Good things come in threes

A SUIT isn’t complete and proper unless it’s a three-piece suit. That’s the view of plenty of tailors, but for a long time it wasn’t shared by many of their clients. The waistcoat all but disappeared from the City in the ‘80s, and if anything was buried further by a brief ‘90s revival in the form of ill-fitting, high-buttoned, sported-by-footballers garments that registered minus points for style.

But now the waistcoat is back. James Sleater of City tailors Cad & the Dandy says his business used to make one waistcoat for every 50 suits it produced, but now it’s one in three. The credit crunch put the kibosh on the City’s more brazen sartorial habits so now men are looking for other ways to cut a dash.

“As people stay away from brash old pinstripes and go for more conservative cloths, they dress it up with a waistcoat,” he says.

There’s also the look of the waistcoat sans jacket. Frankly, a person in a waistcoat, tie and shirtsleeves looks more on the ball and ready for action than the bloke beside him in a messily tucked-in shirt.

If you want to see how a three-piece suit should appear at its best, look no further than the super-suave number sported by Sean Connery in the Bond film Goldfinger, or that worn by Steve McQueen in another style classic of the Sixties, the Thomas Crown Affair (see this supplement’s cover image). The key to getting the look right, says Sleater, is to ensure the waistcoat doesn’t go too high.

“You want to see a little peak of waistcoat behind the suit jacket, rather than that pushy, look-at-me-in-my-waistcoat thing,” he explains. “It’s understated, considered elegance – you don’t want to look like you’re showing off.”

While the modern suit evolved out of military tailoring in the early 20th century, the waistcoat dates back to the days of wigs and frock coats. Its job, as well as being a place to store a pocket watch and chain – a dandy look that’s popular again in our retro-obsessed times, though hardly sensible for the City – was to provide elegance and structure in an area of the body that can be decidedly inelegant and unstructured (particularly after a big lunch).

“We call the waistcoat the male corset – even on guys who are a bit bigger it’s very flattering,” says Luke Sweeney of Mayfair tailors Thom Sweeney. “It completes the jacket, and makes things look very neat. Once you get used to it, you stick with it.”

Made well, it’s nevertheless rather more comfortable than a corset. There’s no reason a waistcoat should be unduly tight or restrictive, even on more portly physiques.

Just remember the key rule of keeping the bottom button undone – a tradition supposedly started by the distinctly portly Edward VII – and the thing will hang neatly and comfortably. This, says Chris Scott Gray of made-to-measure specialist Chester Barrie, is investment dressing.

“If you’re going to get a suit with a waistcoat, you’re often going to get it in a better cloth,” he says. “It’s about looking like you want to be wearing that suit, you’re not apologising for it. People are now enjoying looking very tailored, instead of that ‘sack of potatoes’ look – this is about taste.”

Johnny Allen of sales manager Huntsman suggest it’s a look that suits this time of year too.

“Air con means people are leaving their coats at home more, so they like the added warmth and cover a waistcoat provides, and it pulls a look together very well.”

A waistcoat adds decisions to the suit-buying process: how many buttons to have (normal is between five and seven), whether to go single or double breasted (single is normal but Sleater says double breasted business suits are seeing a real surge in popularity) and whether to get a lapelled waistcoat or not.

“There are no rules, but for me it can look a bit busy with lapels if you’re getting it in a checked or striped material,” says Sweeney (though one unbreakable rule for lounge suits, of course, is that the waistcoat should always be of the same material as the rest of the suit).

A lapel is generally considered a little more formal, and helps pull off the shirtsleeves option as well. However you go – Sweeney even recommends a horseshoe waistcoat, in which the cut of the chest is scooped – you can be assured that the waistcoat brings smartness, authority and a sense of purpose to your look.

“There’s something quite austere about the three-piece suit,” says Jeremy Hackett, whose eponymous clothes company carries several such suits in its Mayfair collection. “People feel more serious about things at the moment, and so they want to look more serious about things – you simply can’t look sloppy in a three-piece.”