Introduction: a great suit works wonders for the body and the mind
A suit should not only be for an event, but for who you are. It will speak volumes about the importance you place on creating impressions, the experience you have of formal occasions, the type of professionals you come into contact with, and the peer group that you rotate within. It does all these while serving to make you feel more confident and relaxed in yourself. A suit can be worn in a variety of different ways, with a range of colors, materials, and cuts. It’s not just about men’s fashion; it’s about you as an individual.
The most important thing is choosing the suit that feels right to you physically and mentally. Does the material feel comfortable, does it sit correctly on you, does the button crease the jacket when it’s closed or not? Do you feel good inside it, do you believe that you can get out there and achieve your goals wearing it? Will it give people the impression that you want to give?
It’s no surprise that with something as important as a suit, you’ll need some guidance. You can always go into a shop and pull one off the rack, but you can probably do better than that. As the saying goes, “if you want to feel good, look good.” The better you feel about yourself, the more you can accomplish.
With these points in mind, I’ve put together the ultimate guide to suits. Throughout this article, I’ll be talking about the kinds of suit that every man should own throughout his life, why suits will always be a part of the male wardrobe, and what suits you’ll need for formal and informal occasions. Most importantly, I’ll run through some detailed instructions for buying the best suit, with in-depth rules for getting the very best look for who you are.
1. What is a suit, and why do suits matter?
In this part, I’ll look at the proper definition of a suit and why suits are a necessity in every man’s closet.
2. What types of suits should you own?
It can be confusing choosing a suit with all the different options out there. In this section, I’m going to trim the choices down to just a few suit types that will work for almost everyone.
3. Rules for buying a suit
This is where we get to the real meat of the matter. In this part, I’m going to go through multiple guides from lapels to trouser breaks, fabrics to pocket types, and buttons to body types. I’ll leave no stone unturned in giving you a complete all-in-one manual to choosing a suit that’s great for you.
4. Suits for every occasion
Here I’ll take a look at suits for the most common events, from the informal to the most formal intimate occasions. With this guide to hand, you’ll be able to look and feel your best while being a step above everyone else.
1. What is a suit, and why do suits matter?
Put in the most simple terms and according to the Oxford Dictionary, a suit is a jacket and a pair of trousers. They don’t need to be the same color (though this is the more formal preference), but they do need to be of the same fabric. A two-piece suit is a jacket and trousers, while a three-piece suit includes a waistcoat. The suit should appear to the incidental observer to be a single unit, a one-piece uniform which, on closer inspection, looks as if it is made for the wearer (and in many cases it is) while also being a smart, bold expression of the person it hangs on.
The suit wearer should control the suit – not the other way round. We have all seen examples in real life or on television of men who wear loose or ill-fitting suits. This tends to point to a tired, lazy state of mind rather than one that speaks of order, attention to detail, and authority. The whole ensemble must allude to self-assurance, of making one’s own decisions, of knowing what you want, and being able to get it. A good suit can say an awful lot about its owner in a determined space of time.
Suits matter so much more than other items of clothing. A good suit, more than anything, says that you are the right fit for the occasion, whether that be casual drinks, a formal dinner, or an interview. It signals that you have a sense of the person that will fit in and make a noticeable positive influence on the event. A good suit shows that you care.
And it’s for these reasons that the suit isn’t going anywhere any time soon. A cursory glance through history will reveal that suits have been the ultimate expression of confidence and charisma for hundreds of years. Even though suits may have taken a back-seat in some firms as of late, the suit as an institution never went anywhere. It just moved around. In London this century, while some more relaxed firms were happy with their employees slouching around in jeans and trainers, the suit moved to the more trendy areas of the East End as the clean, but rugged masculine look made its way onto the streets. The smart, well-cut, and accessorized suit became a modern-day expression of masculinity and modernity. The suit never disappears from fashion; it adapts to changing times and attitudes.
It doesn’t matter if you look up to the likes of Sean Connery, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Beckham or Ricki Hall, you can make the suit work for you. It’s a sartorial canvas for your personality.
2. What types of suits should you own?
Before we get into the occasions that most suits are for, it’s worth having a general look at the types of suits that can work for everyone and the versatility they give the wearer. These are suits that will work for more or less every man throughout his life and will serve him well from things like interviews to formal dinner occasions, to relaxed social events. If you’re able to get your hands on these particular types of suits, you can make the occasion work well for you.
Remember to pay attention to your body shape when choosing a suit: as a general rule, if you’re short, it’s good to stick to single-breasted suits since a double-breasted suit will make you look stockier and broader. If you’re the larger type of gentleman, it’s better to wear darker colors since these will give you more of a slimming appearance while being kinder on your figure. If you’re tall, it’s preferable to wear trousers with a medium to full break.
