Well-Made and Essential Vests and Waistcoats Every Denimhead Should Shortlist
For some reason, a lot of denimheads baulk at the idea of adding vests and waistcoats into their rotation. They seem to have a bit of a nose-in-the-air reputation—as though they’re better suited to the dandy than to the more rugged workwear enthusiast. We want to put this notion to bed early and without its supper.
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Yes, vests work very well with tucked-in and buttoned-down looks. They pair beautifully with blazers or with suits, and they give a fine coat of polish to formalwear looks (the leap from a two-piece to three-piece suit really makes all the difference).
However, the vest (particularly the ruggedly well-made variety) is perfectly at home in a wide range of workwear looks. When the summer tapers to a close, a denim or wool vest can add that barely needed extra touch of warmth. After the leaves have fallen, a vest can make an excellent layering piece either under a jacket or, if it is a piece of outerwear, over the jacket.
However you choose to wear it, the vest provides options. For those who pick their vests (and their outfits) carefully, it can be a game-changer. Like nothing else, it will elevate your layering game. If you’ve decided to level up your layering with a vest, you’ll need a good one. No imitators—just the genuine, well-made article.
The sections we cover in this guide:
- Why well-made vests and waistcoats are essential
- How to identify a well-made vest or waistcoat
- Our list of vests and waistcoats we recommend
If you want to know more about why we created these guides, please read our Manifesto. If you want to understand the criteria we apply for each item, read our definitions of ‘well-made’ and ‘essential’.
An honest disclosure: There are affiliate links in our guides. We earn a small commission when you click any of these links and buy something. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it helps us continue the important work we’re doing. Availability and price of the products we recommend are subject to change.
Why Well-Made Vests and Waistcoats Are Essential
Well-made vests and waistcoats are both timeless and adaptable. They’re as fashionable as they are functional. If they’re built to last (and all of the vests on this list are), they’ll stay with you for aeons, combining and recombining with a wide range of both buttoned-up and relaxed looks.
Well-Made Vests and Waistcoats Are Timeless
Vests may have been the exclusive property of the monied classes in the eighteenth century when men first started wearing them, but that didn’t last long. By the nineteenth century, working men had seen something in the sleeveless garment. They made it fully their own.
The vest was, it turned out, perfectly suited to the saddle. It added an extra layer of warmth (less than a jacket, but more than enough for the dry and dusty places that cowboys congregated), and pockets were ideal places to store tobacco or a flask for quick access.
It was a frontier staple equally popular with wealthy industrialists and the hard-working ranchers and miners. For the former, it kept the suspenders hidden from view and provided a convenient place to store the pocket watch. For the latter, it could be worn loosely, slung open over wrinkled and dusty shirts. Then as now, it could be dressed up or down as circumstances demanded.
In the twentieth century, outdoorsmen (particularly hunters and fishermen) adopted the vest as well. Like the cowboys before them, they loved the vest for its ability to combine comfort in all seasons and to provide easy access to cartridges or other necessary supplies (tobacco and spirits still being popular favourites). Heavy mackinaw wool in the iconic buffalo plaid kept many a hunter and fisherman warm and dry in America’s woods and along her fertile riverbanks.
Even in its modern iterations, the vest still carries some of this history in its pockets. Lean too hard into vintage looks (either the huntsman or the cowboy), and you might look like you’ve stepped off the set of Lonesome Dove or out of a 1950s Sears Roebuck catalogue. As we’ll see below, it’s still a highly versatile piece, but it needs to be approached with some care.
Well-Made Vests and Waistcoats Are Adaptable
As adaptable as they are, vests can’t just be thrown into any outfit. Though many have tried to pull it off with a henley, a crew-neck long sleeve, or even tee shirts, it never quite works. With deep historical roots (back to when going collarless meant going shirtless), the vest needs a collar to work its magic.
The collar doesn’t have to be stiff. Chambrays and linen shirts look excellent under a vest (especially ones that button up to the collarbone). For vests with a more pronounced vee, crisp-collared dress shirts and denim shirts (provided the vest isn’t denim) work very well. If you’re reaching for a denim vest, remember the general rule, which is no more than two pieces of denim at a time.
