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Suits: Buying, Tailoring, and Beyond

Written by admin, Monday, July 7th, 2008 in Fashion, The Style Guide

The staple of Men’s fashion has always been the suit. Despite the fact that modern society has since frowned on suits (for some stupid reason I will never really understand), the suit is something that, in virtually every country, carries class and sophistication. No matter how old, every man should have a suit or two: they come in handy much more than one would think.

If you are a guy right now, you should have at least one good suit- a suit that fits you, that works well with your skin tone and stature, and one you can use for interviews, jobs, and everything else you might possibly need to be formal for. With this suit, you’ll need a good shirt or two, a good tie, a good belt, dress shoes… you name it. It gets a lot more complex than you may think, and certainly more than one article’s worth of talk.

So, in this guide, I’m going to describe the wonders of the suit- why you’re wearing one right now- and, subsequently, how to buy one and get one fitted for you. In later articles, I will go into the details (such as dress shoes, dress shirts, and the like)- but for now, we’re going to talk about one thing: the suit.


The History of the Suit

The suit as we know it today is really the evolution of British court apparel- more simplified, the suit is simply the product of a long evolution of formal wear for Men. The original concept originated in Europe (predominantly Britain), where the idea was for something that was to be formal, though the fine clothing obviously was expensive and only affordable by high castes. This wear slowly became more affordable and in vogue, and made a variety of changes, and eventually came out as the typical suit we know today in the many variations we have it in.

Modern society has had a love-hate relationship with suits. In the early 20th Century, suits were considered essential to a Man’s wardrobe (if not absolutely essential). However, more recent events (namely the popularization of “Casual Friday”s and most of the 60s/70s) has since diminished the popularity of the suit. Most “desk” jobs require suits or formalwear of some kind, though the traditional suit is not as required as it once was. Nowadays, most theorize that the suit will become more popular in workplaces and modern society, however, there is no real hard evidence to that fat.

Types of Suits

Note: There are a LOT more styles of suit than this, however, this is covering the select examples you will generally run across in stores. Don’t bitch at me for not mentioning Zoot Suits or whatever.

The Single Breasted Suit

The Single Breasted suit is by far the most recognizable suit, and by far the most popular in society today, with a single row of buttons on one side.

Fabric is a big player, both in quality and color. Most modern suits come in “business” colors- gray, navy, charcoal, etc.- though green and brown are coming into vogue again. Typically, a well dressed man will have one conservative color (such as charcoal) and then branch out from there. Many suits have a recognizable texture or pattern (such as pinstripes), which are generally acceptable when they are traditional. Most suits available nowadays are made out of wool, though there are strange variations on the market.

Three Button suits are by far the most popular of these- meaning that there are three buttons (and, thanks to tradition, only the top two of those buttons should be buttoned). Two Button suits, in comparison, have only two buttons (and it’s generally acceptable to button both of these buttons).

Vented suits are suits with a “vent” (or cut) on the back of the suit. These typically come in three variations- single vented suits, double-vented suits, and no-vent style suits. Most American styles tend to be Single-Vented, though there is no real problem with going double-vented (or no-vented).

There are a variety of other factors in a suit. Sleeve Button Style is a player as always, with a varying number of buttons on the sleeve (generally one to four, though it doesn’t matter). Additionally, Pocket Style is a player occasionally, most formal suits having some variation of the flap pocket, though “patch pockets” are also in vogue for more informal suits (mostly just blazers).

Pant Style is also a large part of the suit style. More modern suits have flat-front pants, which give a clear cut, modern look. Pleated pants feature a fabric fold (typically in the front of the pants) that allow for greater movement, but also often carry the connotation of being made for larger (fatter) frames.