The navy suit
A single-breasted navy suit is an excellent all-rounder that can be made to work for both casual and more formal events. Not only does a single-breasted navy suit look great with a formal tie, but it can be made to work with a t-shirt for a relaxed look that projects an air of seriousness and maturity. To get the most out of the navy suit, you can go for different materials for different times of the year: a cotton suit is excellent for the summer, with a woolen version being better for the colder months. If there has to be one suit and one suit only, the navy suit has it all.
The checked suit
A three-piece checked suit will work well for the slimmer and the medium-sized man, whereas a fuller figure will do better with a two-piece. A checked suit, especially in wool, not only works well for formal and business occasions but can be modified and paired with other items to look great on a night around town. A checked suit can look ultra-formal, classic, and severe, but also super fresh, modern, and razor-sharp. A well-groomed hairstyle and a keen beard will set it off even further. This suit type can go from classic and dapper to trendy and urban, and everything in between.
The double-breasted charcoal
With the lighter-colored suits, a good fit is of paramount importance. A proper-fitting double-breasted charcoal suit gives an air of professionalism, class, and authority. Best paired with a white shirt and a darker-colored tie, a well-contrasted charcoal suit will set you apart from the rest, show you mean business but not give off too much of an air of ostentatiousness. These types of suits work even better on those who have well-set shoulders and trim waists.
The light summer suit
You’re probably familiar with images of well-turned-out gentlemen in hotter parts of the world lounging in their light-colored suits in the sun. This is for a good reason: a single-breasted light suit is perfectly comfortable yet smart for the warmer times in the year. Since these are better in hot weather, it’s a good idea to concentrate on lighter-weighted material which is half-lined so things don’t heat up too much inside the suit as well as outside of it.
The black tuxedo
Of course, I had to mention this one. A black tuxedo is one of those suits which you know you’re going to have to wear on several significant occasions throughout your life. Hiring them and returning them can be inconvenient and costly, so it’s better, if you can, to just buy one. If you do, you’ll end up with something which is always on hand when you need it, will fit you better, and will serve you with companionable memories every time you pull it out of the closet.
3. Rules for buying a suit
As John Wooden said, “it’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen”. Now that I’ve given a general overview of types of suits, we can get to the finer points about refining and buying the best suit. Once you’ve chosen the type of outfit that you want, you can then work out the separate points regarding the cut, the fit, and the accessories that will bring out the overall look. These are the essential details that will make the difference between success and failure – not only concerning your suit but with the occasion you’re dressing for.
Off the rack, custom or tailored?
Buying a suit off the rack means exactly that: you can pull it off the clothes rack in the store, or you can buy it online and have it delivered. This plan comes with its advantages since there’s no waiting for the suit to be made, it’s generally less expensive, and you’re likely to find something that will work well for you in the short term. However, you run the risk of the suit not fitting as well as you’d have hoped, and buying garments online can be a huge gamble. If it doesn’t fit you correctly, you’re going to have to spend more time and effort in getting the problem sorted out.
A custom suit is one that is tailored to your unique measurements, generally from pieces of material that have been pre-cut. This option works well if you have a figure which, through experience, is hard to fit. Some outlets offer this as an online option, so you are far more likely to receive a good fit for your money if you have to go on the internet.
A bespoke suit is one that has been made to your exact measurements from scratch. This will necessitate a scheduled appointment, in which the tailor will pay attention to every detail of your figure, creating a suit that has been made for you from the ground up. A bespoke suit is usually a lot more expensive than custom or off the rack, and can take several weeks to be finished. This is something to go for when you’re certain about what it is that you want and when you’re committed to the type of look you want to convey. This is the option for the man who knows himself well.
It seems like this should go without saying, but there are specific colors which are absolute no-nos when it comes to wearing suits – anything bright and loud is not going to get you taken seriously (unless that’s the effect you’re going for). When choosing colors, there are three you can never go wrong with: navy, black, and charcoal grey. Navy and charcoal are generally thought of as the most foolproof since both can work with almost any shirt and tie color combination. Black suits are also versatile, though they’re usually better as evening attire than day-wear.
If going for black, look for pairing colors that are not too full-on – black is understated, and having a red or orange shirt is going to be too harsh a contrast for many. As is often the case, it’s better to keep things simple: white, black, or grey shirts work the best. The ‘simple’ rule goes for your tie choice as well: darker colors with little to no patternation are best.
