Wardrobe Basics: The Suit Part II

For most of us out there that do not have unlimited bank accounts and are just getting started out build a wardrobe, there are two main options when buying a suit: off-the-rack and made-to-measure.


The first suit that most men will purchase during their lifetime will be of this variety. Since they are mass-produced, the cost for a suit is usually less compared to other options and they can be procured anytime that a shop is open (or even on the web now). As with many products that are mass-produced, they run the gamut from well-made to cheap crap and every point in between. When choosing a suit that is off-the-rack, there are a couple of ‘musts’ that should be adhered to.

Price points matters:

Higher price does not always mean superior product, we all know that. Just because a suit has a designer name attached to it does not mean that it is of better quality and thus worth more money. I have seen many suits that are off-the-rack come with outrageous price tags, well over $3500.00. Maybe it is just me, but I was hard-pressed to see $3500.00 worth of value in the garment. What I saw was that I was paying the money for marketing and the name on the inside of the jacket. Don’t be fooled by a designer name that is of the moment.

Now, that being said, offers that tout 5 for the price of 1, should also be looked at suspiciously. Remember, everybody out there selling menswear is out to make a profit and a decent living.The general rule is that if you are being sold five suits for say, $1000.00, you are not going to be getting five $1000.00 dollar suits. You are going to be getting five suits that would normally retail for $200.00. These suits will tend to show their inferior quality in both the short term and long term – meaning they will look terrible to start and wear out extremely quickly. What you should be looking for in a suit is value. You want a suit that will look great on you and flatter your frame, has a timeless quality to it, and allows you to wear it to several different events and occasions without notice of repetition. A better made suit will also last a long time with a little bit of care. Warren Buffett once said, ‘Price is what you pay, value is what you get’. I can think of few other instances where this adage is so easily identifiable.

Everything can be tailored (except the shoulders):

Here is a very common mistake that many men I have known have made. They do not know how easily (read inexpensively) a suit can be altered to make it a perfect fit. I have an example of a friend of mine that occurred this past fall.He had asked me to help build his wardrobe with him and pick out some new pieces. Whenever I get asked to do this, the first place I always start is by seeing what is already in their wardrobe. So, to his closet I headed. I was surprised by how many suits he had in his wardrobe and inquired why he thought he needed another suit. I then heard the inevitable answer – none of them fit right. It was at that point that I had him try on all his suits and sport jackets. Seeing that without exception, all fit relatively well around the shoulders, I introduced him to an antiquated professional – the tailor. With a bill of less than $150.00, he had several suits and jackets nipped and tucked to fit and flatter his form. He now wears them on a regular basis.

Now, with all that being said, the most important part to figure out when trying on a suit is to make sure that the shoulders fit. While the shoulder on a suit jacket can be tailored it can be expensive and very hit-or-miss. A well-fitting suit should have the shoulders on the jacket end exactly where your natural shoulder ends. It should neither be too big, thus you have padding and excess material hanging over your shoulder making the jacket look sloppy and ill-fitting, nor should it be too small, making the jacket constricting and looking like you have outgrown it. This is why is imperative to shop at a reputable menswear store.When you are starting out, you may not know what the proper size for you is. A place that sells beds as well as suits will most likely not have a person with experience to measure you properly. Having someone that can guide you through the process and help ensure a perfect fit will be invaluable to the beginner. Also, make sure you are wearing a dress shirt, belt and proper shoes when you go looking for a suit. This will ensure that the suit fits properly as you will be able to measure for things like sleeve length and length of the pants.

One thing lastly to keep in in mind in regards to off-the-rack suits is that rarely does the manufactures leave much extra material in the suit. This means that if the jacket feels a bit tight when trying it on, it may not be able to be let out as there will be no material in the jacket to expand it. It is better to have a suit that is a bit big (except in the shoulders), then too small. Luckily there are literally hundreds of options out there, so if you do not find one that fits just right, you can always try another.

Tip: Some off the rack suits will let you choose the jacket and pants sizes separately – these are usually called suit separates. Suits are usually made following the following metric. You take the jacket, say a 40R, and then subtract 6 inches to get the waist measurement it would come with. This would give you a 34 inch waist on the pants for a 40 jacket. As I am cursed (or blessed) with an extremely tiny waist, I found that most pants that came with a suit I was eyeing were vastly too big for me. So being able to pair a 30 inch pant in the same material with a 40R jacket is ideal for a person with my measurements. Yes, pants can be tailored, but when the sizing difference is too drastic it can throw the pockets and proportions of the pants all out of whack and make them look terrible. So, if you tend to have different proportions for your upper and lower half, look for a place that will let you mix and match.

Go for Wool:

Suits can come in a dizzying array of fabrics. Higher end suits can be made with cashmere and silk (either on their own or in a blend), while on the lower end, many are made with polyester or other such synthetics. Different fabrics have different qualities. Some will keep you warm in the colder months such as flannel and tweeds, while others will wear lighter and keep you cool, such as suits made of lightweight cotton and linen. Some will drape better, some better reflect light, some fabrics more casual, while others all business.If you can think of an occasion, profession, climate, or anything else for that matter, someone has made a suit for it. With all these choices, one needs to keep in mind that when building a wardrobe, versatility and wearability are paramount. Yes, this means your basic 100% wool suit.

Wool is the most popular wool for suiting, as wool suits are very utilitarian. They can keep the wearer comfortable in a great range of temperatures and requires little ‘rest time’ between wearing. Sure there are other things like the way it also compliments a host of accessories and it resist wrinkles. Mainly, a basic wool suit is the ideal choice for being the base of a man’s wardrobe because it excels a little but also has very few drawbacks. Look for something in a 9 to 10 oz. weight if it is your starting suit as it will be wearable in a host of temperatures.

Tip: When buying a suit, simply look in the interior pockets of the jacket to find out what it is made of. What you are looking for is something that reads 100% Pure Wool or some intonation of that.

Made To Measure:

Made-to-measure suits are a different breed then off-the-rack. First of all, when done right, the fit of the suit will be spot on. You will also get to play ‘designer’ when choosing a made-to-measure as well. That’s right, you will get to call the shots on the colour, fabric, fit, style, buttons, lapels, lining – you name it. Now, is all this necessary? Not really. Buying off-the-rack to begin with is a solid choice. It gets you comfortable with the process and will save a bit of money in those early years. However, as one progresses with the building of a wardrobe, you may be prone to adding a few personalized items. We shall touch more on made-to-measure at a later date.

Suits are the cornerstone of a man’s wardrobe. Whether you work in an environment, or you may only have to don a few times a year, having the right ones in your wardrobe will prove to be a great investment piece.

Up Next: Basic Colours and Recommendations

Photos Courtesy of Esquire

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