Definitions

Glen plaid

Suit (clothing)

The man's suit of clothes is a set of garments which are crafted from the same cloth. The word suit derives from the French suite, meaning "following", because the trousers and waistcoat follow the jacket's cloth and colour. There have been various styles of suit, the most common of which is the lounge suit, which originated in England for wearing in the country. The other type of suit still (rarely) worn today is the morning suit. This article discusses the lounge suit, which is classified as "informal" in the hierarchy of dress codes. A business suit is a lounge suit suitable for wearing conducting business.

The variations in design, cut, and cloth, such as two- and three- piece, or single- and double- breasted, determine the social and work suitability of the garment. Often, the man's suit is worn, as is traditional, with a collared shirt and necktie. Until around the 1960s, as with all men's clothes, a hat would have been also worn. Suits also come with different numbers of pieces: a two-piece suit has a jacket and the trousers; a three piece adds a waistcoat; further pieces might include a matching flat cap.

Originally, as with most clothes, a tailor crafted the suit from his client's selected cloth, a process known as "bespoke". The suit was custom made to the measurements, taste, and style of the man. Since the Industrial Revolution, most suits are mass-produced, and, as such, are sold as ready-to-wear garments (though alteration by a tailor prior to wearing is common). Currently, suits are sold in roughly three ways:

  • bespoke, in which the garment is custom-made from scratch entirely for the customer, giving the best fit and free choice of fabric;
  • made to measure, in which a pre-made pattern is modified to fit the customer, and a limited selection of options and fabrics is available;
  • and finally ready-to-wear, which is least expensive and hence most common.

History

Our current styles were founded in the revolution during the early 17th century that sharply changed the elaborately embroidered and jeweled formal clothing into the simpler clothing of the Regency period, which gradually evolved to the stark formality of the Victorian era. It was in the search for more comfort that the loosing of rules gave rise in the late 19th century to our modern lounge suit.

Aspects of a suit

There are many possible variations in the choice of the style, the garments and the details of a suit.

The cut

The silhouette of a suit is its outline. No suit is skin-tight; the amount of extra fabric and the way it hangs is known as the drape. Double-breasted suits have two parallel rows of buttons, which is considered very conservative; a single row of buttons is called single-breasted. British suits are characterised by moderately tapered sides, minimal shoulder padding, and two vents. Italian suits are characterised by strongly padded shoulders, strongly tapered sides, and no vent. American suits are considered more casual than the preceding styles, and are characterised by moderate shoulder padding, minimally tapered sides, and a single vent. The sack suit is a loose American style. Contemporary is a term that includes a variety of recently designed garments that do not fit into the preceding categories.

The suit is cut out from a length of fabric from a roll by a cutter using a cutting pattern, a paper outline of the parts. The pattern can be draughted in various ways. With a ready-to-wear suit, the same pattern is used many times to make identical suits. Made-to-measure and bespoke cutters can work by pattern manipulation, altering a stock pattern, or my using a drafting formula to calculate adjusted lengths. Some bespoke tailors work by "Rock Of Eye", drawing and cutting by eye.

Fabric

Suits are made in a variety of fabrics, but most commonly from wool. The two main yarns produce worsteds (where the fibres are combed before spinning) and woolens (where they are not). These can be woven in a number of ways producing flannel, tweed, gabardine, and fresco among others. These fabrics all have different weights and feel, and some fabrics have a 'super number' describing the fineness of the fibres. For hot weather, linen is also used, and in North America cotton seersucker is worn. Other exotic materials are used sometimes, such as cashmere. Synthetic materials, while cheap, are very rarely recommended.

The main three colours for suits for business are grey, and navy, while brown is another important colour, though less widely popular, and not always widely accepted for business wear. In particular, grey flannel is suiting worn very widely since the 1930s. In summer, lighter shades, such as tan or cream, are popular.

For recreational (non-business) use tweed has been popular since Victorian times, and still is commonly worn. A wide range of colour is available, including greens, browns, reds, and greys. Tweeds are usually checked, or plain with a herringbone weave, and are most associated with the country. While full tweed suits are not worn by many now, the jackets are often worn as sports jackets with odd trousers, i.e. of different cloth.

