No matter our occupation, we’re all in the business of self-salesmanship. Every day we set about selling ourselves to employers, clients and potential partners (whether professional or romantic). And there’s no more persuasive outfit to do so in than a suit — a garment that, properly cut and styled, gives a man confidence, and gives others confidence in the man.
Comprising a jacket and trousers in a matching cloth (and sometimes a complementary waistcoat), the suit as we know it today has changed little over the last century. Sure, there have been fluctuations according to fashions of the day (proportions growing slimmer in the sixties, and more voluminous in the seventies, for instance), but the sort of classic suit you should aim to buy will be immune to those whims. Select or bespeak a suit of sufficient quality and timeless style, and it should last you a lifetime — perhaps even be passed down to your offspring.
Here’s how to buy a suit that will prove a blue chip investment in selling yourself.
What To Consider
First, you need to ponder what purpose or occasion you’re buying a suit for. The suit purchased for work in a sober office environment will be very different to the one obtained to wear to a summer wedding in the countryside.
What are you trying to communicate with the suit, what image do you hope to create? What sort of climate conditions will it be worn in — does it need to warm you or keep you cool? That’s going to dictate the cloth: lighter (perhaps open-weave) wools, linen, cotton or even seersucker for summer or tropical climes, heavier worsted, flannel or maybe cashmere or vicuna (if you can afford it) for the colder months and highly air-conditioned environments.
Then there’s style preferences: double- or single-breasted jacket; peak or notch lapel; two- or three-piece; flat-front or pleated trousers?
Single-breasted is more versatile and conservative, while double-breasted is dashing and can, contrary to popular belief, have a slimming effect on the heavier man, who’d also be well advised to choose a roomier pleated trouser – a flat-front pant flatters the flat bellied. A peak lapel lends a sense of athleticism to the man with sloping shoulders. The waistcoat of a three-piece boasts the key benefit of allowing a guy to still look put-together even after removing his jacket in the office.
Budget and body type will dictate whether you choose a ready-to-wear, made-to-measure or bespoke suit. The man whose stomach is larger than his chest has little choice but to go bespoke, while the slimmer gent may be sufficiently served by something properly altered off-the-rack or a good, efficient made-to-measure service.
If he has the wherewithal, however, even a guy in great shape should strongly consider bespoke, which will allow him to co-design a beautiful long-lasting suit, made to his own unique measurements and specifications. One that fits him exquisitely.
Gives & Hawkes
How It Should Fit
Fit is the foremost concern when buying a suit. Though maybe ‘fit’ is the wrong word. Head-to-toe Lycra fits a man perfectly, but does little to accentuate his better attributes and hide his failings, which is a suit’s ultimate goal. In the words of renowned sartorial commentator G. Bruce Boyer, “Good tailors are not after fit, but effect. And effect means proportion. The idea is to help your figure, not to reproduce it.”
One of those very good tailors, New York’s Alan Flusser, tells us that in fact, the quickest way to deliver an unenviable impression is for a man’s clothes to “fit so tight as to look as if he’s been poured into them. Fit should be neither tight nor loose – a man should be able to sit comfortably in a buttoned jacket without feeling the need to unbutton it.
“If your clothes bind you and make you uncomfortable, it’s impossible to look natural and therefore stylish. Unfortunately, today, the straightjacket fit has reached epidemic proportions. The upshot of such a skin-wrapped male is forfeiture of any personal stylishness that aspires to withstand the test of time.”
Alan Fusser Made-To-Measure
Flusser breaks down the specifics of enduring, form-flattering fit as follows:
Shoulders & Chest
Should be “wide enough to be comfortable to move in and for the sleeves to fall without breaking across the upper sleeve – however not so wide as to make your head appear small.” He reminds ready-to-wear shoppers, “If shoulders are too narrow, they cannot be widened.” The same goes for a too-tight chest, which is impossible for a tailor to remedy, so try a size up.
Lapel Notch Height
“Should sit high enough on the chest to produce as long an upward sweeping line as possible, however not so high as to make the coat appear as if it is pulling backwards.” Flusser points out that notch placement is another permanent feature that cannot be changed.
“The most serious detail in a jacket’s consideration and the most prevalent design flaw of the modern shorter jacket trend,” Flusser says. “Like the fulcrum of a seesaw, it’s the garment’s pivot point, its centre and the dividing line between the jacket’s upper and lower sections. Too high and it shortens the torso; too low, and it lowers the waist, throwing off the balance between the jacket’s top and bottom sections. If the jacket’s waist button sits too high, as it often does today, there is no remedy.”
“It should hug the neck when the head turns, yet leave 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of shirt collar showing.” Beware so-called ‘prole gap’, where a jacket sits away from the shirt collar, a deadly menswear sin (observable in almost every suit worn by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby).
“Sleeve length should show 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of shirt sleeve and be tapered enough so it does not bellow around the shirt cuff.” And the length: “Jackets must be long enough to cover the buttocks, short enough to give as long a leg line as possible.” There’s an old saying that goes, “A good suit jacket is like a good lawyer – it should always cover your ass.”
