Many people go about buying a suit from the wrong direction. They decide that they need a suit and then pick their favorite suit from the store. The existence of so many different colors, patterns, materials, silhouettes, and other variables in suit construction testifies to the variety of purposes for which suits are constructed. A man buying a suit should have his purpose in mind, for a suit to be worn to parties is different from a suit to be worn to court or a suit to be worn to a job interview.
Many today use a plain black suit for all of those purposes. Some “traditionalists” like to scorn the black suit, although I have no idea where they get this “traditionalist” notion from, since historically men have worn black suits for all occasions. One thing is certain, however, and that is that a black suit, while it will never lose you points with the sartorially inclined, will never gain you points. I have a black suit, but I haven’t worn it in 2 years except for the two times I’ve checked it for fit and mothing.
Let’s take four examples and consider what kind of suit might be desired.
1. The festive suit: For a strictly social engagement, such as a party, a wedding, or a night out on town, the usual conservatism can be relaxed. I suggest avoiding suits in black, a color to be reserved for black and white tie. A festive atmosphere encourages individuality in the form of pinstripes, windowpane, herringbone, or even a subtle glen plaid or houndstooth. Consider a color more interesting than black, like charcoal, navy, or brown. In the summertime, such options as khaki, white, striped seersucker, greyish-olive, and light blue are available (many will dispute the light blue–all I’m saying is that it’s an option for those who are so inclined, a number that does not include me, who owns no light blue suits). There are even bolder options for those who indulge in the ephemeral excesses of fashion. Nevertheless, those who wear a plain black suit for festive occasions convey a lack of originality in an environment where original, funny, outgoing personalities thrive.
2. The court suit: Few people spend much time in court, but there are environments similar to courtrooms where polished, neat, conservative, yet unadorned appearances are desirable. For example, a manager meeting with the owner to discuss bad performance, an entrepreneur meeting with his investors to ask for more money, or anyone before his superiors for a punitive chewing-out. In all of these cases, the man wishes to appear professional, competent, and polished, yet he does not want to project opulence, excess, or flashiness. A simple tie is ideal, along with a cheap watch; and french cuffs are probably unwise. Looking too flashy could convey the message that the man is some kind of high-roller who doesn’t need mercy or sympathy. Think humility.
A plain black suit might actually work as a court suit. Medium or dark charcoal would be better, though, if for no other reason than that dust and lint do not show up as much on charcoal. Navy is well-suited to this purpose as well. Patterned fabrics are to be avoided. This suit should be as unadorned as possible–even pinstripes would start to suggest the flashiness that we talked about earlier. If pinstripes are the only option, duller and farther-spaced are better. The cut should be as conservative as possible. Lapels should be notched (double-breasted suits are probably too strong a choice) and regulation width–nothing noticeably wide or narrow. The jacket should be single- or double-vented and should have at most a moderate amount of shoulder padding and waist suppression. The trousers should be medium width, tapered or straight leg, certainly not flared (which doesn’t really look good anyway). Skinny and baggy suits should be avoided. The pants should be worn no more than 2 or 3 inches below the navel. Stay away from slip-on shoes, interesting collars, bold ties, flashy rings, pocket squares (handkerchiefs okay–you’re so sorry you might start weeping, right?), lapel pins, colored shirts, watch chains, or anything exotic.
You may have noticed that I gave very specific criteria for a court suit. I have done so because of the intense scrutiny faced when delivering bad news, begging for mercy, or defending oneself. The goal is that few will notice the suit, and that those who do will be pleased to see that the man has followed all of the guidelines.
3. The Professional Suit, a.k.a. The Interview Suit: The professional has a different task. When times are good, it’s good for the professional’s suit to impress people and convey a sense of creativity (creativity is the most desperately needed skill in today’s workforce, executives say). Of course, an excess of creativity could come across a bit strong–one wouldn’t want to give the interviewer a weird impression. The wise man surveys the place beforehand to discover the ordinary dress code. Whatever one’s prospective colleagues are wearing should be the candidate’s base line. Some might say to dress exactly like the others do, I would say to dress just a notch above them because your interviewer will likely suspect that you’re a bit dressed up for the occasion, so this is your way of letting that interviewer know that, once the drudgery of your quotidian duties sets in, you’ll look just like everyone else. The happy medium is looking sharp while not dramatically upstaging your prospective colleagues.
