How to Buy a Suit
A Guide to Suit Shopping
Whether off the rack or made to measure, you need a suit that is well-fitting, enhances your appearance, and is appropriate for the occasion. Here's all you need to know before buying a suit.
If you plan to purchase an off the rack suit at a high street chain store where sales assistants may be less than knowledgeable, you'll need to be well-prepped. After all, a suit is never inexpensive and you no doubt need it for an important event, like a job interview, wedding, or first date.
But even if you're planning on a made-to-measure suit, whereby you'll receive expert advice from an experienced tailor, you should still explore all options beforehand. By doing so, you'll be better equipped to stipulate your preferences in order that you get exactly what you want.
Consider Your Body Type
Patterns and Fashion Details
The first thing to consider before going out to buy a new suit is your body type; patterns and certain fashion details can optically affect proportion either positively or negatively.
Vertically inclined patterns like herringbone and pinstripes have a slimming effect and add to both torso and leg length. This is ideal if you're heavy-set or somewhat on the short side, but not if you're tall and lean. The same is true of double-breasted jackets (two rows of buttons at the front), which make the torso appear narrower.
Checkers are not a good idea for stocky, overweight, or portly men. If it's going to be your only suit, it's best to avoid bold patterns. Very subtle designs and solid, neutral colors are more versatile—they are easily accessorized and can be worn for almost any occasion.
The break refers to the bend or kink at the bottom of the trouser crease that results from the hem resting on the shoe. The degree of the break determines how proportionate your legs will appear. There are three choices of break; the half-break, the full-break, and no break:
- Half-break: In classic suit design, the half-break is customary (see photo below). It's ideal for men of average build and for short men.
- Full-break: The full-break—which requires a longer trouser length—is recommended for very tall men. However, if you're planning on cuffed trousers, choose a half-break instead. Cuffs, by the way, optically reduce leg length and should be avoided by short men.
- No break: No break is when the hem hardly touches the shoe. This should be worn only by men of average build or shorter, and only when in fashion.
Choice of Color
Choose Charcoal Gray If It's Your Only Suit
If it's going to be your only suit, charcoal gray is a wise choice. It's suitable for practically all occasions and works as a versatile base color when adding accessories etc.
Create Three Outfits From Two Suits
If you’re just starting out in a job where you have to wear a suit daily, purchase two suits; one in solid mid-gray and one in black. You can then create three outfits by wearing the black jacket as you would a blazer with the gray trousers.
Before combining suits in this way, make sure the black jacket can pass as a blazer; it should be plain and relatively lightweight.
Choose Dark Blue to Create a Good Impression
Because it matches fewer colors, dark blue is not as versatile as black and gray when accessorizing, but it works well for job interviews. Navy in particular is known to convey an impression of authority, trustworthiness, intelligence, commitment, and professionalism, which could enhance your chances of success.
Depending on cut and fabric, navy may be less fitting for social events, whether formal or casual, but you can always wear glamorous midnight blue as an alternative to black for evening wear.
Choice of Fabric
Pure wool is a good choice if you have to wear a suit daily. It's more durable than other fabrics, meaning the suit won't need to go to the cleaners quite as frequently. Suits generally need cleaning not because they're soiled but because they become limp; sizing, which is part of the dry cleaning process, restores body to the fabric. It's worth noting that you shouldn't send a suit to the cleaners more than absolutely necessary, since cleaning chemicals weaken the fabric.
Wool comes in various weights. Choose one that is suitable for all seasons if it's your only suit. For a northwestern European climate, for example, you might consider a weight of 10 or 12 oz. Wool fineness determines texture and price. This is indicated by the so-called S number, which ranges from 80 to 250; the higher the number the finer the yarn.
Wool Silk Mix
A wool silk mix or similar with only a slight sheen is suitable for most occasions, and accentuates style if you favor the sleek tailoring of Italian design. A very silky fabric, however, should be reserved for the evening, and only if the event is social and not too formal.