Because few run across the opportunity to have a suit cut specifically for them (virtually everyone reading this, including myself, do not have the luck), the suit cut is a very large player. While tailoring fixes many minor flaws (as I will explain below), suits still have cut characteristics (referred to as the silhouette) which make the suit “hang” in various ways, so find something that you like. Most off-the-rack suits are made fairly shapeless, though many suits are now carried with “athletic” fits (bigger shoulders, smaller waists) and big fits (big waist, small shoulders). While you will inevitably always need to tailor a suit to get it “just right”, getting something that generally fits you well will save your tailor much heartache.

Variations: Double Breasted Suits, etc.

There are some strange variations on the market of suits- many of them are entirely acceptable (and can be worn in many situations), but they do not comprise the “traditional” suit. A few examples:

Three Piece Suits are suits with a waistcoat, which you traditionally wear under the jacket. These are considered a bit more formal, but they are coming into more popularity as of recent. These are often excellent buys, as they allow you to go jacketless (within reason) and still look fully dressed, with more variations thereof.

Double Breasted Suits are suits with two rows of buttons, resembling more of a pea coat than a suit coat. These are fairly acceptable in many situations, though they often create a unique silhouette that either flatters or harms the image of the wearer.

Tuxedoes are suits in the very loosest sense, but they occupy an entirely different world, much like tailcoats do. Tuxedoes have unique “rules” for wear and often are much more formal (and much more expensive) than a suit.

There are plenty of other variations upon traditional suits throughout history, including but not limited to “Mao Suits”, Zoot Suits, Mod Suits, Beatle Suits… the list goes on. The long story short on these cuts is simple: don’t wear them.

Shirts, Ties, and accessories

Suits do not go alone- to have a good suit, you must have at least two shirts to go with it (obviously because buying a suit to only go with one outfit is a little stupid). Accessories quickly turn boring conservative suits into much more than that- and here’s how you do that.

Dress Shirts are a large part of wearing a suit. Dress shirts should fit your body well, and are second only to your suit in importance of being tailored. Dress shirts vary wildly in color, cut, and fit. Typically, you will see four kinds of collars- point, wide, wing, semi-spread, and button-down. All except the very last are appropriate for most formal suits- the last, the button-down, is appropriate only very casually.

Dress shirts also feature two kinds of cuffs- barrel (or “button”) cuffs and french cuffs. Barrel Cuffs are typically seen on shirts, with a single button in a “barrel” around the waist. French Cuffs are much more flamboyant and stylish, and have thicker cuffs coming together, requiring cufflinks.

Ties are just as varied as shirts, but vary little except in color and pattern. Traditional width ties are always appropriate. Skinny (or narrow) ties or Wide Ties are sometimes sold (the skinny ties especially, for some reason), but they are rarely (if ever) appropriate. Bow Ties are generally not stylish for anything except extreme formal wear, such as tuxedos.

Buying a Suit

Another note: I’m not going to be arrogant and presume you have thousands of dollars- this is for your “average joe” looking for a suit. Fashionistas beware, I actually advise buying off the rack.

When buying a suit, the best place to look is an actual physical store- internet be damned. As much as many of us love suits, there is nothing quite like being able to try on a suit for yourself and to see and feel the quality of the item- and with that being said, when you buy a suit, you should go to an actual physical location. There are many stores that carry quality menswear, so this simply requires you to drive out and find one- be it a specialty outlet (S&K Menswear, Men’s Wearhouse, etc) or even just a department store.

When you go hunting for a suit, don’t feel embarrassed to trust the people working there. Most stores (ESPECIALLY specialty stores such as S&K and Men’s Wearhouse) have knowledgeable staff who generally can help you with the basics of picking out a suit that fits you. Take advantage of their knowledge.

Suits are not cheap. That doesn’t mean you can’t get good discounts on them- a good off-the-rack suit can be as cheap as $150 if you get lucky- but expect to spend much more than that. When you buy a suit, at a minimum, expect to purchase two shirts and at least one tie (if you don’t have one already). You will also need a pair of appropriate dress shoes, socks, a belt, and, if necessary, a handkerchief in your pocket or cufflinks for french cuffs. There is no requirement any of this has to be designer label or anything- if you treat things well, they will last long no matter the brand- but there is a minimum you will need to pay. That being said, expect to pay at least $300-$500 or more for a nice off-the-rack suit, and one shirt and tie, not accounting for good dress shoes. If you get something cheaper, that’s great.