“They should rest on the natural waist, as opposed to the hips, so the line continues that of the jacket above. Trouser rise (the distance between the base of the crotch and waistband) should be long enough to allow the trouser waistband to sit near the natural waist as well as the jacket’s waist button. Side pockets should lay flat and not gape.”
The leg, he says, should be “cut to give a fuller to narrower taper line down to the ankle. The trouser bottom opening should be in relation to one’s shoe size. If (UK) size 11 or more, no less than 20”, if size 8 to 11, somewhere between 16 and 19 1/2 inches, depending on personal preference.”
If you choose to install turn-ups, cuff width, he says, is “in relation to wearer’s height: below 5 ft. 10 inches in height, I recommend a 1 5/8 inch cuff width. Above that height, 1 3/4 to 2 inch cuff width.” As to how much or little break – the amount the trouser overlaps the shoe or merely ‘kisses’ it, as the case may be – “That’s a personal choice,” Flusser reckons.
Your choice of fabric weight and texture dictates how a suit drapes on the body and its suitability to environmental conditions. The pattern, meanwhile, determines whether or not the suit will flatter you.
Super-fine wool cloths would seem the obvious choice for warmer climates, but they’re delicate and easily damaged or worn out, with a short lifespan. They’re also trickier to tailor than medium and heavy weight cloth. Says Kevin Seah, a Singapore-based bespoke tailor who specialises in summer-friendly suiting, “I always prefer a medium weight cloth, up to 10 ounces, which gives more structure and shape than the lightweight ‘supers’.
Kevin Seah Bespoke
“If you cut it well, build in a little room, it can give you great comfort, and it holds shape far better than lighter cloth. When the fit isn’t overly snug, that also provides you with some airflow and ventilation. Anything that hugs you close to the skin won’t breathe nearly as well. For breeziness, I also highly recommend an open weave cloth like a hopsack or fresco wool, or a good Irish linen.”
Those sorts of fabrics will serve you well during spring and summer or while you’re in the tropics. A sturdier worsted or flannel will do splendidly in autumn and winter – with the added advantage of carrying more structure.
Insofar as choosing cloth patterns go, it all depends on your body type. The man of average height and weight can do pretty much as he pleases. The stout gentleman should avoid light colours, shiny textures and bold patterns, which only serve to emphasise his girth; a pinstripe will create a flattering vertical line.
The shorter guy should avoid big plaids and very light or very dark colours; opt instead for medium tones and smaller patterns. The very tall man will be flattered by textured cloth like flannel, tweed and linen, and should be unafraid of plaid. Muted tones will help the big, muscular fellow appear less forbidding – a bodybuilder in a black suit will unfailingly resemble a nightclub doorman or underworld enforcer (often one and the same, as it happens).
By employing varying levels of lining and padding, suit jackets can be made rigidly structured (as many military-inspired, traditional Savile Row suits are), light and fluid as a shirt (as Neapolitan tailors often favour – a reaction to their city’s blistering summers) or somewhere in between.
The descendant of British military dress uniforms, a heavily structured suit will make a fellow stand ramrod straight and endow him with a heroic silhouette. As such it may be ideal for a formal occasion such as a wedding, but could feel overly restrictive during the workday and will certainly reduce comfort in a leisure setting.
The advantage of a more lightly structured suit, says leading proponent of ‘soft tailoring’, Mayfair-based Steven Hitchcock, is in its supreme comfort. “The cut follows the natural shape of the wearer. I add no padding, I don’t ‘build up’ the shoulders or the chest. I add a little waist suppression to create shape, but not so much that it is restrictive or detrimental to the rest of the coat,” he says.
“The whole look and silhouette is far more sophisticated than the military type. Soft tailoring is luxurious and has the ease of style of the mid-century jet set.”
Entirely unstructured tailoring, meanwhile, can be incredibly comfortable, with the jacket feeling much like a second shirt. It’s cool and as unrestrictive as the casual gear and sportswear many of us have grown up wearing. Because of the lack of structure, however, it does unforgivingly follow the body’s form, doing little to create the sense of an athletic silhouette – meaning this style is best sported by those actually in possession of a sleek physique.
Ready-To-Wear, Made-To-Measure Or Bespoke?
Ready To Wear
Ready-to-wear suits are cut to fit as broad a cross section of consumers as possible. It’s incredibly rare for a man to have a completely average body, so it’s essential that you take an off-the-rack suit to a good alterations tailor to have elements like sleeve length, back neck, trouser hems and so forth amended to meet with your physical peculiarities.
The most important thing is, never buy a suit that’s too small (especially across the chest and shoulders) – a tailor can far more easily take in than take out a suit. But don’t buy too big, as certain proportions (pocket placement, for example) will look off-kilter after reductions are made. Be wary: many ready-to-wear suits have fused (glued) construction, limiting their lifespan, as well as enormous armholes, which adversely affects the way the suit front moves when arms are raised.