Cotton and Linen
Cotton and linen may be worn for the office under some circumstances, but should generally be reserved for casual wear. The disadvantage of these fabrics is that they crease easily, especially linen.
Choice of Lapels
There are three lapel types; notched, peaked, and shawl. Fashion dictates width and length, but basic shape remains constant.
Notched lapels, the type a business suit has, are the best choice if you want your suit to be versatile.
Peaked lapels are always appropriate on a tuxedo, but—depending on design, color and fabric—may be far too dressy for the office unless it’s a double-breasted jacket.
Shawl lapels are only found on a tuxedo or white dinner jacket. By the way, the tuxedo is an extravagant-looking ensemble that will make you appear overdressed and out of place if the occasion doesn't call for it. Wear only if an invitation states black tie.
How to Know If a Suit Fits Properly
If you are to look and feel your very best when wearing a suit, it must be well-fitting. When trying on an off the rack suit, check for the following:
- Armholes should allow free movement. Don't purchase if they bind, since this is impossible for a tailor to fix.
- Shoulder pads should be form-fitting and slope downwards. They should never extend beyond your natural shoulder width.
- When you stand up, a quarter of an inch of the back of your shirt collar should be visible above your suit jacket.
- When your hands are at your sides, your jacket sleeves should be short enough (but no shorter) to allow about half an inch of your shirt cuffs to show.
- When buttoned up, the jacket should fit snugly around your middle without straining or accentuating bulges.
- Jacket length should end at the tops of your legs at the back—the length is correct if you can grab the hem of the jacket when your hands are at your sides.
- Your vest should be long enough to cover the waistband of your trousers.
- Your trousers should be long enough to rest on your shoes—to what extent depends on the chosen break (see above under "Consider Your Body Type").
Chances are that you won't find an off the rack suit that fits as though it were made to measure. However, most menswear retailers have a tailoring service that can alter a suit to a perfect fit.
How to Accessorize a Suit
A well-fitting, tastefully chosen suit can make a man appear authoritative, experienced, and sophisticated, but only if it's appropriately accessorized.
- If unsure about shirt color, you can never go wrong with solid white.
- Always wear a long-sleeved shirt. The cuffs should end slightly above the base of the thumb.
- If your middle finger fits between your neck and collar when the shirt is fastened, you’re wearing the right shirt size.
Your Necktie and Pocket Square
- Your necktie should be fastened so that it's just long enough to touch your belt buckle.
- Make sure the pattern and color of your necktie correspond not only with your shirt, but with your suit too.
- Avoid neckties with jokey or novelty motifs like cartoon characters and famous landmarks of places you might have visited. School stripes and club emblems etc. should also be avoided. If unsure, choose a solid color.
- Except for job interviews, by all means stuff a handkerchief (pocket square) casually into your top pocket, but it should coordinate with your shirt and not your necktie. There's no need to fold it to a perfect square.
Jewelry, Shoes, and Other Accessories
- Your only jewelry when wearing a suit should be your wrist watch, signet ring, tie clip, cuff links, and belt buckle, which should all match one another—e.g., silver with silver, gold with gold. Again, avoid jokey or novelty motifs.
- Your shoes, socks, belt leather, and watch strap should also match one another. Choose black if you wear a gray, black or navy suit. Plain black socks are a better choice than patterned.
- The purpose of a belt when wearing a suit should be to fill your belt loops and not to keep your trousers up.
- Wear leather shoes of a relatively plain design. Brogues are inappropriate.
How to Wear a Suit
You may feel awkward, stiff, and self-conscious the first time you wear a suit. If so, practice wearing it before the big event until you feel relaxed and confident.
As a matter of etiquette, never put your hands in your jacket pockets, and leave your jacket on throughout a formal event.
When to fasten and unfasten buttons is also a matter of etiquette rather than personal choice:
- Never fasten the bottom button of your jacket.
- Unfasten your jacket when sitting down.
- Keep your vest buttons fastened at all times when wearing as part of a three-piece suit.
© 2016 Jayne Lancer