Note – the following is a Google Knol I wrote a while back; while a decent introduction, I feel it can be improved upon and welcome any comments to help me in that endeavor.
Introduction to the Men’s Suit
The men’s business suit is the most universally appropriate item in a gentleman’s wardrobe. There are few events at which a man in a good looking suit will be out of place, particularly if the man has a firm grasp of fashion and an understanding of his personal style. The path to elegance begins with the suit, the cornerstone of men’s fashion.
A suit is a pair of jacket and trousers of the same cut, made from the same fabric, and intended to be worn together. Such a simple definition, however, denies much of the suit’s personality, and it is that personality that has made the suit a lasting and essential element of a gentleman’s outfitting. The primary element of a suit is its jacket, so the discussion begins there.
Most experts agree that there are historically three major styles of suit, named for the countries in which they originated, though it is now quite common to find all three styles in any country as well as fusions of elements from one or more different styles. The first is the English style, typified by soft, unpadded shoulders, a long, hourglass body with a high waist, either double or single breasted, with two or three buttons and side vents. The next is the Italian or sometimes called Continental style, epitomized by a lightweight construction, squared & high shoulders, a short close-fitting single-breasted body, with two buttons and no vent. Rounding out the group is the American Sack Suit, a natural-shoulder suit with a straight and somewhat roomier body, two or three-buttons, and a back vent. Today you would be hard-pressed to find a tailor who hasn’t been influenced by all three styles, and most suits take only a few of the distinctive elements from one style or the other.
Suit jackets are defined by many things: the fabric from which they are made (to include its color and weight); the style or cut of the suit; the details or trimming applied; and the degree of customization to its wearer, etc. Of these, the cut, or more precisely the fit, is paramount – a poorly fitting suit will never look right on the wearer, regardless of the quality or detailing.
The cut of a suit is a product of two elements: the overall silhouette and the particular proportions of the man who will be wearing it. A good tailor will cut a suit to flatter the wearer’s strengths and hide his weaknesses. For this reason alone a man should consider custom clothing; with a suit covering 90% of your body the message it sends more often than not trumps anything that may come from your mouth.
Assuming equality of cut, a custom-made or bespoke suit will flatter more than a made-to-measure suit, which in turn will have a better fit than an off the rack suit. Bespoke suits are custom-tailored to a gentleman’s measurements and built by hand by a master tailor; a custom pattern is created for each man, kept on record and pulled out only when small alterations or new garments are made. Made-to-measure suits are off-the-rack suits that have been fitted and altered to the wearer’s frame, made from a combination of various pre-built parts. Off the rack suits, as the name suggests, are garments built in mass based on the mythological average man; because they are made to an average specification they do not naturally fit a man without extensive tailoring; and even here, it is a compromise.
After cut and customization, fabric is the next consideration. While the difference in quality between an off the rack and bespoke suit is imminently obvious, both can appear quite stylish; that is not the case with poor quality fabric, which can make even the most expensive custom suit appear cheap. The most traditional suit fabric is wool. Suits, particularly for summer, are also available in silk, cotton, gabardine, as well as linen – a traditional favorite not without its own unique challenges – and even mohair and cashmere. There is also the tweed suit, a rugged classic best suited to weekends in the country or more casual affairs; its thick, coarse fabric is designed to repel wind and water in inclement weather. The choice of a suit’s color is an equally important decision, and one best addressed in a separate discussion.
The next indicator of quality is the suit’s trimming and overall style; it’s this selection of details which give a suit it’s ultimate distinctiveness. Options on a men’s suit include pocket styles, linings, button materials, and the addition of subtle signals of the suit’s quality such as ticket pockets and functional sleeve buttons. These little elements, though they may seem extraneous, are signs of the suit’s personality as well as the wearer’s. Good details won’t make a poor suit into a quality one, but they do elevate suits at every quality level from the ordinary to the individual. Below we go into the suit’s details.