In the US and UK, suits were never traditionally made in plain black, this colour instead being reserved for formal wear (including dinner jackets or strollers). However, the decline of formal wear in recent years has meant that black, as well as being popular in fashionable scenes, such as clubbing, is now also being worn in formal contexts (such as to a funeral or religious function) in place of the traditional more formal wear.

Traditional business suits are generally in solid colours or with pinstripes; windowpane checks are also acceptable. Outside business, the range of acceptable patterns widens, with plaids such as the traditional Glen plaid, though apart from some very traditional environments such as London banking, these are worn for business now too. The colour of the patterned element (stripes, plaid checks) varies by gender and location, with the English for example traditionally allowing themselves very bold checks.

Inside the jacket of a suit, between the outer fabric and the inner lining, there is a layer of fabric that has the purpose of letting the coat keep its shape; this layer of cloth is called the canvas. The finest jackets have a floating canvas, while cheaply manufactured models have a fused (glued) canvas.

Front buttons

Most single breasted suits have two or three buttons, and one or four buttons are unusual. It is rare to find a suit with more than four buttons, although zoot suits can have as many as six or more due to their longer length. There is also variation in the placement and style of buttons, since the button placement is critical to the overall impression of heigh conveyed by the jacket. The centre or top button will typically line up quite closely with the natural waistline.

Double-breasted jackets have only half their outer buttons functional, as the second row is for display only, forcing them to come in pairs. Some rare jackets can have as few as two buttons, and during various periods, for instance the 1960s and 70s, as many as eight were seen. Six buttons are typical, with two to button; the last pair floats above the overlap. The three buttons down each side may in this case be in a straight line (the 'keystone' layout) or more commonly, the top pair is half as far apart as each pair in the bottom square. A four-button double-breasted jacket usually buttons in a square. The layout of the buttons and the shape of the lapel are co-ordinated in order to direct the eyes of an observer. For example, if the buttons are too low, or the lapel roll too pronounced, the eyes are drawn down from the face, and the waist appears larger.

The custom that a man's coat should button "left side over right", anecdotally originates in the use of the sword, where such cut avoided catching the top of the weapon in the opening of the cloth (since the sword was usually drawn right-handed).

Lapels

The jacket's lapels can be notched, peaked, shawl, or "trick" (Mandarin and other unconventional styles). Each lapel style carries different connotations, and is worn with different cuts of suit. Notched lapels are only found on single-breasted jackets and are the most informal style. Double-breasted jackets usually have peaked lapels. Shawl lapels are a style derived from the Victorian informal evening wear, and as such are not normally seen on suit jackets.

In the 1980s and 1990s, double breasted suits with notched lapels were popular among the Power suit and the New Wave style.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, a design considered very stylish was the single breasted peaked lapel jacket. This has gone in and out of vogue periodically, being popular once again during the 1970s, and is still a recognised alternative. The ability to properly cut peak lapels on a single-breasted suit is one of the most challenging tailoring tasks, even for very experienced tailors.

The width of the lapel is a widely varying aspect of suits, and has changed widely over the years. The 1930s and 1970s featured an exceptionally wide lapel width, whereas during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s suits with very narrow lapels — often only about an inch wide — were in fashion. The 1980s saw mid-size lapels with a low gorge (the point on the jacket that forms the "notch" or "peak" between the collar and front lapel). Current (mid-2000s) trends are towards a narrower lapel and higher gorge.

Lapels also have a buttonhole on the lapels, intended to hold a boutonnière, a decorative flower. These are now only commonly seen at more formal events. Usually double breasted suits have one on each lapel, while single breasted suits have just one on the left.

Pockets

Most jackets have a variety of inner pockets, and two main outer pockets, which are generally either patch pockets, flap pockets, or jetted pockets. The patch pocket is, with its single extra piece of cloth sewn directly onto the front of the jacket, a sporting option, sometimes seen on summer linen suits, or other informal styles. The flap pocket is standard for side pockets, and has an extra lined flap of matching fabric covering the top of the pocket. A jetted pocket is most formal, with a small strip of fabric taping the top and bottom of the slit for the pocket. This style is most often on seen on formalwear, such as a dinner jacket.