Made To Measure
A made-to-measure (MTM) suit is an excellent compromise for the man of fairly regular shape who lacks the funds to spring for full bespoke. Sometimes, in terms of fit at least, the results can be almost as good. With MTM, a standard pattern is modified to the customer’s measurements, the suit created in the client’s choice of a broad – but finite – selection of cloths, linings and styles (peak or notch lapel; double or single breasted; two or three piece; straight or slanted pockets, etc.).
Typically the customer will be measured once, the suit made in a factory and then just a few minor alterations done to the final product if necessary. A good made-to-measure suit will feature hand-canvassing and certain hand-finished elements, like pick-stitched lapels, but will generally be primarily machine-made. Hand-stitched suits move more fluidly with the body, but some men actually prefer the clean, precise finish machine stitching can give.
BOSS Made to Measure
The ultimate sartorial experience, a bespoke suit is created from scratch by a tailor, who makes up a unique pattern guided by an extensive, exacting series of measurements taken from the client’s body. Bespeaking a suit, you’re free to choose from a vast array of style, cloth, lining, detailing and structure options – a good tailor will help recommend the best combination for you.
Over the course of several fittings (up to five), a quality bespoke suit will be artfully hand-sewn and painstakingly tweaked to flatter the client’s form and posture. During this process, the pattern will also be amended, allowing future suits to be cut and crafted with fewer fittings, or even ordered remotely.
It’s a time-consuming process, but one that most men find a rare pleasure, enjoying the creative collaboration, clubby atmosphere and genial service any good tailor will offer (along with a dram or two of single malt). Steven Hitchcock counsels, “Bespoke isn’t quick. It takes patience, and regular visits to be fitted – it’s about understanding the craft.” A bespoke suit, he says, is “all handmade and cannot be rushed.” It’s worth the wait, though.
The result is a completely unique, exquisitely crafted ensemble that can be altered to continue fitting beautifully for decades. “Some people say bespoke is expensive, but that garment will last you more than 20 years,” Hitchcock points out. “Divide the cost by 20 and you basically have a bargain.”
Common Suit Buying Dos And Don’ts
Do spend as much as you can. In his book of menswear guidance, Elegance, G. Bruce Boyer wrote: “Buy the absolute best you can afford. Fine clothes will last 10 times longer than cheap, shoddy merchandise, will feel and fit better, and of course will look better. A cheap suit looks cheap even when it’s brand new, while a good one retains its appearance after years of wear.”
Do look at things you can’t afford. It’s only by trying on and gauging the quality of several £5,000 suits that you’ll gain the knowledge and experience required to pick the best £500 suit on the market. Boldly venture forth into Tom Ford and Kiton, my son. (Buy something, if finances allow.)
Do remember that ‘God is in the details’. Nothing gives away a low-quality suit like a poorly stitched buttonhole.
Don’t buy a suit with fused inner canvas. They’re stiff and lifeless – plus, after a short span of time, with cleaning and body heat the glue used to fuse the layers of fabric will begin to bubble, creating a blistered paint effect. “And then you have to throw away your suit,” says Seah. “It’s far wiser to invest in a hand-canvassed suit, which may cost more but will last exponentially longer, and look far better throughout its lifetime, than a fused suit.”
Don’t entertain the idea of a black suit (even in black tie, where the deepest midnight blue is a far handsomer option). Instead, look to charcoal grey or navy, elegant colours that complement virtually all skin tones and body types.
Don’t Buy purely on the basis of ‘bargain’ price. It’s false economy. The most expensive clothes are those you never wear – and that’s often the case with things purchased on sale. If a suit has been relegated to the bargain bin, there’s probably a good reason it’s been passed over at full price.
5 Key Suits To Consider
Bespoke tailor Steven Hitchcock suggests the following essential items when beginning to build your sartorial arsenal or create an adaptable capsule wardrobe.
Navy Single-Breasted Two-Piece Suit
“A very versatile garment that can be worn in many social occasions as well for business.” A mid-weight ‘three-season’ cloth would allow this suit to remain in use near year-round.
Mid-Grey Double-Breasted Two-Piece Suit
“A ‘DB’ suit is a must as it is more formal than a single-breasted suit. It tends to give an air of intelligence, industriousness, good breeding and assertiveness,” Hitchcock says.
Grey Flannel Single-Breasted Three-Piece Suit
One of these “really is very handy as each garment can be inter-worn with other items in your wardrobe. Casual day? Wear the trousers with a shirt and pullover. Need to dress up a navy suit? Wear the flannel vest underneath it. For smart club lounge attire, wear the flannel coat with the navy suit trousers with a white shirt and regimental stripe tie. Or, wear the flannel three-piece suit as is and look like a timeless classic gentleman.”
Two-Piece Linen Suit
“It’s ideal for summer as it’s cool to wear. It is a perfect suit to wear to a garden party or when on holiday in warmer climes. Also, you can wear the trousers as a separate with an open-neck linen shirt.”
Blue Single-Breasted Blazer
A plain blue blazer “really completes the wardrobe. This could be just as easily worn with the flannel trousers as the linen trousers.” Or jeans, chinos, colourful trousers and any number of other items in your possession. Even shorts.
Christian Barker is the Asia editor-at-large for The Rake magazine and the brand director for Kevin Seah Bespoke.