The Men's Suit: An Introduction
The men's suit is, without question, the most universal and steadfastly appropriate item in a gentleman's wardrobe. There are few occasions at which a man in a quality suit will be out of place, particularly if the wearer has a firm grasp of fashion and an established personal style. The path to elegant style begins with the suit, the cornerstone of men's fashion.
The first thing to make clear, before diving into cuts and suit fabrics and pocket flaps, is that the rules of men's style are guidelines gleaned across the decades from what has stood the test of time, and what generally flatters a given figure. These style rules serve as a guide to what will enhance ones features, but they are only a guide. The first and foremost rule of men's style is never wear clothing that you cannot wear confidently. Confidence is an essential element of making any ensemble work, and garments that inhibit confidence do more to damage one's appearance than any perceived enhancement can outweigh. This rule does not, however, provide free reign to wear whatever one wishes and declare it stylish because it is comfortable. It is merely a reminder that if one feels more comfortable in a style different than the guidelines given here would suggest, careful thought should be given to whether to follow the guideline or choose the more comfortable style.
At its most basic, a men's suit is a jacket and trousers of the same cut, made from the same material, and intended to be worn together. Such a simple definition, however, denies much of the suit's personality, and it is that personality that has made the suit a lasting and essential element of a gentleman's outfitting. The primary element of a suit is its jacket, so our discussion will begin there.
Suit Jacket Cut
Men's suit jackets are defined by many things: the fabric from which they are made, including its color and weight; the style or cut of the suit; the details or trimming applied; the degree of customization to its wearer, etc. Of these, the cut is paramount – a poorly cut suit will never look right on the wearer, regardless of the quality or detailing. The cut of a suit is a product of two elements: the overall silhouette and the particular proportions of the man who will be wearing it. A good tailor will cut a suit to flatter the wearer's best features and diminish any flaws, which is perhaps the best argument for having one's suits custom tailored.
There are three major styles of suit, named for the countries in which they originated, though it is now quite common to find all three styles in any country, as well as fusions of elements from one or more different styles. The first is the English style, typified by soft, unpadded shoulders, a long, hourglass body with a high waist, either double or single breasted, with two or three buttons and side vents. The second is the Italian, or sometimes Continental style, epitomized by a lightweight construction, squared, high shoulders, a short, close-fitting, single-breasted body, with two buttons and no vent. Rounding out the group is the American or sack suit, a natural-shoulder suit with a straight and somewhat roomier body, three-buttons and a back vent.
Assuming equality of cut, a custom-made or bespoke men's suit will flatter more than an altered or made-to-measure suit, which in turn will have a better fit than an unaltered or off the rack suit. Bespoke suits are custom-tailored to a gentleman's measurements and built by hand by a master tailor. Made-to-measure suits are off-the-rack suits that have been fitted and altered to the wearer's frame, though they can only be altered to a point, and will never fit as well as one custom built. Off the rack suits, as the name suggests, have no alterations, and because they are made to an average specification, will not conform to many if any of the wearer's particulars.
Men's Suit Fabric
After cut and customization, suit fabric is the next consideration. While the difference in quality between an off the rack and bespoke suit is imminently obvious, both can appear quite stylish; that is not the case with poor quality fabric, which can make even the most expensive custom suit appear cheap. The most traditional fabric for a suit is wool, with a dizzying array of colors and weights to choose from. Suits, particularly for summer, are also available in silk, cotton and gabardine, as well as linen – a traditional favorite not without its own unique challenges – and even mohair and cashmere. There is also the tweed suit, a rugged classic best suited to weekends in the country; its thick, coarse fabric is designed to repel wind and water in the often quite chilly English countryside, and would be out-of-place at a social function in the city. The choice of a suit's color is an equally important decision, and one best addressed in a separate discussion.
Men's Suit Trimming
Perhaps the final indicator of quality is the suit's trimming, the selection of its details. Options include pocket styles, linings, button materials, and the addition of subtle signals of the suit's quality such as ticket pockets and functional sleeve buttons. These little elements, though they may seem extraneous, are signs of the suit's personality, as well as the wearer's. Good details won't make a poor suit into a quality one, but they do elevate suits at every quality level from the ordinary to the individual.
There is much more to know about the suit, and far more depth to what has already been discussed. For those ready to dive into the world of cuts, fabrics, fittings, and fixtures, The Men's Suit: The Jacket In Detail awaits.
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