Black suits are subject to a litany of misconceptions. They’re not solely for bouncers with a superiority complex. They’re not just for waiters, either. And, on a more depressing note, they shouldn’t only see the light of day at a funeral. But of all of the myths around black suits, let’s not forget the big one: that they’re boring.
We thought Reservoir Dogs had put that to rest in 1992, but you can also look to more recent red carpet trends to find new ways to style this classic. (And we’re not just talking about black tie awards ceremonies.) Justin Theroux likes to wear his with a Hedi Slimane-tinged rock ‘n’ roll edge; Tom Ford cuts a cleaner figure, enlisting the black suit as his uniform of choice; then there’s Brandon Flowers – a keen advocate of the western suit complete with a pussy bow neck tie.
You might not get away with that particular look at the office, but the wider point is that black is the new black again – formal when you need it to be, but also flexible enough to work with tailoring’s new relaxed direction.
First, What To Look For
To maximise wear (and therefore value) from a black suit, lean classic. A tailored fit will adhere to every dress code while keeping your silhouette slim and refined. “When buying a regular black suit, steer clear of shiny-looking fabrics as this can cheapen your look,” says personal stylist Sarah Gilfillan of Sartoria Lab. “You should also avoid contrast stitching or any novelty. Instead, focus upon simplicity and fit to make the noise.”
Certain guys should avoid more than a Z-list fabric shimmer, too. “If you’re of a fairer skin tone, opt for a textured fabric to soften the overarching darkness,” says Gilfillan. “Anything too heavy can appear harsh on lighter skin tones, but most guys should be able to carry off a black suit with ease.”
Once those boxes are ticked, it’s onto the look itself. Here are six stylish ways to send your wardrobe back to black.
Black And White
If new is bold, and old is gold, consider black and white tailoring platinum. One of the most reliable style moves of all time, a monochrome suit is flattering and easy to wear, but it doesn’t mean you have to dress like a penguin (nor throw the menswear rulebook to the wall, either).
“Nothing commands attention quite like a simple, slim-fit suit as part of an expertly tailored silhouette,” says Olie Arnold, style director at Mr Porter. “Black and white is as simple as you can get. So, focus on the fit: you want to ensure your look – and specifically your trousers – are the perfect balance between slim and tight.” (I.e. closer to slim.)
What’s more, a classic look demands classic accessories. “If you opt for a half-spread collar, team it with a traditional wider knot – it’s a foolproof look, and works well thanks to the shirt’s slim fit.” A thin presidential-fold pocket square dials up the formality, while a softer shoulder and a pair of black minimalist sneakers lets you get a degree more creative with a timeless outfit.
The biggest positive of an all-black look is its slimming effect. Black is flattering because it removes any potential shadows from your torso – that means a lean-looking figure, whatever your BMI says. It also requires almost no thought to put together… almost.
“Black on black is becoming increasingly popular, but there are ways to lift the look further,” says James Doidge, head of menswear design at Marks & Spencer. “Make sure you mix up texture and fabrics to add some depth, as this will help individual components of your look stand out.” Try a thin-gauge knit under your standard nine-to-five suit, or add a polished leather belt to break up top and bottom.
Oh, and if you’re going all black, just make sure that every element is exactly that. Anything that’s been through the dry-cleaners too many times will put a hit out on your Sicilian mafioso vibe.
Black Blazer With Grey Trousers
Splintered tailoring needn’t mean a disjointed look. And you don’t have to roost like a Pitti peacock in contrasts of orange and fuchsia – it works just as well with neutrals. Black and grey is a flattering and foolproof colour combination that you can literally pull together in the dark.
“A monochrome look is simple and sophisticated – the less fuss the better,” says Phill Tarling, a menswear stylist that counts Tom Hardy and John Hurt on his well-dressed client list. “A contrasting grey is just one pivot away from total darkness, and as a result, is a good option for smart-casual dress codes if you opt for a clean, crisp white shirt below.”
Don’t discount denim, either. Dark jeans have long been a go-to alternative for trousers, especially in outfits that sit on the casual end of the spectrum. To avoid the noughties indie look (because you always want to avoid the noughties indie look), make sure the jeans aren’t cut too slim and wear something more relaxed than a shirt under the blazer. A charcoal roll neck is ideal.
Notice a pattern here? Then you, sir, are likely in possession of a suit with added depth. Not all patterns and prints have to make a big statement, and subtle checks, flecks and details can elevate a monochrome look into more memorable territory.
“A patterned black suit offers a contemporary spin on a classic, and can flatter your physique by adding bulk up-top,” says Arnold. “As it’s a step away from the norm, opt for a more relaxed cut when trying to replicate this look. An unstructured, half-lined two-piece will add to the laid-back nature of your outfit, and make it less formal as a result.”
Don’t be afraid to amp up the volume elsewhere, either. “A pop of colour from a roll neck or T-shirt below is another way to play with your look, but only stick to shades you feel comfortable with,” says Arnold. Go easy, you don’t want to look like a drama teacher.
Printed shirts are often bundled into two camps: high-impact, Cuban-collared styles best saved for summer, and blinding floral designs best saved for Aloha night on a Caribbean cruise ship. Thankfully, there’s a more refined way to wear loud prints, and a black suit is the perfect foil because it’s so muted in comparison.
“A printed shirt works with a black suit if you marry up the colours,” says Tarling. “So, ensure the print itself – be it a stripe, graphic or geometric – has some flecks of black within. That way, the combination will be seamless.”
You can go further down the smart or casual avenue, too. Untuck the shirt and drop an extra button to lose the formality. “Or, alternatively, layer up with a black jumper [under your blazer] and a pair of velvet shoes to do the opposite,” says Doidge.
Tee And Trainers
Sure, wearing a suit with trainers and a tee won’t work for a black tie dinner (unless you want to be the try-hard sat at the end of the table). What it will do, however, is prove your sartorial nous and the sheer versatility of a black suit.
“This look has become an unspoken essential in the modern workplace, where trainers are no longer perceived as juvenile,” says Alex Field, head of menswear design at Reiss. “Take it to eleven and opt for cropped, slim-fit trousers to give your trainers the spotlight, and keep your T-shirt crisp and minimal.” If you want to add embellishments like a print or logo, keep them monochrome.
The minimalist approach extends south too, says Tarling. “Your sports shoes should be simple – anything that looks remotely like your training gear should be left in the gym bag.” In other words, box off anything that isn’t box fresh.