Traditionally made without sleeves, a gilet is a waistcoat worn by both men and women. First worn in the 19th century, the gilet was a men's dress garment often fashioned from velvet, silk or a heavy brocade. Originally this piece featured detailed embroidery on the front. It was worn over a shirt or full sleeved chemise, and was often worn under a jacket that was longer in length. Typically these sleeveless and collarless jackets did not contain pockets, making the fit much smoother and tighter to the body.
While the earliest gilets were worn for fashion, as the styles evolved the vest-like garment became more often used as an insulator or as an outer layer providing extra warmth. Regardless of its purpose, the gilet has maintained the same basic shape throughout the ensuing decades the variable has largely been in its length and the material from which they are made.
Both real and faux fur are a popular material for outer wear and fashion gilets. During the 1980s when rabbit fur became increasingly popular and more commonly used in fashion wear, a long cardigan type style became more favorable, a length which still remains popular today. The hook and eye fasteners were a popular closure found on these garments. The zipper would later be introduced as part of the piece.
Gilets are made from a number of different types of fabrics for a wide variety of uses. During the later 1990s, the fleece gilet became quite popular and was worn by both men and women. These fleece gilets usually came to the waist and most often featured a zipper front. Leather gilets are most often used for rifle and shooting sports — leather provides an extra layer of warmth and protection from the elements while keeping arms free. Cyclists and hikers also wear a form of the gilet.
In the performing arts, a gilet is worn as part of the costuming of a ballet dancer. Traditionally they are worn more often by male dancers than females ballerinas. It is this types of garment that most closely resembles the ornateness of the original gilets worn centuries ago. The biggest change in the gilet may well be its name. Most people today refer to them as vests, instead of its original moniker.