How to Buy a Gentleman’s Suit

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How to Buy a Gentleman’s Suit

Despite the informality of our times, there are still occasions that call for a gentleman to wear a suit — weddings, funerals, christenings, job interviews, etc. Even if you work with your hands in a messy environment, having a suit in the closet is a necessity. Thanks to our times, though, most young men don’t know the first thing about buying a suit. I have spent 30 years wearing them to work and other places, so here goes.

In the interest of honesty, I must confess that I hate suits. They are uncomfortable, expensive compared to alternatives, and horribly impractical. By the same token, they make your choice of clothing very easy. Ladies may spend hours getting ready, changing a dozen times before an event. You decide what suit you’re wearing, and you can watch the ball game until it’s 15 minutes before departure time.

There are five F’s that you must learn: friend, function, fashion, fabric and fit.

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“Friend” as in make a friend who is a tailor. A gentleman needs a good doctor, a good lawyer, a good accountant and a good tailor. And the tailor is the most important — after all, when the doctor can’t keep you alive any longer, the tailor’s going to make you look great at the wake. Even if you buy suits off the rack at a closeout warehouse, a tailor can make the suit “yours.” And if you can afford a tailor-made suit, all the better. Besides, you don’t want your inseam measured by someone who isn’t your friend.

“Function” simply means what role a particular suit is going to play in your wardrobe. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the extremely formal, uptight events in our lives for which a suit is mandatory. Suits can play other roles in your wardrobe, but if you’re that type of guy, you probably already know where tweeds work and corduroy is preferable.

“Fashion” is the least important of the F’s. Fashion is what is popular this season or this year. Style, however, is more enduring and that is what we are after — a classic look if you will. If you’re in your 20s, you can pay some attention to the skinny fit and three-button stuff. The world doesn’t expect you to be an old fogy. However, as the years go by, you don’t want to dress like the kids. The term “mutton dressed as lamb” applies to gentlemen as well as ladies. Stick to the middle of the road.

“Fabric” is vital. It needs to be the highest quality you can afford. Take a handful of the material and squeeze it. When you let it go, it shouldn’t appear rumpled. It should be durable because you don’t want to buy one of these every year; the rumple test works here, too, but beware of thin fabric.

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Next under fabric is color. A suit should be gray or blue. Sorry, guys, but brown screams Midwest insurance salesman. Green means you’re a leprechaun; red says “I’m a pimp;” and white means you founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are times and places for these (not in my wardrobe, of course), but we are talking about big life events where these are inappropriate.

Related to color is the pattern. You have a choice: solid or pinstripe. And the pinstripe should not be aggressively bold — you aren’t in “American Hustle” or “Boardwalk Empire.” And no plaids; save those for your kilt.

The final fabric point: a suit ought to be woolen. Sometimes, you’ll find wool with cashmere, and that’s a more than acceptable blend. Pure cashmere is expensive, as is silk, but if you’ve got the cash, go ahead. Also, don’t buy anything ending in “-on” except for cotton, and then only for summer. No nylon, Dacron, orlon, rayon, etc. Not even 1% with 99% wool.

Finally, the “fit” is where your friend the tailor comes in. He’s going to make sure it fits, but there are some things you should know anyway. Where the shoulder meets the sleeve should be smooth, not puffed up like the uniform of the Pope’s Swiss Guard. The shoulder of the suit ought to end about where your own shoulder does. The back of the coat should be long enough to cover your bottom. The sleeves should allow about a quarter of an inch of the shirt cuff to show. The trousers should not be difficult to do up, and they should be snug enough at the waist that a belt is decorative rather than necessary — for a generation that wears its pants much lower, this is a hard lesson. The cuff of the legs should hit the laces of the shoes with a little room to spare — no one should know the color of your socks until you sit. Above all, avoid the “X” that forms across your lower rib cage if the suit coat is too small in the chest.

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There are a couple of other things that you might want to think about, but these are not make-or-break issues. Single versus double breasted — single unless you are on the lean side of average and taller than most. Single, double or no vent at the back — the more prominent your backside relative to the rest of your form, the more you should avoid double and favor single or even no vent. Grey and blue are offset well with bright ties — let your inner peacock show there.

And the final great secret: consider a vest. As I have aged and gravity has done to me what it does to all of us, I have learned that a vest is a gentleman’s version of Spanx. The idea is to look sharp, and that is often better done by concealing rather than revealing.

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