5 Less-Common Suits for the Suited Man
Like it or not, men's style is coming into a sort of Renaissance right now, reminiscent of the age of Beau Brummel or Prince Edward. The industry is bringing back traditional outfits to their original forms; or even tweaking them to a more-casual style. Personally, I never thought I'd again see the day when rock bands wore suits and ties on stage. But now, the buttoned-up look has returned to pop culture and to the mainstream.
The purpose of this essay is not to be concerned with men's fashion, but with men's style. "Style" means tradition, pragmatism, good taste and elegance. Naturally, this is an essay for the guy who has a few suits that he wears often as the five I discuss here are not staples. They are simply fun suits to keep as a few extra options just in case the perfect situation arises.
#1 The Stroller
Alternate Names: Black Lounge; Mason Jacket; Stresemann; Semi-formal
Occasions: By invitation/dress code; formal events; formal weddings; Christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, or other important religious events; personally-significant formal events (inaugurations, etc.); formal funerals
Rules: Never worn after 6pm
Negative Associations: Butlers and servants; Captain Peacock character of Are You Being Served?
One of the great things about the stroller is that so few know of its existence. It's a semi-formal compromise between an ordinary suit and a formal morning coat. What the morning coat is to the evening's white-tie and tails; the stroller is to the evening's black tie. But while you will always stick out like a sore thumb in white tie, black tie or a morning coat, you might blend in better and yet still look smart at formal events with the stroller.
With no clear-cut criteria for the stroller, it remains a difficult suit to define. In its crudest sense, it is really little more than an ordinary suit coat of virtually any type. The only real differences are that the stroller is always of a solid color with no pattern and it is always black or some shade of gray. The pants need not match the coat and they usually do not. One thing worth remembering is that the stroller is technically in the sober formal category. So, although there are loose guidelines, one should be cautious about stepping too far away from the norm in experimenting with modern fashion trends. In my opinion, the best stroller specifications are a black or gray, single-breasted and vent-less coat with peaked lapels and an enclosure of one or two buttons and two pockets. The best pants in my mind are the gray-and-black striped formal pants with a single pleat and no cuffs. The waistcoat can be black, buff or dove-gray. It is worn with an ordinary dress shirt with French cuffs and a regular silk necktie that is solid pastel, gray or black; or striped in some combination with white. It looks best with a white pocket square and black balmoral shoes.
If you're worried about looking like a uniformed servant, I would recommend a light-colored dress shirt paired with a silk pastel necktie. If you stay away from color, proper fit, good shoes or if you obsess over matching everything, then it is possible someone may ask you to take their coat.
Avoiding Stroller Mistakes
Formality does not really have much meaning in the US these days, but we do still have it. To 95% of the population "formal event" means weddings and proms. In an old-fashioned (or traditional) world, the stroller is a semi-formal outfit and could theoretical be worn to anything semi-formal. The ordinary business suit is traditionally a casual outfit that could be worn everywhere but formal events. But today, suits dominate nearly the whole spectrum of formality. Your average American wedding is a farce where guests attend a staged show to see a bride and groom play roles in costume before hitting the dance floor. If you're attending a wedding where everyone is wearing a suit and the groom and wedding party are in morning coats (or some odd equivalent), then there is nothing wrong with you wearing your stroller. But you should never do something that you are specifically told or expected not to do at someone's wedding. That would be rude. Just for your own education, people who say you can't dress in equal formality with the groom are wrong. Wedding "etiquette" has gone mad and totally out of control thanks to the industry surrounding it. It's the bride who is on display, while the groom is supposed to wear contemporary formal clothes of the day. Historically, all male guests would dress in the same manner as the groom. But today, grooms in uncomfortable clothes with their identical train of "groomsmen" are expected to be part of some sort of theatre for guests. But, still, to avoid being mistaken for a member of the wedding party, ensure your clothes are well-fitted. It is a law of style that the more close-fitting your men's clothes are, the more casual and less formal you will look. The last thing you ever want is to be "too noticed" and seem overly dressed up. As I have stated, most people do not know what a stroller is. So there won't be much fuss over looking smart as a guest at a formal event. If the groom is wearing a suit, or the wedding is casual, you should dress accordingly and leave the stroller at home.
Proper attire at a funeral is a black or dark suit and black or dark necktie. At formal funerals, state funerals or military funerals, a stroller (if you have one) with a black necktie, white dress shirt and black waistcoat is appropriate as well. As you are grieving the loss of a loved one, you know that your clothes are not on display. Yet you still want to show as much solemn respect as you can (a soldier at a military funeral will certainly pay close attention to the proper wear of his attire). If you own a stroller, maybe you can wear it if the situation warrants it. But remember that it's best to wear what you already own. A funeral is not an occasion to go out and shop for new clothes.
