Let’s talk about suits, baby

3 Feb

Like my suit? Bogart Menswear, Toronto.

Do you know the difference between off-the-rack, made-to-measure, and bespoke suits? Want to learn about basic suit features so you’ll be a more efficient suit buyer? This week, let’s talk about suits, baby.

I’m inspired by the lovely bright navy striped suit I had made recently at one of my men’s stores. Not quite warm enough to run around in during a Canadian winter, but I’ll appreciate the lightweight wool in the summer.

During the process of deciding on how I wanted my suit to look, there were many things to consider. My first decision was how the suit would be created: by hand to my exact measurements, my measurements worked into an existing pattern, or something already made.

BESPOKE According to Savile Row tailors in London, “bespoke” is a 17th century term for cloth that was “spoken for” at tailor shops. Bespoke clothing is born of many individual measurements and a pattern created to fit only you. It is the most prestigious type of suit one can get, the most comfortable, the best wearing, and the best investment. True bespoke suits are hand-made in every way from seams to buttonholes; bespoke work is art and the epitome of clothing decadence (with a price point to match).

MADE-TO-MEASURE A made-to-measure suit takes your measurements and applies them to an existing suit pattern. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a made-to-measure suit, as you will have your choice of fabric, style, lapel, pocket, lining, etc., but it is not a bespoke garment and the proportions of the pattern may or may not work for you. Your tailor should be able to help here, as mine did.

OFF-THE-RACK When we buy off the rack, we get instant gratification – it’s already put together! We can wear it out of the store if we want to but try to take a pause between ringing up the sale and walking out with it;  most of you will not be able to wear an off-the-rack suit off-the-rack because these garments are built from patterns made of “average” measurements and so few of us are truly average. Also, humans are not symmetrical and the factory-made patterns are. The best thing to do with an off-the-rack suit is to take it to a tailor to have it hemmed and tweaked to our bodies. It isn’t going to fit as fantastically as having something made, but it will really make a difference.

When having a suit made, we become part of the design process and make design decisions that dictate what the suit will look like. This is the most fun part for me because I get to use my imagination.

FABRIC One of the most beautiful freedoms in dressing is choosing material for the garment we’re having made. For a suit, we have thousands of choices of wools in varying degrees of softness and weights, a billion colours, thin or wide pinstripes, chalk stripes, or tone-on-tone patterns woven into the fabric. My tailors tell me that the best fabrics come from Italy and Britain (i.e. Savile Row), and these bolts of wooly wonder are absolutely glorious to the touch and delightful to the eye. My suit fabric is very light, soft, and bright!

STYLE Single or double breasted, one, two, three, and four button jackets go in and out of style. Double breasted suits looked great in the 40s and the 80s, but are not so chic these days, though I expect them to have a future hey-day. Four-button jackets in the 2000s seemed a little severe to me, especially on the shorter man, but what the hell, I hope guys felt good in this short-lived style.  Personally, I went with a never-fail two-button single breasted jacket.

Youthful and thin?A skinny suit may be for you.

FIT Let’s be logical and proportionate here: if you’re stylish and slim, wear a skinny suit, if you’re average or heavy, don’t wear a skinny suit. It’s all about proportion: the small box of Grapenuts cereal we buy in grocery stores is relative to the size of the intended serving, and similarly, a man’s build should be relative to the cut of his suit. Dig?

Right now, the Mad Men-inspired skinny suits are very much in fashion and can come off looking youthful, very sharp and fashion forward, but these suits are a very trim cut with a high arm hole, making them suitable for you Slim Jims out there. A too-trim sausage casing may be uncomfortable on a larger man AND there isn’t a lot of room for your junk, if you know what I’m saying… again, Grapenuts.

Peaked lapel

Notched lapel

LAPELS Another nice thing about having a suit made is that you and your tailor can choose the shapes in your suit. In my case, I chose the more dramatic peak lapel, because I know I’m the type to pull it off, but this type of lapel doesn’t suit everyone.

A safe and common-place notched lapel is an alternative to the edgier peaked lapel. Notched lapels widen and thin over time, but the notched style has remained true since the creation of the suit in the 1850s.

