Fashion is a preference initiated by a minority then arbitrarily adopted en masse regardless of its suitability to the wearer. Style, on the other hand, is the selective incorporation of sartorial traits to complement a person’s unique characteristics. The first approach to dressing benefits a person by chance, the second by design.
Additionally, fashion is intended to stand out from the sartorial norm which guarantees its obsolesence once its novelty wears off (thus its association with calendar seasons). Conversely, tried-and-true style will continue to flatter a man through numerous fashion cycles. That is why a high-fashion suit will typically have to be replaced after two years while a classically styled tuxedo will often remain appropriate for a lifetime.
This page does not focus on style tips specific to formal attire as they are already included in the pages detailing Classic Black Tie and Contemporary Black Tie. Instead, the advice here pertains to men’s suits in general so that readers can determine which basic variations will best flatter their physique and stand the test of time. Frugal buyers can then adapt their timeless tuxedo to future fads simply by updating the accessories every now and then.
Silhouette / Cut
The cut of a suit determines its general silhouette which generally falls into one of four categories:
classic American cut: a full
cut with little shape to it; jackets are usually 3-button models
with soft shoulders, rumpled chest and undefined waist while
trousers are unpleated and uncuffed
classic English cut: a long-fitting, hourglass silhouette; jackets have a moderately structured shoulder, full chest and distinct waist and trousers are trim
classic Italian cut: a streamlined, fitted silhouette; jackets are usually 2-button models with high, squarish shoulders, high armholes, shorter length and close fitting in the chest and hip while trousers are lower rise and slim
“Updated American”: the comfortable classic American silhouette enhanced with English-inspired tailoring; jackets feature smaller chest, higher armholes and more pronounced waist than the traditional American
The names of the categories are somewhat irrelevant because designers today focus on silhouettes they find attractive, not ones that are linked to their national heritage. What’s important is simply to be aware that different types of silhouettes exist. The average-sized man is lucky in that he can choose his cut of suit based solely on aesthetic preferences. Other body types should seek out a cut that compensate for their physiques as required. In this regard, heavy, thin, tall and short men should all avoid tightly fitted clothes as they tend to emphasize girth and stature – or the lack thereof.
Single-breasted models come in one-, two- or three-button modes. One-button styles are pretty much limited to dinner jackets which makes this the most formal and timeless choice for black tie. Two- and three-button models are the norm for business suits. Three-button models designed to close with the top two buttons are generally ill-advised because their cut appears boxy even when the top button is left undone. This makes heavy and short men appear wider and, paradoxically, tall men seem taller.
Suit jackets are not meant to be fastened with the bottom button. This is not so much a matter of tradition – apparently Edward VII began the custom as his girth expanded faster than his wardrobe – but of practicality: better-made jackets are cut so that the front halves gently curve away from each other at this point.
Double-breasted models are also an unwise choice for an all-purpose tuxedo as they are not only less formal but they also have a tendency to make the body appear wider and shorter. This style does make an excellent secondary jacket, though, provided a man has the right physique – or the right tailor. Since the classic four-button style of dinner jacket is pretty much extinct, off-the-rack buyers will have to settle for a six-on-two or six-on-one model (see photo on right). The latter’s lower buttoning point creates a longer lapel line which emphasizes the height of the wearer but can also throw a jacket out of balance as explained in the waist description below. Like a single-breasted jacket, the bottom button on a six-on-two double-breasted is typically left unbuttoned.
The Classic Tuxedos page explains why black and midnight blue are the only colors appropriate for year-round tuxedos and why the latter option is more becoming and more practical. The white dinner jacket is a classic alternative providing its use is limited to the etiquette prescribed for Warm Weather Black Tie. In the latter case there are a number of stylistic concerns to keep in mind before attempting to channel Sean Connery in Goldfinger or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca:
pure white is too stark for refined clothing and highly unflattering to fair-skinned visages so be sure to opt for subtle off-whites instead
heavy and short men are ill-served by a mixed-color jacket and trouser combination because it visually separates the body into halves rather than emphasizing verticality the way a suit does
overweight men also have to contend with the fact that light colors make a physique seem larger, a trait which will conversely benefit their underweight brethren
Colors and patterns suitable for jackets intended for less formal black-tie occasions are described in Classic Alternatives. Men fortunate enough to be supplementing their core formal wardrobe with these styles should also keep in mind by the height-reducing effect of colored separates. As well, they should note that plaid patterns can add width.
