The origin of the vest is commonly attributed to King Charles II of England, who in 1666 declared to his Council that he would introduce an addition to men’s fashion—the waistcoat. It is believed this was a response to the dominance the French had on fashion among the nobility. The King’s waistcoat was the same length as the coat worn over it. Within 12 years it was established within international fashion circles.
By the mid-1800s waistcoats became ornate in color and detail, by the late 1800s patterned fabrics were used on the front and the unseen backs were made of fabrics typically used to line clothing. Collars were stiffened and would appear over the coat’s lapel. By the 1890s the British term waistcoat was replaced with vest. At the turn of the century vests were also embroidered or hand-painted. This was followed in the early 20th century by the practice of wearing vests made of durable fabrics for outdoor sport—fishing or hunting.
Knitted sweater vests (also called slipovers, tank tops or baldwins) became popular. A sweater vest with white flannel pants and shirt were standard for cricket players in the UK, South Africa and India. And for tennis players before the 1930s when shorts became common and René Lacoste introduced what would be known as the polo shirt. It also replaced the tweed Norfolk jacket for golfers, worn with brogues and short breeches.
By the 1970s women were wearing vests as part of their work attire and soon thereafter as part of their casual wear. Clearly the vest is a small fashion statement that has been making a big impression for centuries.