The Suit in Detail
Single or Double Breasted Jacket
The first and perhaps most noticeable element of a man’s suit is whether the jacket is single or double-breasted. Single-breasted suit jackets have a single row of buttons down the front, with the jacket flaps overlapping enough to permit buttoning. A double-breasted suit jacket has two rows of buttons, with the front overlapping sufficiently to allow both flaps to be attached to the opposite row of buttons. The choice between a single or double-breasted jacket is a matter of personal taste, though the vast majority of American men choose the single breasted option as that this is what is readily available to them. In addition, a lack of familiarity with the double-breasted suit jacket may account for the single-breasted suit’s dominance. It’s unfortunate, as that the double breasted jacket has a number of advantages for certain men. Thin gentlemen, in particular those who are somewhat taller, can benefit greatly from double-breasted suits as they give a fuller appearance to the figure; on larger men, double-breasted suits can have a tendency to draw attention to the midsection, so
careful attention and an expert tailor should be employed. When it comes to formality, all things being equal a double-breasted jacket is more formal as that it is always buttoned, although a man wearing a single breasted jacket can negate this advantage by throwing on a vest. But for the modern man, the single breasted suit is the current standard bearer; a dark, well fitting, concervatively build single-breasted jacket is perfectly acceptable at all but the most formal of occasions.
A suit jacket has either one or two rows of main front buttons. A single-breasted jacket has anywhere from one to four, though two and three button jackets are most common. The three-button jacket is the most traditional configuration, taking its cue from English riding jackets; properly worn, it gives the illusion of height. It’s common practice to button the middle or second buttons when standing, though the top two buttons may be fastened to produce a slightly more formal appearance (A great way to remember this is Sometimes – Always – Never). Two-button suits are a slightly later innovation, and because they show more of the shirt and tie, can have a slimming effect. Only the top button of a two-button jacket is fastened. With the exception of a the one button jacket, the bottom button is never fastened.
Double-breasted jackets most commonly have either four or six buttons on each side – where there are six buttons, only the lower four are for buttoning, though due to the design of the suit, only two will actually be buttoned at any given time. There is also an extra hidden button on the reverse of the outside flap of a double-breasted suit, onto which the inside or “hidden” flap attaches. Contrary to the habits of certain celebrities, a double-breasted jacket should never be left unbuttoned when standing; it is always securely buttoned upon standing and remains buttoned until one is again seated. Additionally, while the bottom button of a single-breasted jacket is always left undone, both of the operable buttons on a double-breasted jacket are fastened. As with the gorge of the lapel, the height of the waist buttons can been altered slightly to accentuate or diminish height, but this must be done carefully.
Lapels come in a wide variety of styles, and have been the subject of fashion experiments for decades. It’s hard to look back at the 70’s and not cringe at the sight of lapels extending to the shoulders, and I’m sure years from now we’ll be embarrassed with our current obsession with slim cuts, especially on men who this does not flatter. As is the case with much of classic fashion, the most timeless lapels are of a moderate width and are matched to the proportions of the wearer rather than the winds of fashion. By doing this you can ensure your jacket doesn’t look too big or too small, despite it fitting you perfectly in other areas. The late Carey Grant used to have the notches on his lapels lowered so that he wouldn’t appear tall and lanky. A small, but effective, tailoring technique.
Main Jacket Pockets
The most formal are jetted pockets, where the pocket is sewn into the lining of the jacket and only a narrow horizontal opening appears on the side of the jacket. These pockets, being nearly invisible, contribute to a very sleek, polished appearance, and are most frequently found on formal-wear. The next style, the flap pocket, is slightly less formal, though it is perfectly acceptable in all the circumstances where a gentleman is likely to be found in a suit. Flap pockets are made identically to jetted pockets, but include a flap sewn into the top of the pocket, which covers the pocket’s opening. These are the most common pockets on suit jackets, and in the very best, are fabricated so that the wearer may tuck the flaps inside, mimicking the jetted pocket. There are also diagonally-cut flap pockets known as hacking pockets, though they are somewhat less common; the
hacking pocket is derived from English riding gear, and is most prominent on bespoke suits from English tailors, particularly those traditionally associated with riding clothes. The least formal are patch pockets, which are exactly what the name implies: pockets created by applying a patch to the outside of the jacket. Patch pockets are the most casual option; they are frequently found on summer suits that would otherwise appear overly formal, as well as on sports jackets.
Some men’s suit and sport jackets, particularly those with a bespoke or made-to-measure heritage, include a small ticket pocket above the right side pockets (as see here in conjunction with the hacking pockets on the right). This pocket serves as an indication of the suit’s quality, although for tall men it can help them look less lanky.