Vests look their best when they’re done up. Those who stubbornly refuse to tuck their shirts in often throw vests over their shoulders and let them hang open. This can work, but only for extremely laid back styles (that just rolled-out-of-bed wrinkled look).
Vests lend any outfit a more distinguished air when they are buttoned up over a tucked-in shirt. Even buttoned up, they can still be a casual piece. Go with your highest-waisted pair of jeans and leave a few buttons undone at the bottom of the vest.
If you’ve got a great tie or two, they work extremely well with vests. If the rest of the outfit is on the relaxed side, loosen the knot and undo the top button. If you’re pairing it with a blazer or a button-down collar, though, keep that shirt buttoned up and that knot high and tight.
Do not under any circumstances button the vest up and leave the shirttails untucked. The fashion police will batter down your door and throw you in the clink.
How to Identify a Well-Made Vest or Waistcoat
As part of a layered ensemble, you’re probably pairing your vest with other well-made items (almost certainly premium selvedge jeans, and maybe a well-made denim jacket as well). The vest will be a stand-out piece, drawing the eye, so this is not an area to pinch pennies.
To make sure that your vest turns your outfit into an absolute show-stopper, it’s got to be well made. Here are a few things to look for.
What It’s Made of
Take the vest down from the rack, and you should be able to feel its quality between your fingers. There are, of course, lightweight dress vests no heavier than a credit card. You won’t find any vests like this on our list below (or at any of our favourite stockists). The vests that pair best with heavy, well-made selvedge are also thick and heavy.
As a general (but not universal) rule, steer clear of synthetic fibres. 100% virgin wool is a good starting point. Mackinaw or Melton wool is often a sign that you’re looking at a quality item. The wool should be sturdy without feeling coarse. The heavier vests will be quite stiff at first, but, like your favourite denim pieces, they will mellow with age.
Colour is absolutely crucial here. Some great makers make vests in bold plaids (particularly the iconic red and black). The bolder the check, the less adaptable the piece will be. The best pieces on the market tend to stick to dark, solid colours. Greys and browns are a good place to start, and blue works well (though you might have more than enough navy in the rotation already).
Look closely at the fabric. Even when they are simple pieces, well-made vests are never lifeless or bland. They’ve got character. The more character there is in the fabric, the more it will draw the eye and the hand closer. The best vests simply demand to be touched.
What to look for in a well-made vest or waistcoat:
- Solid, muted colours for adaptability
- 100% wool or 100% cotton if a layering piece
- Wool or nylon if an outerwear piece
- No flimsy backs
- Heavier the better
- Texture for touchability
How It’s Made
As a piece that’s layered over other well-made pieces, a good vest should show the same kind of attention to detail as everything else you wear. This is no place to cut corners.
Even if the details are mostly concealed, we know they’re there, and they make a big difference in terms of how long the piece will last and what kind of abuse we can throw at it.
Start with a close look at the hardware. If it’s meant to be worn beneath a jacket, you’ll probably be looking at buttons (branded or otherwise special buttons are a plus). If it’s meant to go over a jacket, you might be looking at a zipper. If the latter, how is the action? It doesn’t have to slide as smoothly as you might expect on a luxury item, but it should very much feel like a quality piece of hardware.
If your vest has buttons, they should be extremely securely fastened to the vest. Loose buttons quickly become missing buttons, so give each of them a little wiggle.
Finally, flip the vest inside out. If it’s lined, you won’t be able to see any of the stitching, but the liner will tell you a great deal about the quality of the build. A little bit of softness on the inside of the vest can be a nice touch, but this means the vest is essentially a showpiece. If it’s warmth and durability you’re looking for, nothing beats wool.
Look for clean and tight stitching throughout, and open each of the pockets. Are they lined? Most importantly, are they useful? Most vests have either two or four pockets. If they are all large and buttoned pockets, ask yourself if you will ever put anything in them. If the answer is no, look for something pockets that don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves.
Construction details to look for in well-made vests or waistcoats:
- Clean and tight stitching throughout
- Flat-felled seams
- Heavy-duty zipper
- Sturdy buttons attached firmly
- Pockets that you’ll use
- Reinforced front placket
Why It’s Made
Great vests tend to be made for one of two reasons: either they are made to look and feel great, or they are made to be functional garments either for work or recreation. We’ve included a few of each in the list below, so it all comes down to how you’ll use your vest.