If you decide that you need a suit, then this section can help you. I’d say that the ideal interview suit is charcoal or navy with dull pinstripes, preferably widely-spaced. A solid color is just a bit too dull. Herringbone is okay. I’d stay away from brown. Light grey or khaki are acceptable in the warm season. Once again, stay away from fashionable silhouettes–regulation lapels, ordinary waist suppression and shoulders, single- or double-vented, medium-width legs, straight or tapered. In fact, just generally stay away from fashionable silhouettes at work; that’s what the festive suit is for. Double-breasted might suit those with an average to thin build. Wingtips would be ideal shoes for this occasion, preferably black, although we men all know that some navy and grey suits can take brown shoes. Some women, on the other hand, refute this, so perhaps black shoes would be the safer option. Once again, stay away from loafers–they look too comfortable, and your imaginative interviewer might get the idea that you like to slip them off for cat naps after lunch. If you take my advice and wear a striped suit, wear a solid-color shirt, preferably white. French cuffs with simple links or knots would be good for this occasion, as would a straight or spread collar. A tie clip or cufflinks with your initial might even help the interviewer remember your name. The tie should be interesting but conservative. Consider an interesting stripe, or some kind of geometric pattern–the ties worn by the lawyers on Law & Order are often worthy examples. Avoid elaborate designs, and avoid wearing a tie with your prospective employer’s logo or colors. You don’t want to project to the interviewer that you have gotten a bit ahead of yourself and already feel like you work there. Obviously you should avoid ties that suggest their competitors.
Also, just remember that there were once ultra-conservative firms where even blue shirts were not accepted at work (that’s why blue shirts were acceptable before blue collars were, hence the style of blue shirt with a white collar). In California, some might consider you stuffy for wearing pants to your interview, but elsewhere you may still run into these extreme conservatives. You may have noticed that the President doesn’t really wear pinstriped suits very often, and his shirts are almost always plain white or a very light blue. This conservatism may not be apparent on the surface, but if even a liberal President like Barack Obama doesn’t wear pinstripes, it would seem that somewhere down there we still think pinstripes are just a bit flashy. That said, a candidate wants to stand out at his interview, and I think subtle (not bright), widely-spaced pinstripes are a good compromise of flashiness and conservatism.
4) The Traveler’s Suit: One of the saddest things is the way people dress to travel these days. When we imagine tourists, we imagine nerdy looking people with t-shirts, shorts, sandals, socks, and fanny packs. Business travelers still look okay, but the premise that one dresses well to travel is completely dead. I’ve got my ideas as to why suits might be, well, suitable for travelers.
Seasonal concerns obviously dictate what the suit should be made of. Winter travelers would benefit from a tweed suit, especially a three-piece suit. Traveling offers a unique opportunity to relax, so these suits are opportunities for all of the interesting tweed fabrics out there to shine. Those airplanes can get cold in flight, and the tweed offers a nice warmth of its own. The tweed is also great for car travelers, who will appreciate the warmth when they get gas, or for any traveler exiting his vehicle. The ticket pocket, that extra pocket seen above the right-hand pocket on some suits, was actually introduced for railroad travelers, and any traveler would benefit from the additional pocket. The three-piece suit offers four pockets in the pants, anywhere from five to seven pockets in the coat, and two to four pockets in the vest. The traveler who wears an unattractive fanny pack for lack of storage might do much better to wear a suit. The vest and coat can be removed without great difficulty and passed through an x-ray machine. My ideal pants would be high-waisted and pleated, with slightly wide legs. The pleats do concede appearance for comfort, but the hours spent sitting appreciate that benefit. I’ve found that high-waisted pants are the comfortable option when one is seated, since the waist is much less distorted than the hips when one is seated. The suspenders eliminate the constricting belt. Loafers allow the traveler to remove his shoes conveniently for inspection and sleeping. A knit tie or wool tie, or perhaps even a scarf for those so inclined, would be an ideal compliment to this outfit.
The summer traveler would do well to have a similar suit, except perhaps in khaki or white, and perhaps made of linen, cotton, or tropical worsted wool, and without the vest.
It is an uphill battle trying to convince people to aim higher than ultra casual for traveling. People are obsessed with comfort, and, admittedly, travelers are often doing things that would be rough on suits. What I disliked, though, was going to plays on Broadway, surrounded by a sea of t-shirts, ripped jeans, cargo shorts, etc. I’m making a trip up to Washington and Oregon in a few weeks, so I’ll be experimenting with ways to dress well while traveling. The traveling suit is no dead idea.
I’d be interested to hear what the rest of you think. My opinions are certainly not universally held, and some retorts from other directions would advance everyone’s knowledge on this topic.