#2 The Tuxedo
Alternate Names: Black Tie; dinner jacket; formal; semi-formal; smoking
Occasions: By invitation/dress code
Rules: Never worn before 6pm
Negative Associations: Waiters and dinner staff
I both love and hate the Tuxedo. I love it when it is done right and looks good. But I want to banish it to the historic dress category most of the rest of the time. The best thing that could be said about the Tuxedo is that it basically has already gone extinct for most people in the US. It's not the casual evening attire it once was and most black tie events today give you the chance to opt out. And many people do opt out in favor of a suit--usually those who either wear black tie most often or never wear it. This does raise one of the best points about black tie. Unlike the stroller, where one is obliged to guess at the appropriateness of the occasion every time before wearing it, black tie is always spelled out in a dress code. Here's a rule of thumb in the US: if you aren't sure whether to wear a Tuxedo or not to an event, then you are not supposed to wear one.
The best-looking Tuxedo coat in my opinion is the non-vented, single-breasted black dinner jacket with peaked lapels of silk with besom pockets and an enclosure of one or two silk-covered buttons. The pants (held up by suspenders) should always be black with a silk stripe down the outside leg and no cuffs. I don't accept the fashion industry's attempts to modify or discard the waistcoats or cummerbunds. While I don't like the cummerbund, I do think the best Tuxedo look includes a black, low-cut waistcoat with lapels and four buttons. The best-looking shirt is white with a fold-down collar, a bib front, French cuffs and enclosed with studs. Good luck finding this. The socks should be black silk and the best shoes are either patent-leather balmorals or opera pumps. There should be a white pocket square and the tie should be a black bowtie (they tie the same way as shoelaces, by the way). Neckties are for business suits; not Tuxedos. But there are quite a number of interesting and correct styles and combinations of accoutrements to suit just about anyone's personal tastes. There are countless resources for this information.
The way to avoid looking like a waiter is simple. First, don't walk around holding a tray of drinks. Second, make sure your Tuxedo is made to fit. Third, make sure your Tuxedo is made to fit. No one can emphasize this enough. If you have a specified Tuxedo for yourself, and you don't wear a clip-on bowtie, you will never be mistaken as part of the staff. You might be mistaken for the owner of the restaurant, but not one of the waiters. Last, don't underestimate footwear. I think men today are very absent-minded about their shoes. There is something that repels guys from wanting to drop a lot of money on their shoes for some reason. We tend to focus more on our clothes than what is on our feet. But I can assure anyone that quality shoes are far more important than a quality suit. Cheap shoes stick out like a sore thumb. They are the truth-tellers on whether you are wearing your own clothes or are playing dress-up. For example, in buying quality opera pumps, you can expect to pay about $300 for what basically resemble a woman's shoe. You definitely won't see the hotel caterers wearing them in their Tuxedos. Quality patent-leather balmorals are even more expensive. It is true that you can spit-shine regular balmorals to resemble patent-leather to avoid buying a second pair of dress shoes. But that is really a lot of shining.
Own or Rent?
Just about every man wears a Tuxedo once in his life. Unfortunately, this is at the ripe age of 18 before graduating high school. As an adult, everyone learns that the Tuxedo is more of a type of "court dress" for patricians. My thinking is that if you are someone who owns a number of business suits and wears them every week, and you have the means to purchase, you should probably go ahead and buy a Tuxedo to add to the collection. Also, if you find yourself falling into at least one black tie event every year, then it also could not hurt to own one. Once you own a Tuxedo that you like, you'll find it's easier to find occasions to wear it if you have the means.
#3 The Summer Suit
Alternate Names: Cotton suit; linen suit; twill suit; seersucker suit
Occasions: Summer weddings; Kentucky Derby (or local equivalent); semi-formal summer parties; summer religious gatherings
Rules: Linen fabric and/or white suits are not worn after Labor Day (unless you are in a year-round warm climate)
Negative Associations: Colonel Sanders; movie character
This is one of those "bucket list" suits you want to own if you find yourself wearing suits often. To those who don't have the money to throw around, I would caution that you might have buyer's remorse when you try it on and realize you'll never have the guts to actually let yourself be seen in public with it. To those who have already bought it, I offer a congratulations and I say "welcome to the club". The truth is, summer suits do not have to be so smart-looking or ironic; or even that expensive. In fact, these are the only suits that I would consider cutting corners on simply because I think that the more casual they are, the better. If you don't want an upscale high-quality linen suit made to fit, there are plenty of clothiers that provide unlined cotton suits that look and feel casual. Twill is by-far the most casual-looking. It is rugged, can be "smashed up" and it does not have a traditional stiff cut like other suits. It is one step up from denim and one step down from a fully-constructed suit of clothes made from a cotton material. A wool shell with a silk interior lining is the standard for an ordinary suit and theoretically works in the summer, even though it is certainly warmer than cotton. But wool is traditionally a material representing formality, and cottons are materials that represent casualness. I prefer cotton or linen in the summer months if I think I will be outside.
