Men’s Department Wardrobe 101: Suiting Up

The day job is at a men’s clothing store, and I’ve been seeing a lot of guys come in who don’t know what size suit they wear. With a good-quality suit being such a vital part of a complete wardrobe, that’s not good, y’all. So I’m going to talk a little bit about how to get a good suit.

OK, first of all, you’re not going to be able to measure yourself for a suit. Unless you’ve got more arms than Shiva, you can’t hold the position in which you need to be measured while holding a tape. (And if you do, a suit won’t fit you anyway.) So let’s just take it as given that if you’re the one holding the tape, you’re not the one being fitted. That said, let’s talk about how suits are fitted.

Generally speaking, it’s best to measure for a shirt and a jacket at the same time. Waist-wise, dress pants are going to run the same as any other pants, but bear in mind that inseam lengths vary slightly from one brand to another, even though pretty much all men’s clothing brands claim to be sized by actual measurement. For example, my employer’s suit and dress pants run slightly longer than their casual and work-to-weekend pants. So your usual size is a starting point, but don’t be surprised if you have to tweak it slightly.

First thing you need is your neck measurement. So you know that friend I said you’d need to hold the measuring tape? Have them measure around the base of your neck, where the collar is going to hit, and leave just enough slack for a collar you can breathe in. That’s your neck size. Once you’ve got that measurement, have them hold the start of the tape at your spine, right at that ridge where your neck joins your back (that’s your T1 vertebra, but that part’s not important–what’s important is that it’s the midpoint of the line across your torso) and hold your arm straight as they measure down to maybe half an inch or so past your wrist joint, so that you’ll have just a teeny bit of shirt cuff coming out of your jacket sleeve. Your neck measurement and your arm span measurement (being a chubby girl, I measure out at 17″ and 32-33″ in the shoulder/arm measurement, depending on how much cuff I want) are the two numbers on a dress shirt size.

Once you’ve got that, you’ll want to get your jacket measurement. First thing with that is to get a good measurement straight across the chest, right under the arms. You’ll hold out your arms to your sides so your tape-person can get the tape around you, then drop your arms to get a measurement with the posture in which you’ll typically wear it. Now, where I work, my manager told me that was all there was to measuring for the jacket, but to get a perfect fit, you’ll need a little more information than that. You’ll also need a measurement around the widest part of your shoulders, with your arms down, and your waist measurement. If your around-the-shoulders measurement is more than 7″ bigger than your chest, it’s probably a good idea to pull a suit jacket one size bigger than your chest measurement would indicate, and try both on. A perfect fit in the jacket is probably going to require tailoring; that’s where the waist measurement comes in. Also, if your suit comes all together rather than as separates, that measurement is going to give you an idea of what fits you. Typically, classic-fit suits are going to have a 6″ or so difference between chest measurement and waist size, while a slim fit is going to have a slightly bigger difference. Aside from the chest measurement, a suit jacket will also be marked as short, regular, or long; basically, if you’re shorter than 5’7″, you need a short, and if you’re taller than 5’11”, you need a long. Otherwise, you’re a regular. Your collar should fall very close to your shirt collar and come about halfway up the side of your suit collar.

The most important part to get right in the fit of a suit jacket is the shoulders. The seams should be in the right place, and you should be able to move comfortably, though not necessarily engage in any athletic feats, while wearing it. You shouldn’t get any kind of indentation where the shoulder seam came out past the edge of your arm and then your sleeve had to come in to compensate for that; the shoulder should hit *at* the edge of your shoulder, not over the line. Get your shoulders right, and the rest can be fixed. Minor alterations to a suit aren’t such a big deal when you take into consideration how long a good suit will last you, and you can’t alter the shoulder to fit after the fact, so fit the shoulders and then worry about the rest.

You want your suit to be made of cotton, linen, or wool, never polyester. Polyester doesn’t breathe, and you’ll be uncomfortable in it. It also wrinkles like the very devil, and you’ll never look polished in it. Linen will have a cool, slightly-crumpled-on-purpose look, great for hot climates. Cotton is another good and breathable fabric for hot climates. The most common and most versatile will be wool, which in lighter weights (“tropical” weights–if there’s a number associated with the weight of the wool, go for a high number, such as 100-120) will even be suitable for summer.

 Your suit jacket is constructed in three layers: the inside lining, the canvas (middle layer), and the outer fabric. The most important one of these for how your suit is going to hold up is the one you’re never going to see, because the canvas is what gives your suit its shape. In a cheap suit, the canvas is going to be fused to the outer fabric, and it’s going to give some shape and stiffness, but it’s not going to be perfect. Ideally, you want a jacket made with a full canvas, meaning that the canvas is a separate layer of fabric, floating free on the inside of the construction. That’s going to give the jacket a more precise shaping and make it hold up better.,

I’d strongly recommend that you get the best-constructed suit you can. It’s something you’re going to need and be able to use for years to come, so I’d really encourage you to treat it as an investment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most expensive one you can get, as long as it’s well-made. And unless you’re wearing something double-breasted (which is rare), only button the top button!


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