I remember my dad telling me about when he first went away to university. He was first in our family to attend one of the ‘big’ schools, and so granddad took him up to Brooks Brothers two weeks before freshman orientation. Under the amber lights, and with the smell of polished oak and fresh wool thick in the air, dad learned about things like lapel width, necktie matching, vents, buttons, cut, and drape.
I went to a smaller school, and dad wasn’t quite so formal. My learning process was catch-as-catch-can, with dad peppering his advice over the course of ten years or so, but I still learned how to tie a four in hand, how to wear a double breasted suit, and how to polish your dress shoes. It was jarring for me to hear from my friends and peers that they were left in the dark; that they were getting by on scraps and bits of information pieced together using Google.
This guide was never written to be a complete authority on the suit. We at Suitored wouldn’t presume to write such an article. Instead, we tried to write an introductory guide to the suit, from neck to ankle, for men who want to know a little better, but don’t know where to start.
What Makes a Suit
The elements of a suit can essentially be broken down into big details, and smaller details. While a smaller detail is not unimportant, it simply doesn’t affect the nature of a suit like the big details do.
The Big Details
This category includes the fabric that the suit is cut from, and the cut of the suit itself. These elements can drastically change the entire character of a suit. Two suits cut from the same pattern can be entirely different, for example, if one is made of tweed, and one from cashmere.
The cut of the suit is the design and outline of a suit. Sketched as a pattern onto paper, the tailor draws the design onto the fabric, and then cuts. The question of a double breasted or single breasted suit comes in here, along with questions of English, Italian, and American style suits.
- The Italian Cut: Hailed as a high watermark in suiting, the Italians are admittedly some of the most admirably meticulous tailor on earth. The Italian suit favors a slim cut in the waist, and padding in the shoulders resulting in a cut that helps turn a more slender man into the ideal v-shaped man.
- The American Cut: There’s a lot of ambiguity over just what an American style suit is. A common definition is that American suits typically favor minimal padding, minimal or no darting (taper or tuck of the jacket), and an almost casual ease to the drape. The result is a form that emphasizes the natural shape of the man.
- The English Cut: Last but not least, the English cut. A more moderate option, the English cut includes light padding, and a slightly slim cut.
Breasting is a more personal issue that is less about style, and more about how it fits on your body. A broad shouldered man might benefit from the single-breasted suit, but a slender, tall man like the Prince of Wales can carry off a double-breasted suit with an air of real elegance. Just remember that a double-breasted suit is always meant to be buttoned up – even while sitting.
The fabric of a suit can often determine when and where you wear a suit. A tightly spun wool can make for a tightly spun fabric that’s perfect for a working suit, while a coarsely woven fabric, like a tweed, would make for a more sporty choice for the fall. Linens and other lightweight fabrics crease and crumple easily, but should be your first choice in the heat. Determine when, where, and how often you plan on wearing your suit. A suit reserved for special occasions in the fall and winter will require a different fabric from a suit worn 3 days a week, year round.
The Smaller Details
The question of lapel facing and lapel shape can influence how a suit can be worn. A notch lapel, is the most conservative lapel shape on a single-breasted suit, while the peaked lapel is typically only seen on double-breasted suits. You never see notch lapels on double-breasted suits, but you occasionally see peaked lapels on single breasted suits. A shawl lapel is a third option, mostly seen on dinner jackets. Lapels on suits are made of the same material as the jacket, except on dinner jackets, when the lapel is faced in silk or grosgrain.
The cuffs of an off the rack suit are typically sewn shut, despite the buttons. They’re there strictly for decoration. Surgeon’s cuffs are suit cuffs which can be opened, but these are usually only seen on bespoke suits. As each man’s arm length varies, an off-the-rack suit with surgeon’s cuffs is considered unusual.
Two or three? Four or six? It’s really a question of personal choice. A one button suit looks a bit fashion forward, but both two and three button jackets (four and six, respectively for a double breasted suit) are acceptable for everyday wear. Don’t do up the bottom button.
Venting is another matter to leave to yourself and your tailor. A suit with no vents on its back is very uncommon these days, with two vents at the side, or one vent up the middle most common. More slender men will favor a single vent, while some larger men favor two vents to help conceal their size. Sportcoats and dinner jackets commonly omit the vent entirely. You’ll find there are few hard and fast rules here.
Trousers make up half the suit, yet are given little consideration. Bigger men benefit from pleated trousers, while a more slender man may elect for a flat-fronted pair of pants. Then again, some argue this is just a matter of taste. Cuffs should show a modest amount of sock when seated, but fall just short of the mouth of your shoes when standing. Suits are generally sold with the jacket and trousers in a drop-six system – that is, the size number of the trousers is the same as the jacket size, minus six. A size 40 chest therefore typically takes a size 34 waist, a 42 takes a 36, and so on.
A suit should be dry cleaned once a season, and only when dirty. Dry cleaning can wear out the wool prematurely. For regular cleaning, a stiff suit brush should be able to remove many stains. When wrinkled, you can tell a cleaner to just have the suit pressed, which is easier on the suit than a full clean.
Hang the suit on a suit hanger (an ordinary wood hanger can do in a pinch), and make sure the trousers are folded to hang along the crease. If you don’t understand, go into any large department store, (like Barneys or Neiman Marcus) and see how suits hang on the rack. This is the most natural way for suits to hang, which helps keep the suit’s shape.
When being stored, mothballs should be avoided if possible. Mothballs only work in an enclosed space, and are dangerous to children and pets. Organic solutions such as camphor or lavender oil work effectively, but vacuum sealing a suit during the off-season is an increasingly popular and affordable option.
Nobody can truly decide on what you want in a suit except for you, and the man selling it to you. Unlike many salesmen, the man selling a suit generally has no benefit in you being bitter about buying an ill-fitting suit. It is to his benefit that you look sharp, and are happy, so use his knowledge to your advantage. It’s a big purchase, so it’s best to be informed and knowledgeable before you sign off on the bill.