In addition to the standard two outer pockets, some suits have a third, the ticket pocket, usually located just above the right pocket and roughly half as wide. While this was originally exclusively a feature of country suits, used for conveniently storing a train ticket, it is now seen on some town suits. Another country feature also worn sometimes in cities is a pair of hacking pockets, which are similar to normal ones, but slanted; this was originally designed to make the pockets easier to open on horseback while hacking.

Buttons on sleeves

Suit jackets in all styles typically have three or four buttons on each cuff, which are often purely decorative (the sleeve is sewn closed and cannot be unbuttoned to open). Five buttons are unusual, but are a modern fashion innovation. The number of buttons is primarily a function of the formality of the suit; a very casual summer odd jacket would traditionally (1930s) have had only one button, while tweed suits typically have three and city suits four. In the 1970s, two buttons were seen on most city suits. Today, four buttons are common on most business suits and even casual suits. It is rare to find four buttons on many boys' suits.

Although the sleeve buttons usually cannot be undone, the stitching is such that it appears they could (some boys' suits however don't have this resemblance and just have plain sleeves). Functional cuff buttons may be found on high-end or bespoke suits; this feature is called a surgeon's cuff. Some wearers leave these buttons undone to reveal that they can afford a bespoke suit, although it is proper to leave these buttons done up as a suit's sleeve should be. Modern bespoke styles and high end off-the-rack suits have the last two buttons stitched off-centre, so that the sleeve hangs more cleanly should the buttons ever be undone.

Vents

A vent is a slit in the bottom rear (the "tail") of the jacket. These vents were introduced in the 1950s in an effort to make the suit coat more comfortable during warm weather. Prior to the 1950s, vents were rare on suits, and were mainly used on overcoats and coats with tails, suit as morning coats. Today there are three styles of venting: the single-vented style (with one vent at the center); the no vent style; and the double-vented style (one vent on each side). The no vent style is associated with Italian tailoring, while the double-vented style is typically British.

Belted jackets

Suit jackets with belts on them became popular after World War I. They were especially popular on the exaggerated "jazz suits" which were popular in 1920 and 1921. After 1921, a more subdued style prevailed in which the belt was placed solely on the back of the coat. These belts continued to be placed on the back of many suit coats throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, usually on very fashionably made suits for the young. This style made a brief comeback in the 1970s when some suit coats again featured belts on the back.

Waistcoats

Waistcoats (often called vests in the USA) were almost always worn with suits prior to the 1940s. They were revived in the 1970s and remained popular throughout that decade. Waistcoats can be either single-breasted or double-breasted. A style that was quite popular among fashionable young men in the 1920s was to wear a single-breasted coat with a high-waisted double-breasted waistcoat. High-waisted single-breasted waistcoats were popular in both the 1920s–1930s and in the 1970s, and were often made with either five or six buttons. Today, many suit makers sell suits with waistcoats, although they often cost much more than a simple two-piece suit. A suit with a matching waistcoat is often called a three-piece suit. They are much more popular in continental Europe than in the USA, Britain, or Japan.

Trousers

Suit trousers are always made of the same material as the jacket, though from the 10s to 20s, at which point the sports jacket was invented, men would not buy jackets specifically to be worn with odd trousers, so did use suit jackets as odd jackets.

Throughout the early 20th century, most men wore their trousers with flat fronts. Around 1935, pleated trousers became popular and remained so until the 1950s. By about 1962, most trousers were flat front. This style lasted until about 1980. By 1983, almost all the trousers that came with suits were pleated once again, and suits with flat-front trousers were virtually unavailable for a ready-made suit. Although pleated trousers have remained popular for over a decade, around 2004, flat-front trousers made a comeback. Some vendors sell separates, with the price of the jacket at one price and the matching trousers at the other. Often, those are flat-front trousers because many younger men tend to buy that type. Many stores specializing in suits such as Macy's carry flat-front trousers with the suit together. Pleated trousers are also often available at generic retailers.

Cuffed trousers became popular after World War I and remained popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s. They fell out of style in the 1940s and were re-introduced after World War II, but failed to become as popular as they had previously been. They were always available as a tailoring option, but became more popular in the 1990s. Cuffs are more suitable for business suits, while uncuffed trousers are appropriate for formal attire or summer-weight suit trousers.

