If you’re a grown man, you should own a suit. A good one. You may not wear a suit and tie everyday, but you’ll inevitably need one for weddings, parties, funerals, interviews, and other formal affairs. And now is as good a time as any to shop for a suit, even (or especially) if you’ve never owned a suit that wasn’t bought on short notice at the local department store, and then hung in the closet to never be worn again.
Even if you do wear a suit on a daily basis, you might still want a refresher on how a suit is constructed and which details you should look for when adding a new suit to your wardrobe. Or if you’ve never confidently worn or shopped for a suit, then you could use a primer on the most important elements of a suit.
As Derek explains at Put This On, a suit’s silhouette can basically be described as either structured or soft, and knowing the difference is a good starting point as you start to shop around. A structured suit features a stiffer canvas and has a more built-up shoulder, while a less structured suit is made with a softer canvas and a thinner layer of padding. What’s called the shoulder expression works in concert with the suit’s style of construction, and the two together create the overall silhouette. The shoulder can be constructed in a number of different ways: roped, natural, and bald. A roped shoulder features a prominent ridge at the seam along the crown of the sleeve, while a natural shoulder has a very light ridge, and a bald shoulder has a very low-profile shoulder seam.
Which silhouette is right for you?
As Derek notes, the minimally padded, soft silhouette is popular today. But that doesn’t mean you should assume it’s the best silhouette for you. More important than the style of a suit is the fit of the suit. You need to both understand your body type and learn to recognize the cuts and silhouettes that will work best for you. Much of that has to do with trying on suits — lots of them — and making sure to take an experienced suit wearer along with you to get some help in objectively evaluating how you look in each of them.
An important consideration related to fit is how lean or full the suit, particularly the jacket, is cut. While you might automatically think you need a slim-cut suit, it’s actually more complex than that. The chest, waist, and skirt of the suit jacket can each be cut lean or loose, in different combinations to create different silhouettes, and the construction you choose is a matter of your style and taste. What looks trim and flattering on you may not be what’s universally labeled the slimmest or the most fashion-forward cut.
What details should you look for?
Now that you’re a little bit more familiar with the broad strokes of suit silhouettes, what are the details you should be looking for to determine whether a suit is well-designed and constructed? An easy place to start is the lapels, which are notched, peak, or shawl, and vary from slim to regular to wide. You should choose the lapel based on the occasion, the type of suit, and your body type. The notched lapel is the most common and versatile, and is also preferable in a conservative workplace.
Another important detail is on the back, not the front of the jacket: the vents. Suit jackets with a single center vent are more common (and classically American) than those with two side vents, but both are solid choices. Some jackets don’t have vents at all, such as tuxedo jackets, but that generally leads to a jacket that’s less comfortable and more prone to wrinkling than a vented jacket.
Button stance is another important detail to consider when shopping for a suit. Button stance refers, essentially, to where the waist-level button is positioned on a jacket, and it affects both the perceived position of the waistline and the shape of the v created by the jacket to show off your shirt and tie. A low button stance places the button below your actual waistline, while with a natural button stance, they’re at the same level. Your choice of button stance should be determined by your body type, and the goal is to flatter both your torso and legs. Most body shapes will be flattered by a natural or slightly low button stance, while a high button stance is best worn by those with classically balanced proportions.
Finally, consider the number of buttons on your jacket. A two-button jacket is more common today, and often has a low button stance that’s flattering on most guys. A three-button jacket is a more traditional choice, and isn’t as universally flattering as a two-button. A hybrid of the three-button and two-button jackets is the 3/2 roll jacket, where the top button is designed to be left unbuttoned, and the lapel is accordingly shaped to form a deep v. While the 3/2 roll jacket is a great choice for almost any guy, all but the hippest of guys should steer clear of one-button blazers, except, of course, in the case of tuxedo jackets. And a pro tip: Regardless of the number of buttons or the button stance, you should always leave the last button unbuttoned.
Where should you buy a suit?
Now for the final question: Where should you go to shop for a suit? The answer really depends on where you are, what kind of suit you need, and how much you’re willing to spend, but there are a few retailers on whom you can depend for a good selection. You can find a good suit at just about any price point, especially if you bear in mind that fit is the most important consideration when buying one. A cheap but perfectly-tailored suit will look better than a pricey but ill-fitting suit any day. Speaking of which: even if you’re on a budget, get your suit tailored properly. You won’t regret it.
That said, there are a number of retailers who offer a great starting point for any guy looking to purchase a suit. Suit Supply is a good choice whether you’re looking for a classic or fashion-forward suit, and generally offers half-canvassed suits in good fabrics. A suit from Brooks Brothers costs a little more than one from Suit Supply, but offers well-made suits in cuts ranging from slim to relaxed, plus particularly fashion-forward styles in the Black Fleece line. J. Crew is a relatively budget-friendly option, and its Ludlow line is worth a look for most guys. Ralph Lauren’s different lines offer a wide range of styles and price points, and Sid Mashburn is great for a contemporary twist on classic style. If you like shopping at department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Nieman Marcus, and Barney’s, look for brands like Brioni, Calvin Klein, Canali, Caruso, Isaia, Kiton, and Zegna.
When suit shopping, it’s best to try on as many different styles and brands as you can. Doing so will help you learn what you like, recognize what you don’t, and develop a great sense of what is (and isn’t) your style in the vast world of suiting.