Some of the vests below will add a beautiful bit of soft texture to outfits made up of rough and smooth (with nothing in between). Like a great scarf or a wool lining peeking out of a jacket, a great vest can soften a look considerably—and it’s made with this in mind.
The rest of the vests are more functional. They might be all about providing that extra layer of down-filled warmth for your torso, or they might be something very close to a tactical vest, with pocket space to spare. Either way, a well-made vest will manage to balance function and fashion with ease.
We’ll start the list below with a look at a few of the softer, fashion-first vest and move into more functional and long-lasting territory as we proceed.
Well-Made and Essential Vests and Waistcoats
Vests are far from the most-popular menswear category, but most shops will have at least a few of them kicking around. If it’s the genuine, well-made article you’re after, you might need to do a little poking around.
But who’s got time for digging? We’ve saved you the work. Here are ten absolutely essential and well-made vests and waistcoats to elevate your layering game.
Don’t let the unpronounceable name fool you, Orgueil (which means ‘pride’ in French) is as Japanese as they come. The brand is the uber-vintage and uber-stylish offshoot of Studio D’Artisan, and, if you want to look like you just stepped out of a 1930s speakeasy, Orgueil has got you more than covered.
Like everything else the brand produces, Orgueil’s vests are true-blue vintage. Their French Stripes vest, which buttons higher than most, will look phenomenal if you’ve got the poker-straight posture to support it. Rock this classic style with your head held high. Don’t even think about trying to dress this down or wear it unbuttoned.
- 100% Cotton twill
- Recreation of 1930s French fabric
- Made in Japan
- Vintage styling
- Adjustable waist
- 15mm black nut buttons
- On the long side
Other Orgueil vests to consider: Sack Gilet Vest (herringbone cotton twill)
London’s comfort-first clothing brand Allevol has teamed up with Inverallan, a family-run Scottish knitwear producer, and the result is pure Highland gold. The touchability factor is off the chart with these 100% cotton waistcoats. Of all the vests on this list, this one is the softest off the rack by far. Though not as warm as some of the woolen vests below, this hand-knit vest will slide in perfectly into heavily textured and carefully layered looks.
Very much on the conservative side, these indigo-dyed vests (also available in black), can still work with modern looks, provided that they are worn stylishly (try leaving the bottom buttons undone). When the vest is new, it pairs beautifully with heavily faded denim. When you’ve been wearing it for a while, the blue settles into a rich lighter indigo tone that goes with absolutely everything.
Perfect for old souls or those who want to move their styles away from the quad and towards the faculty lounge.
- 100% Cotton
- Indigo dyed (expect some crocking)
- Hand knitted in Scotland
- Traditional cable knit design
- Crafted wooden buttons
- Woven in hip pockets
- Butter soft hand feel
Other Alevol x Inverallan vests to consider: The vest is also available in black.
Clutch Café ship from the UK. If you’re looking for other places to buy Allevol x Inverallan, try: Allevol (UK)
Another name that lends itself well to mis-associations. Brown’s Beach was once a stalwart workwear brand. They made their iconic vests and jackets out of a combination of cotton and recycled wool, and they quickly became a favourite of hunters and anybody else who wanted to combine stylishness with warmth and durability. The company, with its New England manufacturing base, lasted from 1898 until the early ‘60s, when cheaper alternatives pushed them out of the market.
The line was salvaged in 2010 by Full Count, who set to work creating slightly modernised Made-in-Japan versions of the defunct company’s signature pieces. The trademark details (a rugged-yet-soft mixture of wool and cotton, the unmistakable pocket design, and the high-buttoning style) more than hit the mark. Whether buttoned up or worn in more relaxed ways, it’s an extremely stylish vintage piece for the modern age.
