How to Shop for a Men's Suit

How to Shop for a Men's Suit

You just graduated college, real life hits, and you need a new suit for your first job. Maybe you started eating healthier and exercising, but now you need a men’s suit that fits your new, svelte physique. Perhaps you have simply made a conscious decision to start dressing a little nicer. Whatever the reason, you’re now in the market for a new suit, travelling around to different suit stores, and looking at your options. I thought this would be a good time to run through my suggestions to help the suit buying process.

It is important to note that I am listing these order of importance.

Shoulders

The shoulders of a suit jacket are the first thing to note when shopping for a new suit. If the shoulders don’t fit, the jacket will almost never fit right. Many parts of a suit jacket can be altered, but the shoulders are traditionally not one of them. When the shoulders of a jacket are too large, the pads or excess material can extend beyond the natural shoulder like two tectonic plates teetering over a fault line. Conversely, when the shoulders are too small, the jacket will sit too high throwing off your natural silhouette and that of the entire suit.

Let’s talk about shoulder pads for a minute. For the most part, shoulder pads are not meant to build up your shoulders too much, but to fill out the proportions where necessary. I say “for the most part” because I am going to mention below how different shoulder pad choices can affect the formality of a suit. More importantly, in my opinion, is the use of padding to give the right proportions. Shoulder padding (or its omission) can be used to build up a soft shoulder, add a bit of height for men with moderate shoulders, or prevent bigger shoulders from looking cartoonish. It is crucial to be honest with yourself and either your tailor or salesperson about what type of shoulders you have and what type of padding will look best on your frame.

Men's suit with a soft shoulder

Men's suit with a soft shoulder

Men's suit with a moderate shoulder

Men's suit with a moderate shoulder

Men's suit with a strong shoulder

Men's suit with a strong shoulder

Location

No, I don’t mean where you should buy your suit; although I do have my opinions about that. I want you to think about where and when you are primarily going to wear your new suit. Knowing this can help determine your choices of fabric, lining, pockets, shoulders, lapels, etc. These components will affect the general formality or casualness of the suit.

Pockets

Patch pockets are the least formal, while jetted pockets are the most formal. Flap pockets fall somewhere in between, but lean more towards the formal side. Additionally, flap pockets can sneakily transform their way into jetted pockets with a simple tuck. For these reasons, I recommend selecting flap pockets for your first suit or two to add more versatility to your wardrobe.

Patch pockets

Patch pockets

Flap pockets

Flap pockets

Shoulders

As I stated above, the first rule of shoulder pads is to bring balance to your frame, not to excessively build up your shoulders. However, it should be noted that higher shoulders tend to be more formal than natural shoulders. If you’re shopping for a business suit, your might lean towards some structure in the shoulder. And if you’re looking at more casual options, natural shoulders could be a better option. Either way, make sure to stay away from anything unflattering for your body.

Lapels

There are basically two lapel choices when looking for suit jackets; peak and notch. Sure, there is also the shawl collar lapel, but I think that is best used with dinner jackets only. Think James Bond in Dr. No. That leaves us with the peak and notch lapels. I give the edge in formality to the peak collar, but only slightly. I think these two lapel choices are better used to temper (notch) or enhance (peak) one’s chest and shoulders. As such, men with bigger chests should lean toward notch lapels. There is no need to draw extra attention to your broad upper body. Peak lapels are fine; however, keep them in reserve for more formal events. Thinner guys can take their pick remembering to maintain proportions.

Peak lapels

Peak lapels

Notch lapels

Notch lapels

Lining

As it pertains to location, your lining and fabric choices can be influenced by where you intend to wear your new suit. Lining will add some structure, and as a result, some formality to a suit jacket. Be aware though, that a lining will also add weight and potentially trap heat making the jacket warmer. I recommend wearing unlined jackets for more casual events and during the summer. Keep the lining for work, formal events, and colder seasons. Fabric functions similarly to lining. Heavier fabrics stay warmer and add formality, while lighter fabrics keep it cool and casual. Let’s dive a bit deeper into fabrics.

Fabric

If you take anything away from this article (besides the importance of shoulder sizing) it’s this: avoid synthetics and synthetic blends. Natural fabrics will last longer, lay better, and look nicer. They may be a bit more expensive, but I consider it a front-end investment for a longer-term gain.

Once you’re comfortable with fabric types, start getting to know some of the more reputable Italian and English mills. I don’t think it’s too important to know everything about them, but remember their names. Be on the lookout for their labels when shopping for a suit. Permanent Style has a nice write up on some of the better known mills.

I think it also helps to match fabrics with the time of year you most plan on wearing a suit. For three season suits (fall, winter, spring) look for suits in wool, cashmere, and silk blends. During those warm summer months (late spring and early fall too) test out some suits in linen, cotton, and blends thereof.

Color

I think one of the most commonly asked questions about buying a new suit is, “which color should I buy first?” I recommend starting with a navy suit, then working down the line from charcoal, to gray, and finally blue (not navy). I find that this progression runs from the most versatile to the least versatile. Once you’ve managed to grab some or all of these, it’s then time to start looking at patterns like windowpane, prince of wales, and pin stripe. I think this is the ideal order for buying suits because the first three can all be worn with black shoes. This helps to more efficiently build a wardrobe.

One more quick note. I did not list a black suit on this list. Before even looking at a black suit, I would suggest investing in a true tuxedo. The number of opportunities to wear black-tie usually outweighs the invitations to black-tie optional events (which are truly the only times to wear a black suit).

Sizing

It’s finally time to talk about how a suit fits your torso. Why did I put this last on the list? Two reasons. First, if the shoulders fit, the rest of the jacket shouldn’t be too far off. Second, this is the one piece than can be adjusted. Get the unchangeable parts in line, then worry about the alterations. The key points to keep in mind are 1) you should be able to slide one hand between the jacket and your body and 2) the jacket should extend as long as your arms with your fingers curled back up grabbing the jacket.

Try to get the fit as close as possible without compromising the shoulders. While the jacket size can be altered, it’s important to try to not make too many changes. This can affect the integrity of the jacket itself or the fabric.

Favorite Stores

Once I’ve discovered a store that suits my body (pun intended), I’ll stick with them. Right now, my favorite places to shop for suits and jackets are T.M. Lewin, Harvie & Hudson, Brooks Brothers, Suitsupply, and Boggi. What are some other stores that I should investigate? Leave a comment below!