. This weekend’s wedding is in Philadelphia; one groomsman is coming from Michigan, another from California. Getting to the wedding is labor enough for them—they shouldn’t also have to worry about trying on and renting suits. Buying a vest was as easy as the click of a button—and cheap!

But the reason vests are cheap is that they are flimsy little things that are not meant to stand alone. In fact, to force a man to wear a vest without a jacket is, traditionally, an act of subjugation. Unless you are a magician or a snooker player, the costume denotes service.

When you think of vests without jackets, you think of waiters, caterers, theater ushers, bellhops, elevator operators, and doormen. These are people who work in posh settings where formalwear for the staff is necessary in order to announce the high-end status of the establishment; however, the workers are deprived of jackets in order to show that they exist on a lower tier than the customers. They are stripped-down, diminished. They don’t wear anything as distractingly incongruous as a T-shirt, yet their formalized sartorial poverty makes them instantly recognizable as servants. They’re here to do sweaty work and will not need the extra warmth of a jacket.

This interpretation of the vested look may explain why, to some people, it seems appropriate for groomsmen. The thought probably is not conscious, but we are, literally, the groom’s men; we are in his service. We may be asked to show guests to their seats at the ceremony or simply to listen to the groom’s pre-wedding anxieties (if any); in any case the designation is not merely honorary but functional. We have jobs to do.

On the other hand, it would never occur to the groom himself that he should wear a vest without a jacket at his own wedding. He’s the most important man at the party—it just wouldn’t be right. He has to look good; moreover he has to look complete—a man in full, ready for adult life.

Well, if the vest isn’t good enough for him, why is it good enough for the rest of us? We’re not as important as the groom, it’s true. We know that and are fine with it. In fact, none of us really even cares what we’re wearing. We can carry trays of hors d’oeuvres to complete the look if the grooms wants. We’re just happy to be there.

But that doesn’t mean that any of us would actually prefer to wear a costume whose very existence is strictly a function of classism. It doesn’t look good.

A plea for future grooms who might follow this trend: give us jackets, or give us nothing. Or, if you really love vests and a casual atmosphere, be bold and give us a vest with jeans. Paired with denim, the vest may seem like an interesting, dressy touch, not a disempowerment. I respect waiters too much to feel OK about impersonating one.

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