A black tie formal event is in your future. Choosing a fitted tuxedo may be the easiest part. Now you must decide… vest or cummerbund?
These components of formal attire are not novelty items, but rather a hallmark of refinement and elegance. Either the waistcoat (hereafter referred to interchangeably as the vest) or the cummerbund is the ceremonial divide between a common suit and a tuxedo.
While vests are experiencing a renewed period of popularity, cummerbunds are largely considered the traditional waist coverings for black tie attire in the costume that evolved in the early 20th century. This is when the tailless tuxedo that we now know was transitioned from fairly relaxed evening dress into formal dining attire among the social elite in Tuxedo Park, NY.
It should be noted that while the dictionary will show cumberbund as an acceptable alternative spelling, cummerbund is the preferred way to spell this accessory, which dates back to an appropriated cultural style in India around 1850. Due to the sweltering temperatures, British military personnel stationed in those colonies took to wearing sashes similar to the locals’ kamarbands (kamar meaning waist) with their formal dinner wear, in lieu of waistcoats.
WHICH SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
The answer depends on your body style and, of course, personal preference. When worn correctly, cummerbunds tend to make men look taller, with a thinner waist. Vests are also strong options for robust gentlemen. Much like the British stationed in India, you might also consider the temperature of your formal event when making your dressing decision. Cummerbunds are — literally — a cooler option.
HOW SHOULD YOU WEAR IT?
Your color options are simple: midnight blue or black, with black being the most versatile choice, and remembering that the color should always match your bowtie. Your cummerbund should be made from a similar silk as that used for your jacket’s lapel facing. The vest will be made from the same cloth as the tuxedo jacket, and should have buttons covered in the same silk as those on the coat.
While vests or cummerbunds may, at first, seem superfluous accessories, these components of the complete tuxedo actually have a purpose, which is, simply, to cover the waist. In fact, all working parts of a black tie ensemble should be dressed, or covered:
- Coat and vest buttons have satin facing;
- Shirt buttons are replaced by studs or cufflinks;
- Outer seams of formal trousers are faced with a satin stripe;
- Waistbands of trousers are covered with a satin facing — or by a vest or cummerbund — to hide where the trousers meet the shirt.
The waistcoat was the original preference for formal dining attire, but the black tie version differs from the vest of a three-piece suit in several key respects. The tuxedo vest is generally cut low and wide to show off the front of the formal shirt underneath and typically has a small set of shawl lapels. And as previously mentioned, the buttons on the vest are covered in silk.
If you opt for a cummerbund, it should be worn at the natural waist, half covering your trousers and half over your tuxedo shirt. The pleats of the cummerbund always point upward (you can remember this because in those British colonial days, the men used cummerbund pleats as ticket holders when going to the theatre — and it’s still acceptable to use them in the same way today).
So whether you choose a vest or cummerbund, you can feel confident that you taking part in a historic tradition of formal occasion dressing.