I think most anything within reason works well as a summer suit, as long as it is of natural materials that breathe. I will say that I am not partial to white suits and I prefer tan earth tones. I think the simpler the suit, the better the effect it has. You can always dress it up or down. My preference is a two-button enclosure to three. I would also avoid all-white dress shirts in exchange for any other light color. This is the only suit where I prefer barrel cuffs to French cuffs. If the event I'm attending is something quirky and festive, like the Derby, I might wear a waistcoat. Otherwise, I'll go without one. The best shoes are brown wingtip oxfords and I'd opt for striped neckties with these types of suits.
To avoid looking like a groom at a wedding, I would stick to pattern ties over solid colors. Some people might be concerned about looking too much like an ancient southern stereotype or not getting enough mileage out of their summer suit. One way to fix this is to wear an odd color of socks to mess it up a little. Another is to make the outfit seem sportier by not matching the pants and coat. While everyone is used to seeing the boarding-school look of a guy in khaki pants and a navy blazer, they are not used to seeing the colors switched.
#4 The Black Suit
Alternate Names: Formal Suit
Occasions: Weddings; funerals; formal or semi-formal events; in the US at semi-formal non-business functions where black tie is not specified: cocktail parties, charity dinners, awards ceremonies, operas, upscale clubs, etc.
Negative Associations: Limo driver; religious fundamentalists; undertakers
You typically will not find a black suit advertised by well-known quality clothiers in the US or the UK, because the black suit is a style blunder. Business suits are meant to have color and patterns, while black suits are meant to be Tuxedos. However, with Tuxedos relegated to a code of dress and with the dubious position of strollers, a vacuum currently exists where there could probably be a hybrid solution between an ordinary business suit and formalwear. The main things to remember about this experiment is that it is only for those formal occasions where Tuxedos are not permitted. If you aren't sure if a special event is formal or not, you can usually pull out the black suit and wear it without worry. But since black is the universal color of formality, this is not a suit you would want to wear to work.
I think the key to mastering the black suit is to not try to make it look like a Tuxedo. I would keep it as a suit. That means the single-breasted coat should have notched lapels and may have a center vent or side vents. The pants can be cuffed and pleated or flat-front with no cuffs. The shirt can be a typical dress shirt with French cuffs and I would have any color of pocket square. I would not wear a waistcoat. The necktie can be any color so long as it does not match the pocket square. But I would probably stick to solid colors with no patterns. The shoes should be plain, black balmorals.
Black suits today are not as big a faux pas as they once were. In fact, they seem to do well. They are versatile for day events that carry into the evening, making them useful for afternoon weddings with evening receptions. With a black necktie, they are best for funerals. For those who cannot afford Tuxedos or strollers, this is a good option for formalwear. To avoid looking like you're the limo driver, I would again focus on your suit's fit and your footwear. I want to mention that people who don't usually like to get dressed up are always so worried that they will be mistaken for some sort of serving staff at an event. I can tell you that staff who are paid to dress up and do a job are never given clothes made to fit and they are certainly never given shoes. If you wear quality shoes made in the US or UK and you are wearing your own clothes that fit you, you have nothing to worry about.
#5 The Smoking Jacket
Alternate Names: Smoking robe
Occasions: At home, usually after dinner
Rules: Never worn off your own property
Negative Associations: Rakes
Nobody wants to be the douche in a smoking jacket until they try it out or are around someone else who uses one. In spite of the Baby-Boom Generation's attempts to bury all classic sartorial standards, I could see this comfortable and casual robe/blazer hybrid of the Victorian Era (or in actual fact 1920s Hollywood) making a comeback. For one thing, it is very comfortable. For another, it provides a useful purpose as you can go outside on a cool night and smoke a cigar in it. Third, it actually looks good. But best of all, it gives you a feeling of therapeutic calmness. Donning your smoking jacket is the definitive end of the day. It is when you leave work and stress behind and say ,"the rest of the night is mine". It's when the weight falls from your shoulders and you enjoy that drink or smoke. You can wear it with a t-shirt and jeans, or anything you want, since it's private and it's yours. I feel sorry that women don't have smoking jackets.
I think the best smoking jackets are personalized with a color or pattern that is significant to the individual. I definitely prefer shawl lapels and "frog" enclosures to a robe belt or buttons or anything else. Silk or velvet are the best materials. It should fit similarly to a suit coat, but provide comfort. I think they can be worn with anything. But an open-collar shirt always looks best. I think the stereotypical silk ascot would be too contrived at a time when you want to relax and put no effort in. But, it's up to the individual if they want to make an outfit out of it.
I can see how it would be easy to get carried away with a smoking jacket. The trick to pulling it off is to not make a spectacle of it. It's not something I would even wear to run to the store in, let alone wear deliberately in public. I think the way to not appear to be a rakish caricature in your jacket is to not try to make it into a costume and to just be yourself. Don't let your clothes change you. If I were single, I would not wear it in front of a lady friend at my house. But I would wear it in mixed company during after hours if it made sense. Women usually say they like this jacket, but they often get annoyed if they see their husbands wearing one. My wife is used to it.