Trouser width has varied considerably throughout the decades. In the 1920s, trousers were straight-legged and wide-legged, with a standard width at the cuff of 23 inches. After 1935, trousers began to be tapered in at the bottom half of the leg. Trousers remained wide at the top of the leg throughout the 1940s. By the 1950s and 1960s, a more slim look had become popular. In the 1970s, suit makers offered a variety of styles of trousers, including flared, bell bottomed, wide-legged, and more traditional tapered trousers. In the 1980s these styles disappeared in favor of tapered, slim-legged trousers. By 1984 however, some trousers were wide-legged with the tapered hem (Pretty much where the cuff is), this being another comeback to the style after 1935. By 1990, baggy trousers became a new fashion among stars and became available with suits, mostly double breasted. This was also a slight comeback prior to the suits in the 1940s with double-breasted suits featuring loose trousers. This style is still available at some stores. Some boys' suits however still had the tapered slim trousers in the 1990s. Today, the pleated loose trousers are more common with young boys suits.

Inseams have varied too throughout the decades. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, trousers were slim-legged and considerably shorter, and socks would often be visible. Usually brightly coloured socks were worn with this style. The style was inspired by the military outfits of the first World War. This exaggerated style was short lived and was associated with the "Jazz" suit. By 1923, trousers lengths fell once again and wide legged trousers began to be worn long enough to cover the shoe and this style last until the 1950s. By 1957, slim-legged trousers became popular, but were even more so in the 1960s with short inseams, mostly at 29 inches. Certain youths but especially older men wore this style and the wearer's socks could be visible; however, socks matching the shoes (usually black) were commonly worn with this style. When Bell-Bottoms became a fashion by the late 1960s, people started wearing longer inseams again and the shorter inseam went out of trend by 1972. By the late 1970s, early 1980s however, the shorter inseams made a comeback in the UK because of the Mod revival from which Mods wore the same style trousers as associated in the early 1960s. But shortly by 1983, inseams began getting longer again and in the 1990s, trousers were much longer compared to the suits in the 1940s. Longer inseamed trousers are still very common on suits today and the shorter inseams fell in favor of longer inseams.

Perceptions

The uniform impression of a suit, often appearing in standard configurations such as pinstripe suit or suit and tie, can carry numerous connotations. In business settings it can communicate respectability and taste. In different milieus, the connotations of corporate life that the suit represents conveys unadventurous conformism. Extreme variations on the suit can convey the opposite (for example, many pimps, or men wanting to be perceived as such, wear exaggerated versions of suits containing various hues, patterns, etc.).

Used as a synecdoche, by referring to management staff in corporations as "suits", the term "suit" can express contempt for the perceived absence of autonomy imposed on members in a uniform elitist bureaucracy. It may also be a comment on the perceived amorality of those who work for corporations.

In modern society, men's suits have gone out of favour as an outfit of daily wear, and are now worn rarely on a daily basis by most men, except for some sectors in the trades of business and finance and in law. For other men, particularly in Western society, a suit is an ensemble of clothing reserved for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, and other more formal social events. Hence, because they are not a daily outfit for most men, they are often viewed as being "stuffy" and uncomfortable, mostly because they limit freedom of movement. The combination of a tie, belt and vest can be tight and restrictive compared to contemporary casual wear. Therefore, in nearly all classes of society, suits are no longer a required part of daily work or leisure attire, except in higher-level business circles. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, men's suits became less commonly worn in much the same way as skirts and dresses were dropped by many women in favour of trousers. This was seen as a liberation from the conformity of earlier periods and declined concurrently with the women's liberation movement. For professions which still call for a dressier approach to clothing (sometimes referred to in the US as white collar jobs), an acceptable alternative to a suit may be a button-down shirt with a tie, worn with belted or braced trousers and leather dress shoes.