The fabric of your suit isn’t just about how warm or breathable it is, but the softness, the cost, and the appearance. The materials can be hard to choose because a lot of people don’t know about their specifics, so here’s a rundown of the benefits of each type:
Cotton – arguably the most common, it’s soft and breathable yet also suitable for the colder times of the year. Cotton is natural and relatively heavy and tends to sit well on the average frame.
Polyester – polyester suits are generally cheaper than their alternatives. Their quality can be changeable, but they are inexpensive, soft, and they have some weight to them. Polyester is an economical and practical choice.
Wool – This is great if you’re looking for a high-quality suit to keep you warm. It’s thicker, all-natural, and adds a good deal of texture to your outfit. It does come at a price, but if you’ve got the financial flexibility, go for 100% wool. There are blends available of 70%, 50%, and 30%, which will save you money, but they’re generally a sign that the manufacturer is compromising on quality.
Linen – this is the other end of the scale if you’re looking for something for the summer. Linen is well-known to be light and very breathable. Unfortunately, linen does crease easily, and a high iron setting is needed to flatten those creases out. If you’re going to be wearing it in hot weather, it’s an obvious choice, though it’s not advisable for formal or business occasions.
Tweed – this usually is associated with the upper-middle classes and countryside mansions. The benefits of tweed are that it’s heavy and warm, being made from a mixture of wool and cotton. It can be expensive, but there is some flexibility on price depending on how rough or soft you like it.
Single or double-breasted?
This is one of the most important questions, but the answer is generally straightforward – single-breasted is the most common and usually works well for all body types. Easily identifiable by the single row of buttons at the front, a single-breasted suit is a sure-fire winner that you can’t go wrong with.
There are specific codes regarding when and how to do the buttons up, which I’ll break down for you here:
One button – fasten when standing, unfasten when sitting.
Two-button – as above, but imagine the lower button doesn’t exist: fasten the top button when standing, unbutton it when sitting, never use the lower button.
Three-button – what you do with the top button is up to you, the middle one is always fastened. The lower one never is.
The double-breasted suit can be more of a gamble. This has buttons on either side of the front, with the non-fastening row being dummy buttons for symmetry. These suits tend to have between four to six buttons on the front. This type of suit is generally better for those of slimmer builds, seeing as the button patterns at the front tend to make the torso look a little wider than it is.
About button fastening, the rules are a lot simpler to those which I’ve posted above – it doesn’t matter how many buttons you have, the bottom button is always left undone, and the top buttons(s) are fastened all the time, whether you are sitting down or standing up.
Types of fit
There are three main types of fit to consider when choosing a suit:
The classic fit is the most straightforward and most hassle-free. The classic fit provides a regular cut through the shoulders, chest, and the waist, the trousers sit comfortably on the hips. It’s tidy, non-casual, and a natural choice for most to make.
The slim fit is cut closer to the shoulders, the chest, and the waist. This style trims away the excess fabric, being narrower across the waist but still sitting comfortably. The point of the slim fit is not to accentuate the body, but to give a sleeker look overall. This style is quite versatile, though less suited to formal occasions.
The modern fit is a halfway house between classic and slim. It sits comfortably at the waist, looking a little more tapered than the classic fit, but still giving off an air of something particular to the wearer. If you want something which seems a little more specific to your person, this is the one to go for. The great thing about the modern fit is that it can work for both casual and formal events.
A good fit is one of the most important things when buying a new suit. Some would say it’s the most important thing. A cheap polyester suit that fits you perfectly is going to do a lot more for you than an expensive suit, which is poorly tailored. If you have a standard body type, you may be fortunate enough to get something off the rack that works well for you. Otherwise, you may have to look at other methods of fitting, such as a custom or tailored.
When looking at the sizing fit of the suit, consider these steps to get things right:
Start with the shoulders. Make sure that they sit perfectly on either side. The jacket shouldn’t droop over the edges of the shoulders, and it shouldn’t feel too tight. The seam of the shoulder should sit directly on your shoulder end.
Most men know their chest sizes, but if you don’t, grab a tape measure and measure the thickest part of your chest (or get someone else to do it for you). If you are a 38 like me, then it’s good to look for jackets which are size 38 and 40. When buttoned, there shouldn’t be an ‘x’ shape across the middle, this means that the jacket is too tight for you. A well-fitted jacket does up perfectly without this.
We can measure the correct length of sleeve depending on how much shirt is showing when the jacket is on: ideally, we’re looking for a quarter of an inch to a full inch of the shirt at the cuff. Anything more than this, and it’s too short. Anything less than this – especially if no shirt is showing at all – and it’s too long. If you do happen to buy a jacket with a sleeve that’s too long, it’s an easy job for a tailor to remedy.