- 74% Wool / 26% Cotton
- Made in Japan by Full Count
- Adjustable cinch back
- Branded snaps
- Unmatched handfeel
- Water resistant and extremely warm
- Signature U-shaped pockets and black piping
Filson is one of the longest-lasting workwear brands in the US. Though they’ve adapted to the times by moving some of their production overseas, you can still depend on Filson pieces—especially the ones they make in America (like this one). They are rugged and great-looking garments meant to be thrown into the great outdoors with utter abandon.
Their Western Vest (made of 24 oz. 100% Mackinaw wool) might just be the most adaptable middle layer on this list. You can wear it on its own, but the look tips hard towards the booted and hatted cowpoke, so be careful with your shirt selection. It looks best layered underneath a denim jacket, with the notched lapels standing up. A phenomenal look when both jacket and vest have been in the saddle for a while.
- 24 oz. 100% virgin Mackinaw Wool
- Made in the USA
- Notched lapels
- Water resistant
- Extremely warm
- Military-grade melamine buttons
- Dry clean only
Other Filson vests to consider: Mackinaw Wool Vest (more outdoorsman than cowboy), Oil Tin Cloth Vest (14 oz. oil finish Tin Cloth), Insulated Tin Cloth (Tin Cloth with 8 oz. flannel lining), Cruiser Vest (goose down outdoor piece)
Pike Brothers 1905 Hauler Vest Dundee Grey
2010 was a great year for vintage label resurrections. Full Count brought Brown’s Beach back to life, and a husband-and-wife team from Germany did the same for Pike Brothers. The long-defunct English brand specialised in custom menswear and dabbled in military uniforms. The German re-birth of the brand painstakingly recreates vintage looks, adding modern flourishes here and there.
At the beginning of the 20th century, workers would wear vests to protect their shirts, so, staying true to this original, the Hauler Vest buttons high and fits snugly. It’s also made of extremely durable stuff (100% wool face with a 100% cotton lining). The simple and elegant Roamer Vest is available in a wide range of fabrics and colours, but we’re particularly fond of the Dundee Grey.
- 100% wool herringbone tweed
- 100% cotton lining
- Made in Portugal
- Adjustable cinch back
- Two pockets
- 6-button vintage design
- Slim fitting
Other Pike Brothers vests to consider: 1937 Roamer (5-button vest also available in a wide range of fabrics), 1966 Rodeo Vest (cowboy classic)
Pike Brothers ship from Germany. If you’re looking for other places to buy Pike Brothers, try: Cultizm (Germany) and American Classics London (UK)
Spain’s Companion Denim has been one of Europe’s best-kept secrets since their founding in 2015. You can see their custom pairs on discerning denimheads and in a small handful of extremely picky stockists. The small operation has occasionally broken the mould with eye-catching details, but they tend to stick to what they’re best at: producing tailored denim that they hope will become the only pair you wear.
Their Vienna Vest, complete with striking wabash lining, is a true-blue classic. It might not have the touchability of wool, but nothing on this list lends itself so well to a wide range of looks and layers as the Vienna Vest. Buttoned up or unbuttoned, it works in every way imaginable.
- 100% GOTS certified organic cotton
- Locally produced fabric
- Tonal stitching
- Japanese wabash indigo canvas lining
- Three pockets + pencil pocket
- Adjustable buckle back
- Corozo buttons
Other Companion vests to consider: Companion only makes one vest, but their incredible Southwest Parka includes a removable vest liner that can be worn separately.
The makers of some of the most drool-worthy motorcycle-inspired leather pieces on the planet, Japan’s Addict Clothes produces no-nonsense takes on classic British biker styles. Their pieces are designed to keep those who wear them safe when the road rises up to meet them.
There’s clearly a fine tailor’s eye at work here as well, but there’s a utilitarian ethic behind all of their garments. Their jackets are built to age beautifully, but more than this, they’re made to be worn straddling a rumbling, belching monster.
The Ulster Vest, like their Ulter Jacket, the Ulster vest has a zipper underneath a snap-down placket. The combination gives the vest something of a renegade highwayman look, and it won’t be perfectly at home in every kit. However, if you are a rider (or dress like one), this is the only vest you’ll ever need.
- 100% Cotton Jungle Cloth outer
- 50% acrylic / 30% wool / 20% alpaca liner
- Made in Japan
- Heavy-duty brass snap closure
- Addict-branded brass zipper
- Corduroy lined pockets
- Adjustable corduroy collar
Other Addict vests to consider: The Ulster Vest is also available in Navy and Beige through Addict’s Japanese website.