The political and social dominance of the West in the world during the last century has led to the adoption of the suit as appropriate business and formal wear in almost every part of the globe. Refusing to wear a suit, therefore, can be a symbolic rejection of Western culture. For instance, some political leaders reject wearing business suits in order to send a message that they do not conform to Western patterns. The most notable example was probably the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong and former North Korean president Kim Il-sung, who usually appeared in public wearing what was nicknamed the Mao suit in English. This suit was originally designed under the direction of Sun Yat-sen for the Chinese Republic, reflecting the need to create a uniquely Chinese dress for the new era. The "Mao suit" was worn by most Chinese political leaders (including Chiang Kai-shek), until the mid-to-late 20th century, and is known in Chinese as the "Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) suit" (after its creator). Other alternatives to the western suit include national or tribal dress for African and Middle Eastern leaders (notably Colonel Gaddafi) or military fatigues like Cuba's Fidel Castro. In more recent years, however, Castro has taken to wearing business suits in public appearances in lieu of his iconic revolutionary fatigues.

Suit etiquette for men

Buttoning the suit jacket

The buttoning of the jacket is primarily determined by the button stance, a measure of how high the buttons are in relation to the natural waist. In some (now unusual) styles where the buttons are placed high, the tailor would have intended the suit to be buttoned differently from the more common lower stance. Nevertheless, some general guidelines are given here.

Double-breasted suit coats are almost always kept buttoned. When there is more than one to fasten (as in a traditional six-on-two arrangement), only the top one need be fastened; in some configurations, the wearer may elect to fasten only the bottom button, in order to present a longer line (a style popularised by the Prince George, Duke of Kent).

Single breasted suits' coats may be either fastened or unfastened. In two-button suits the bottom button is usually left unfastened. The current fashion trend for three-button suits is, if any buttons are to be fastened, to leave the bottom button unfastened (although this was not always the case in the past), to sometimes button the top button (on suits where the lapel permits it), and always button the middle button. If one is wearing a four button suit, he may choose to wear the suit with all of its buttons fastened, two buttons fastened (usually the middle two), or all of the top three.

With a single-breasted suit, it is proper to have the buttons unfastened while sitting down to avoid an ugly drape, though some opt not to follow this as it is purely aesthetic and not required for politeness. A good double-breasted suit is usually able to be left buttoned, to avoid the difficulty of constantly redoing inner buttons when standing up.

Ties with suits

Working with neckties is very much a matter of personal taste, but in conservative terms there are some basic guidelines. Ties should always be darker than the wearer's shirt. The background colour of the tie should not be the same as that of the shirt, while the foreground of the tie should contain the colour of the shirt and thereby "pick up" on the colour of the shirt. Ideally, the tie should also integrate the colour of the suit in the same way. Generally, simple or subdued patterns are preferred for conservative dress, though these are terms with a wide range of interpretation. In recent times however, it has become popular to match the necktie colour with the shirt or even wearing a lighter coloured tie with a darker shirt, usually during formal occasions. Some of the most common knots are the Four-in-hand, the Half-Windsor, the Windsor (or Full-Windsor), and the Shelby or Pratt. A Four-in-hand, Half-Windsor, or Windsor is generally the most appropriate with a suit, particularly by contemporary guidelines. Once properly knotted and arranged, the bottom of the tie can extend anywhere from the wearer's navel level, to slightly below the waistband. The thin end should never extend below the wide end. In the 1960s, it was fashionable for men as well as women to wear scarves with a suit in a tied knot either inside a shirt as an ascot or under the collar as a would be worn like a tie. This style was more common towards anyone in the art departments such as film directors or more commonly musicians. This style began to fade by the mid 1970s and came back in the 1990s mainly for women. It did however make a small comeback by 2005 and some famous stars wear them. Although some wore scarves back in the 1960s, ties were still preferred among business workers.

It has become fashionable to wear a suit without a tie and with an open necked shirt among young men.

Shirts with suits

The type of shirt worn by men with a suit is a top made of woven cloth, with long sleeves, a full-length buttoned opening down the front, and a collar. This type of garment is known in American English as a dress shirt but simply as a shirt in other English dialects. This type of shirt is sometimes called an Oxford shirt; however, this properly refers to a shirt made from a specific kind of fabric, namely Oxford cloth, in a specific style (i.e., with button-down collars). The (dress) shirt is ironed, neatly tucked into its wearer's trousers, and otherwise worn according to the etiquette described in the article Dress shirt.