The total length of the jacket should cover your buttocks, but it shouldn’t be any shorter or longer than that, and it should be roughly level with your knuckles.
Something that often gets overlooked when choosing suits is trouser break. This is a significant part of how your trousers sit or ‘break’ over the top of your shoes. The type of trouser break you select is mostly down to your height rather than personal choice. The options are well worth paying attention to:
No break – this is generally for the shorter man and means that the trousers hang a small amount above the top of the shoes. This gives the effect of the man being slightly taller. Even though some publications advise no breaks being for the taller male, I advise against it since it can look a little awkward when standing and even worse when sitting. Irrespectively, if your socks are showing with no trouser break, it’s too short: there should always be a discernible but small gap between the ends of the trouser and the top of the shoes.
Quarter or half break – These are the most common and the best for playing it safe. In the quarter or half break, there is small but noticeable crease where the trouser rests on the top of the shoe. There should be one fold at the front, with a slight dip over the ankle at the back. There should be no fold at the back at all.
Full break – In full break, the trousers are noticeably folded on the top of the shoe, and at the back, sometimes there may be other small folds above the central crease that runs all around the ankle. This is the best type of break for tall men since it makes the overall look of the suit most even.
Bear in mind that the rules regarding trousers’ break mostly apply to suit trousers rather than jeans. Jeans are made of a thicker material, meaning that the leg is less likely to fold up at the ends in the same way that a pair of cotton suit trousers do.
The lapels are the folds of cloth that form the part of the jacket that comes diagonally down the collarbone and the chest, meeting at the button in the middle. Most suits tend to come with two types – the notch lapel and the peak lapel. The notch lapel is doubtless the most common and is the one that the majority of people are used to seeing: this is where it looks like a visible ‘notch’ – similar to a small triangle – has been cut out of the lapel. This is the most standard, which is hard to go wrong with.
Next, there is the peak lapel, which is a lot less common, whereby there is no notch cut out, but the lower section of the lapel meets the upper part and then fans outwards to a small degree. The peak lapel is a little more of a statement, having more flair and pizazz than the standard notch.
There is a third kind of lapel, which is mostly reserved for tuxedos, and that is the shawl. A shawl lapel is where there is one straight, uncut lapel that runs around the neck and down to the middle button. No break, no cut in the middle. It’s ultra-smart and therefore reserved for the more formal occasions.
Vents are the slits that you can see in the back of suit jackets down the bottom. The idea is that the wearer has more room for maneuverability with a vent, and it’s easier and more comfortable to put one’s hands in the pockets. There are only two types of vents – single vents and double vents.
The single – or center – vent is one slit in the middle of the back, meaning that the end of the suit parts slightly when you move or put your hands in your pockets. It’s the most comment vent, but it’s not quite as good to look at as the double vent (or side vents) which features on either side of the suit at the back. This seems a little more formal and is more comfortable for when you put your hands in your pockets, lessening the creasing of the jacket while also giving a slimmer appearance.
Some jackets have no vents. This is unusual and often only found in Italian suits. It works well for the slimmer look, but you have to keep your hands out of your trouser pockets; otherwise, the suit jacket will crease, and you’ll look a little shabby.
When it comes to jacket pockets, you have several options to choose from. Unlike with some of the other sections of this guide, this one is purely down to choice rather than whether something will affect how your suit sits. That said, some pocket choices are more informal than others, and it’s worth considering this when selecting. Another thing to bear in mind is not to overuse the pockets: heavy objects will affect the lining of your jacket over time.
Flap pockets are the most common and consist of a rectangle of fabric that sits over the top of the pocket seam. When you purchase a new suit, you’ll generally find this flap sewn inside the pocket itself, but it’s very simple to get a professional to open the pocket for you (if you’re very careful you’ll be able to do it yourself). This pocket type will be suitable for most.
Patch pockets are more casual and are the kinds you’d most likely see on a sporting jacket. These are affixed to the outside of the jacket, sewn over the top. They give off more of a relaxed look, which is suitable for casual occasions.
Besom pockets are the most formal type – these consist of just a single slit that opens into the pocket. These look very smart and svelte, not disturbing the look or line of the jacket from bottom to top.
Lastly, come the ticket pockets. Sometimes, especially on older suits, you’ll see small pockets above the main ones at the side. As its name suggests, these were for carrying train or bus tickets, but these days they would not necessarily be used for their original purpose. Ticket pockets always conform to the rule of the pocket below, i.e., if the main pocket is flapped, the ticket pocket will be also.
