The waistcoat was the foundation of the three-piece suit ensemble and an essential element of this triumvirate. While in the early part of the century, it might match its other two components; by mid-century it was increasingly fashionable for it to be a contrasting element. In this way, the waistcoat became the focal point for the whole outfit. As coats became plainer with emphasis on the quality of materials rather than their gaudiness, the waistcoat was the means to show a flash of colour, decoration and essentially individuality.
Embroidery was the foremost decorative tool. The passion for rococo design saw botanical motifs predominate and the quintessential rococo shell regularly featured. Animals, from small exotic monkeys to hunting dogs, added some novelty. Embroidered waistcoat fronts might be designed and stitched by a wife, and therefore invested with sentimental value as well as technical merit in their production. However, for all the visible decoration at the front, the back panel was usually made of plain, if not rough, coarse material, showing that economy was practised where the eye could not see.
Buttons provided the finishing touch to the decorative detail of a waistcoat. A whole range of choices lay before the gentleman in this matter. Wooden buttons were often covered with fabric matching the coat and then minutely embroidered in silk threads. Pewter or steel plated buttons, locally sourced from Sheffield after 1750, were engraved with intricate designs to create a bright and dazzling effect. Materials which did not rust, like mother-of-pearl and enamel, became more common while glass paste was used in the place of precious jewels to complete the luxurious look.
Whatever the style or decoration, the waistcoat had another important function; to provide a backdrop against which other costly materials could be set. It was here that costly pocket watches were suspended and put on display. Likewise, expensive lace or fine linen worn at the throat, in perhaps a Steinkirk, a type of cravat worn twisted with the end tucked into a buttonhole, looked sumptuous when paired with even the plainest of velvet or woollen waistcoats.