Moving up the jacket is the breast pocket, which is always open, and into which only one item is ever placed: the handkerchief or pocket square. The reason for this is twofold: First, like the side pockets, any items placed in the breast pocket create lumpy projections which distort the sleek appearance of the suit, and second, the breast pocket and the inside left pocket share the same space in the jacket’s lining, meaning that objects in the breast pocket tend to force items in the inside pocket into the wearer’s ribs, which is quite uncomfortable.
Moving on from pockets we find the jacket’s vents, flap-like slits in the back bottom of the jacket which accommodate movement and offer easy access to the trouser pockets. There are three common styles: Ventless, Center, and Double. Ventless jackets, just as the name implies, have no vents, and are popular on Continental suits; they provide a very sleek look to the back of the jacket, though they can lead to wrinkling when the wearer sits down. This style works well for athletically built men, but larger men had best avoid it. Center-vented jackets, very popular on American suits, have a single slit at the back, allowing the jacket to expand at the bottom when sitting. Because of its placement, center-vented jackets have a habit of exposing the wearer’s posterior, though most seem not to mind. The popularity of the center vent is not in it’s functionality, but in that it is the least expensive vent to manufacture. The crown jewel of vents is the double or
side-vented jacket; it has two vents, one on either side, generally just behind the trouser pockets, to provide easy access and freedom of movement. Side vents facilitate sitting more easily, moving as needed to prevent the rumpling of the jacket back. Double vents do an excellent job of covering a man’s backside, especially when compared to the single vent.
There are numerous historical reasons for jacket sleeves bearing buttons, from encouraging the use of handkerchiefs to allowing a gentleman to wash his hands without removing his jacket (a traditionally grave social offense in mixed company). Whatever the reason for their arrival on jacket sleeves, sleeve buttons now form an important part of the detail work or trimming of the jacket. Most traditionally, jacket sleeves bear four buttons, though it is not uncommon to find three. Regardless of number, there should be at least as many of them as there are buttons on the waist, and they are always placed within a half-inch or so above the hem. On bespoke suits, and even some of the higher-quality made-to-measure jackets, the sleeve buttons are functional. When the buttons are functional, there is some temptation to leave one button undone in order to draw attention to the feature – and by extension, the quality of the suit – though this is a matter of personal taste.
Trouser Waist Band & Pleats
Trousers should not be the focal point of a man’s outfit; rather, their job is to draw the eye upward to your jacket or downward to your shoes, perhaps subtly flattering your legs. With that being said, the fit and design of your trousers is important; nothing is more uncomfortable for a man than a pair of pants too tight in the crotch or so loose in the backside as to cause a draft.
Here to our left we see a classic expanded waistband. Most men are familiar with the extra button inside a pair of dress slacks; few understand why it is there. The purpose of extra buttons in the waist area is to make the trousers
fit more comfortably. The idea is to distribute the weight more evenly, thus eliminating pressure points in your trousers while ensuring a snug fit. In order for this to work though, your trousers need to fit. Having them expanded or pulled in by an experienced tailor is well worth the trouble; having your trousers built custom is the best way to never have this problem to begin with.
To have your trousers pleated or non-pleated doesn’t seem to be a difficult decision for most men; whether or not they made the right one is another story. Fat fronts compliment thin men, while pleats flatter those who are a bit larger or just prefer extra room in that area. Your decision here does have consequences – it may determine your trouser cuff decision.
The general rules with trouser cuffs are this – Tall men should cuff, those vertically challenged should not. Also, if you chose to go with the double pleats, you should cuff while flat fronts should never be cuffed. And now that I’ve said this, you’re wondering “What if I’m tall and thin or 5?4? and 250lbs…..according to these rules and the ones above, I’m a contradiction.”
Perhaps this is a good way to wrap this up. All of these rules, all of these laws of fashion and style, well, they are more like guides. They are paths that have worked, they are techniques that have been tested; but they are not absolutes.
The journey to sartorial excellence is long, yet rewarding. This article only scratches the surface of the iceberg; writers whom I admire have written multiple volumes on men’s style and clothing, and still only capture a fragment of its essence. The truth of the matter is that there are as many styles as there are men; within each of us is our own personal style, in part dictated by our physical characteristics but more importantly determined by how we see ourselves.