Seeing as a good suit is all about the complete look, you don’t want to be skimping on a good pair of shoes. A classic dark suit can be offset if the wrong pair underline it.
In most cases, you can’t go wrong with a pair of black Balmoral Oxfords. Slick, simple, and with a tidy closed lace system, it gives off a very smooth look. Some people prefer to go for brown, which is perfectly acceptable, though it’s not quite as formal and shouldn’t be considered for black tie events. If you like brogues, go for half or quarter brogues since they’re not too decorative.
Black boots can be worn with a suit, though they’ll give a much more rugged look, and are best reserved for when you want to provide a hipper, more masculine and urban impression. Trainers should almost always be avoided unless you want to go for a very casual, laid-back appeal.
Belts and buttons
You may hear it said that you should never, ever, for any reason, wear a belt with a pair of suit trousers. Though this is true for the more bespoke suits, it is advisable to wear a belt in some cases, particularly if the pants aren’t fitting as well as they could. The bottom line, however, is that if your pants have belt loops, it’s good to wear a belt with them. Loopholes without a belt are going to look unfinished. In most cases, a black leather belt will suffice, and a brown leather belt will do well for the more casual wearer.
The buttons on the sleeve of a suit no longer have any function, and there are various theories as to to the reason for their original inclusion. These days, the number of buttons on the sleeve tends to denote the formality of the suit. Additionally, a tailored suit is more likely to have sleeve buttons that actually ‘work,’ and this is a more immediate way of being able to tell a tailored suit from a non-tailored one. Button types will vary depending on where the suit is made, but it’s generally the rule that tailored suits have matte buttons and off the rack suits uses polished. If you’re going bespoke and want to distinguish between the two, get matte. As with shoes and belts, the darker the button color, the more formal the appearance will be.
Suits for every occasion
Now that I’ve gone through how to choose the best suit let’s go into a little bit of detail about the kinds of occasions that these suits can feature in. I’ll rank this list from most casual to most formal.
Summer suit – for outdoors and the warmer climes
A summer suit, generally made of linen, is the best way to add an element of class to your casual wardrobe. Because these usually are of a light color like white or beige, they are great for the warmer times of the year and the hottest locations. They give off the impression of the serious and classic professional on recreation abroad (or the adventuring archaeologist).
Tweed suit – for colder weather and informal dinners and events
Not usually one for the office, the tweed suit is best for colder weather. They are made for outdoors in more relaxed places, and this is generally why many people think of English farmers or countryside gentlemen when they’re called to mind. They’re not only for clay pigeon shooting though, but they also work well for casual dinners and club events, giving off a relaxed air of refinement. An unusual thing about the tweed jacket is that it can be paired with many trouser types from cotton to jeans.
Work suit – for everyday office-wear
The office is the standard location that most people will want to buy a suit for. It doesn’t matter if you work in retail, the city, or for small or large firms: the standard black, grey, or navy cotton suit is what I’ve focused mostly on in this article because of popularity and use. Classic and stylish, a good work suit is sure to get you noticed when done right.
Pinstripe or checked – for the seasoned professional and the man about town
The checked suit can be used for many occasions since it works for the office and the man out and about. Pinstripes are less common these days, but they give the work suit an extra edge of professionalism, tradition, and confidence. If you can carry off a pinstripe, you’ll look the sharpest in the boardroom, no doubt about it.
Black tie – for smart dinners and clubs
Now we’re getting onto the seriously formal. You wouldn’t wear a black tie to the office, but the combination of a black jacket (typically with shawl lapel), black trousers, black bow-tie, and white shirt is the standard for smart dinner parties, balls, upmarket clubs, and extra special social occasions.
White tie – for banquets and highbrow balls
White tie is unarguably the smartest and most formal dress. The regular wear is a white bow tie, a black fishtail coat, black trousers and often a white waistcoat. A white tie event is not the kind of occasion that many people will have the benefit of going to, hence why it’s not covered in this guide. Its use is reserved for state banquets, Oxbridge balls, and very special galas. Obtaining a white tie suit comes with a particular cost, and given the infrequency of such occasions, it’s not something that most people will end up owning. But it’s good to be in the know nevertheless.
Now it’s your turn
Now that you’ve read through this guide in detail, you’ll have a much better idea of what you need to do to get a fantastic suit. Remember that the suit starts with your state of mind – don’t just think about the occasion but your personality, it’s about what goes both with your figure and who you are. With the information here, you’ve got all the ingredients to score yourself a perfect outfit.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and begin putting your two-piece (or three-piece) together, and start feeling even better about yourself and achieving great results.