I felt that my personality and my suit fabric complimented the sharp, peaked lapel style, so I’m rocking it.

VENTS Another decision that you and your tailor will make is what type of vent you want on the back of your jacket. I think a single vent from the center back seam is the safest way to go for most men’s builds, and this is what I went with.

Double, single, and no vent.

Double, single, and no vent

Double vents can be quite stylish on a slim man and gives more room to access what’s in his trouser pockets, but if you’ve got a prominent caboose, opt not for a double vent because your seat will make the vents gape. Also beware of jackets with no vent at all – this was the 1980s suit look: boxy, short, and closed. Depending on the style of your suit, this style may look dated, so be aware of that.

POCKETS There are different types of pockets to choose from on your suit jacket: flapped, unflapped, ticket pocket, and patch pockets, built in slanted or straight.

Flapped, unflapped, and patch pockets

Personally, the patch pockets are reminiscent of the 70s to me, so I generally avoid them; an unflapped pocket is nice and streamlined, and the most common suit jacket pocket, the flapped version, can easily turn into a unflapped pocket simply by stuffing the flap inside of the pocket.

LINING Another perk to having a suit built is that you have the freedom to choose your lining to accent your suit. This is where we make a splash on the underside of our fabulous suit. I went with a bold red lining and asked for extra inside pockets – phone, lipstick, business card folder, $, etc.  For more on lining, have a look at my lining post from September.

TROUSERS With suit trousers, there are several decisions to make: the cut, fullness, style, pocket type, cuffs, and pleats. I follow general rules of thumb:

1. Flat front trousers suit most men, have an updated look, and streamline the body; single pleats will add a little room in the leg, and double pleats I just avoid in general because they can give a guy visual weight.

2. As a design feature, I really like cuffs, but if you’re a shorty and you want your leg to look longer, don’t cuff your pants.

3. Slash pockets on the side seam and pockets of shallow angles may gape and give a “hippy” look if a guy is heavy and / or has wide hips to begin with, and especially if the fabric is thick (hello cotton twill Dockers):

1/8 Top Pocket

Pockets slanted at a deeper angle toward the front will prevent this, but don’t be afraid to try a non-linear style that eliminates the problem:

Western or jean-style

Full top

My jacket fits very well but the tailor wasn’t expecting me to have bulgy legs and cut the trouser tapered to the ankle – I could barely get them over my calves! They went back and opened the seams as much as they could so now they’re passable, but we learned that Leah can’t wear a tapered leg – we of the generous shank and booty need more space, so please lay some straight cuts, athletic cuts, or relaxed cuts on us.

A suit is an investment so it’s best to have an idea of what you’re doing. I hope this helps and inspires you to go find a tailor and have a gorgeous suit built that you feel fantastic in because when we feel fantastic, we do fantastic things.

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4 Responses to “Let’s talk about suits, baby”

  1. Promod Sharma | @mActuary February 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Thanks for this detailed article, Leah. I thought “bespoke” was a fancier way of saying “made-to-measure”. There certainly are many options and considerations when getting a suit.

    PS I did know the meaning of “off the rack” :)

    • Leah Morrigan February 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

      Hi Promod, glad I could help. People don’t often realize how complex clothing is and what we wear can be taken for granted, so I like to help by explaining what goes into the clothing we put on every day. I’m happy when I can help men appreciate their clothes.

      ~Leah

  2. Dan Robinson May 21, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    Of course there is always the 20-year-old suit I need to wear tomorrow morning.

    Honestly, will anybody notice?
    Will anybody care?
    Will I be a laughingstock or a trendsetter?

    • Leah Morrigan May 22, 2011 at 10:24 am #

      Hi Dan, the thing about wearing a 20-year old suit is that it most likely looks dated and undoubtedly your shape has changed over time and the suit may not fit right. Some people will notice this, some will not. I think the more important question is will YOU care and how will YOU feel in a dated, ill-fitting suit?

      Suggestion – if you really love the suit that much, take it to a tailor and have them alter it for you so at least it fits properly. However, if it is a 3 or 4-button job, it might be time to replace it with a no-fail 2-button jacket. Hope that helps.

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