The classic shirt colours are light blue or white, with white considered most conservative. However, numerous colours and shades are available, with pastels particularly popular in America, though less-formal colours are not always acceptable. The most formal type of dress shirt worn with a standard suit is a shirt with linked, but not French, cuffs, which are closed using cuff links or silk knots instead of buttons. However, this type of shirt is optional, and essentially up to the preferences of the wearer and the vagaries of fashion.

The most traditional collar is a spread collar. This is frequently the default collar type for French cuff shirts, though they can sometimes be found with point collars. Normally, button-down collars are reserved for casual use with a sportcoat or without a coat at all, though they have long been acceptable in America. The button-down collar is not seeing as much wear today, particularly with the resurgence of more formal shirts with spread collars and French cuffs, even in business casual wear.

Socks with suits

In the United States it is common for socks to match the trouser leg. This makes the leg appear longer and minimises the attention drawn by a trouser leg tailored to be too short. A more general rule is for socks to be darker than the shade of the trousers, but potentially a different colour. With patterned socks, ideally the background colour of the sock should match the primary colour of the suit. If it is not possible to match the trouser leg, socks may match one's shoes. Socks are preferably at least mid-calf height, if not knee-height, and are usually made predominantly of cotton or wool, though luxury or dress socks may use more exotic blends such as silk and cashmere.

Before the War, patterned socks were common, and a variety of designs like argyle or contrasting clocks were commonly seen. After the War, socks became more subdued in colour.

Shoes with suits

The correct footwear varies from country to country. Shoes should always be smarter shoes, such as Oxfords (Balmorals), Derbies (Blüchers), or smart slip-ons; never very casual shoes such as trainers (sneakers) or deck shoes. A slip-on is normally only be worn with a modern and very informal suit: brown or sometimes navy. Shoes also have differing degrees of decoration, with less ornamentation being more formal, leaving half- and full- brogues as less formal options. Shoes are broadly divided into the two categories of black and not black. Black shoes are worn with all business suits by the English, who traditionally keep brown shoes for tweed only. The rest of the world wears black with grey or black suits, and brown with navy and non-business suits. The shades of brown also vary considerably, as only Americans generally wear colours like cordovan or oxblood; lighter browns are less formal and more appropriate for summer, for example with linen.

Accessories with suits

Belts come in and out of fashion; at the turn of the century and in the 1930s–40s they were worn less than braces (suspenders), but now are generally worn more; in some countries such as the UK, traditionalist men still do not wear belts with suits. If worn, the belt and shoes must be roughly the same colour, with the belt a smart one (leather, plain silver or gold coloured buckle). Braces are often worn if a belt is not.

Jewellery should be kept to an absolute minimum, consisting at most of cuff links, tie bars or tacks, and a timepiece. The thinner the watch, the more formal, and analog watches are more formal than digital. In the most formal situations, a pocket watch, or no watch at all, should be worn. Pocket watches if worn are not placed in the trouser pocket; they are displayed on the waistcoat with a watch chain, or, rarely, in the breast pocket.

Handkerchiefs (pocket squares) in the upper welt (chest) pocket are not especially common today. Originally, handkerchiefs were worn partially protruding from the left jacket sleeve. Over time, they migrated to the breast pocket. When silk was still a rare and expensive commodity, they were considered a flamboyant extravagance by conservative commentators. By the end of the 19th century, however, they had become a standard accoutrement for gentlemen, and in some places are still considered obligatory on any jacket or coat with a breast pocket.

Suit etiquette for women

Suit-wearing etiquette for women generally follows the same guidelines used by men, with a few differences.

For women, a blouse (usually white) takes the place of a shirt. Blue and pink blouses are also seen. Women have more leeway in selecting their top than men have in selecting their shirt. Sometimes a high-quality knit top replaces the blouse; this is not universally accepted but is common, particularly if the top is made of a luxurious material.

Women generally do not wear neckties with their suit. Fancy silk scarves that resemble a floppy ascot tie were popular in North America in the 1970s, worn with pant suits. At that time women entered the white-collar workforce in large numbers and their dress fashions imitated men's business wear.

Bibliography

Notes

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