When you buy a suit, avoid in-house tailoring services unless you’ve heard good news about them. In-house tailors can be a mixed bunch- and sometimes it’s better to find a more experienced tailor than to rely on the in-house option.

Wearing a Suit

Now here’s the fun part. Now that you (presumably) have a suit, how do you wear it?

First off, the rule of thumb is, keep everything you wear clean and pressed. Learn to iron shirts- and then iron your shirt before you wear it- and keep the collar stays (the little plastic tabs under the ends of the collar) intact by not washing them with the shirt and repacing them when necessary. Suits you buy off the rack (which I semi-affectionately call “glue suits”) should be kept in the best form they can- do NOT dry clean them often. If you have to clean them once a week, ask your laundromat what they can do to minimalize damage. Just like anything else, keep care of your suit and it will last a long time. When hanging the suit in your closet, do not smash it in the back, and use an unstained wood hangar- the stain may rub off, but the thick wood will keep the shoulders intact.

When you wear your suit, angry fashionistas be damned- you must wear a belt, dress socks, dress shoes, a dress shirt, and MAYBE a a tie. There are rare circumstances when this can be ignored (I’m still personally warming up to the idea of sneakers with suits), but for most standard dress wear, nothing beats the tried-and-true formula.

Button the suit appropriately. This is more etiquette than anything else. When standing, button the top two buttons of the suit. When seated, unbutton the suit before you sit down. NEVER sit down with it buttoned, EVER. Not only is this ugly, it can stress the buttons.

Ties are optional in modern society. Going tieless can be bold and unique. There are still circumstances that require a tie (such as interviews), but going without (with the top button undone) is bold and enjoyable (and less constricting).

Avoid loading down the pockets. Never put excess junk in the pockets of your suit- even in the pants. If you can avoid carrying it, do so.

In Closing

It seems a bit ridiculous in this day and age to do an article on what few think about- but I assure you that, despite what many nonconformists may allude, suits are growing in popularity today. Suits are becoming much more than businesswear- they are becoming uniforms for a modern generation. Learning how to wear a suit is just as important as knowing how to have a successful interview or how to balance a checkbook- it’s the kind of thing you should know.

As usual, this article may be revised as people point out small errors (or, more commonly, things we forgot to add). Check back often!

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9 Responses to Suits: Buying, Tailoring, and Beyond

  1. Daniel says:

    But what about the zoot suits???

    I’m kidding. Anyways, I like the article and I like the joe schmoe approach to it. I think that’s what we should do is do a fashion-by-the-numbers type of thing. Let’s do some posts that cover a lot of basic wardrobe, upkeep, grooming and whatever. I know we’ve got the guide, but it would be good to get into specifics and make these tips tangible.

    Just a thought.

  2. Yossarian says:

    I disagree with you about the proper buttoning of a suit. With a two-button suit, the top button should be buttoned. With a three-button suit, one must button the middle button and can button the top one.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I get the joke.

  4. Chris says:

    I don’t know about the US, but in the Europe you only button the top button on a two-button suit; never both.

  5. Pingback: Dress Shirts: Everything you need to know | Wellcultured

  6. George Zimmer says:

    You’re going to like the way you look,
    I GUARANTEE IT.

  7. Bo says:

    Thank you for this. I really should try out suits in stores from now on. I’ve just been a bit scared to do that… Sounds silly.

  8. Anonymous#2 says:

    I suggest suspenders in lieu of a belt if you are a heavy-set fellow.

  9. Will says:

    Braces (suspenders) aren’t just for the more horizontally endowed. The idea behind them is that the trousers look better hanging from the shoulders instead of the waist.

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