You denimheads have been patiently waiting, and we hate to disappoint, so here it is—your tough-as-nails and made-to-fade denim vest. A ton of brands in this space have denim vests of some kind or another, but the Well Made Essentials is all about finding the absolute best in every category. Surprising to nobody, Iron Heart leads the way thanks to their wonder-fabric, the XHS.
The 25 oz. selvedge denim is a favourite among fade enthusiasts. It rewards patient faders with stunning high-contrast fades, and that’s just the beginning. The more we throw at the heavy selvedge, the more it rewards us with it’s unbeatable combination of comfort and weight. To get Iron Heart’s Type III vest to this stage, you’ll need more than casual wear. This thing won’t start giving up the blue properly until you’ve beat it senseless, so this is not a piece for the desk-riding fader.
- 25 oz. Indigo Japanese selvedge denim
- Made in Japan
- Oversized snaps
- Handwarmer pockets
- Felled seam construction
- Two chest pockets with snap flaps
- Sanforized but unwashed (expect a little shrinkage)
Iron Heart ship from the UK and the US. If they are sold out, or if you are looking for other places to buy Iron Heart, check out: Franklin & Poe (US), Corlection (AUS), Self Edge (US), Brund (Denmark), Statement (Germany)
We’re going to end this list with a pair of down-filled vests that are not meant to be worn as middle layers. If you’re going to pair either of these with denim or workwear, it should be the finishing touch. We’re starting with Rocky Mountain Featherbed, a name that might not ring out as loudly as some of the all-star names we’ve covered above.
Rocky Mountain Featherbed started their life in cowboy country (Wyoming to be exact), but, though their vests were instantly iconic, they couldn’t quite stay in the saddle. They folded in the ‘80s.
Enter 35 Summers Co., a Japan-based company that recognized the potential in the name and the product. They’ve been manufacturing the company’s line in Japan ever since, and they’ve won over legions of fans. The vests include the trademark leather yoke and nylon shell, and, unlike almost every other down-filled vest, they don’t make the wearer look like the Michelin Man. If it snows where you live, this vest will be a life-saver worth every penny.
- Natural leather yoke
- Nylon shell
- 90% down / 10% feather fill
- Made in Japan
- Sheepskin collar
- Mother of pearl buttons
- Zipped interior pocket
- Leather tag
Other Rocky Mountain Featherbed vests to consider: The Christy Vest is available in a wide range of colours. For a less expensive option, they also make a version of the Down Vest without the sheepskin collar.
Ginew featured prominently on our list of well-made and essential denim jackets, and we’re bringing them back for this absolutely impeccable down-filled vest. The reasons should be obvious, but we’ll look at the finer points all the same.
Ginew is America’s only Native-owned and operated denim brand, and they bring a level of attention to the craft that few can match. Their pieces are immediately recognisable (once you know what to look for), and they are immediately and eternally iconic.
The yoke is made of elk leather. Ginew craftsmen hunted, skinned, and tanned the leather themselves. They’ve stuffed the vest with goose down, and the whole thing has been sewn up by friends of the company at a family-owned factory in Seattle, Washington. They’re not trying to break the category into new territory—they’ve just done the down-filled vest to absolute perfection.
- Ginew hunted and tanned elk leather yoke
- 5 oz. 700 fill-power goose down
- Made in the USA
- Solid brass zipper
- Custom Ginew snaps
- Classic Alpine styling
Other Ginew vests to consider: Ginew also offers their Elk Down vest in Navy, and they have the equally impressive selvedge denim vest (with wool lining) and the Wax Vest (also with Ginew’s proprietary wool lining)
Building a Stellar Rotation
This is just one in our ongoing Well-Made Essentials series. These buying guides help discerning denimheads build stellar rotations of well-made items that will work together and last forever.
If you haven’t already done so, our lists covering raw selvedge jeans and denim jackets are essential reading, and if you’re looking for cool-weather layering pieces, be sure to check our guides to heavy flannels and CPOs and overshirts.