The width of suit jacket shoulders varies with fashion trends but the ideal is for them to extend to the end of the wearer’s natural shoulder line – or just slightly past them if necessary – so that they are in balance with the width of the hips. Shoulders that are too wide will make the head seem smaller while narrow shoulders will cause the head to appear larger. Unless a man has a disproportionate head size he will do best with just the minimal amount of shoulder (and chest) padding that is needed to hold the shape of the jacket.
Generally, lapels ought to extend about halfway to the shoulder. Very narrow lapels go in and out of fashion but they break the visual balance created by a proper lapel width. If you insist on varying lapel width with the times, at least make sure that the suit silhouette and (bow) tie width are of a similar stature. For example, narrow lapels would be incongruous on a baggy suit worn with a wide tie.
A lapel consideration exclusive to the dinner jacket is the impact of shawl versus peaked. Shawl collars tend to negatively accentuate a portly man’s roundness while the upward sweep of peaked lapels can positively emphasize height on shorter men and shoulder width on slim men.
The placement of the jacket’s waist, or narrowest point, affects the perceived length of the wearer’s torso and legs. Some experts believe that in order to maximize both torso and leg length the jacket’s waist should be about half an inch below the natural waist (see left sidebar). Others argue that placing it slightly higher will make a suit more elongating and slimming.
The jacket’s waist is highlighted by waist suppression and button stance. Waist suppression is the tailored narrowing of the jacket’s waist. A lack of suppression results in a shapeless coat that inhibits the suit’s ability to maximize the leg line while a highly pinched waist can appear feminine. The ideal option lies somewhere in the middle.
Button stance is simply the location of the waist button (the button that fastens the jacket) which is the top button on a two-button jacket and the middle one on a three-button model. It should be positioned in alignment with the jacket’s waist line to keep the jacket in balance. Fashion-forward formal jackets frequently ignore this balance to their detriment.
Ventless jackets are the most formal style as explained in Classic Jackets. They also have the advantage of being slimming which is good for shorter and heavier men.
Side vents make a dinner jacket slightly less formal but provide its wearer with more comfort and less wrinkling when seated. They also allow him to reach into his trouser pockets without causing the back of the jacket to be pushed up over his seat. Since they are arguably less slimming than ventless models, side vents may be advantageous to tall or lean men.
A center vent is neither formal nor practical and should never be seen on a dinner jacket.
Properly constructed dress trousers will follow the natural line of the body by fitting snugly at the waist, expanding comfortably at the hips and thighs then gradually tapering down to the ankle.
Young men are often mortified to find out that dress trousers should sit at the waist, fearing they will resemble old fogeys who hoist their belts up to their chest. All they know is the familiar comfort of jeans and khakis slung down around their hips. The truth is that both approaches are correct because it’s all a matter of rise.
Rise is the measurement from the bottom of the trouser crotch to the top of its waistband. Casual trousers are designed with a short rise because they are intended to sit at the hips where they will inevitably end up if they are not worn with suspenders or custom made by a tailor. Dress trousers, on the other hand, are cut with a long rise to flatter the wearer by visually slimming the wearer’s waist and lengthening the leg line. Wearing such trousers down at the hips not only negates these traits but also makes a mess of the pants. Pockets and pleats intended to sit snugly are flared open by the wide curvature of the hips, the crotch sags and sways beneath the natural crotch and the waistband falls below the waistcoat or the jacket closure thereby exposing an unsightly gap of shirt.
In an effort to accommodate men of different heights, off-the-rack dress trousers are usually offered in long rises for men over six feet tall. However, each manufacturer interprets “long” differently and even a “regular” rise is meaningless to men with disproportionate waist lengths. Consequently, the only way for a man to be certain that a given trouser is cut properly for his physique is to try it on. When the garment is sitting at the natural waist (see left sidebar) the trouser crotch should not be pulling up against his crotch or seat (indicating too short of a rise) nor should it hang too loosely below these areas (too long a rise).
The final consideration in regards to rise is the best method for keeping the trouser waist in place. As explained in Classic Tuxedos, a belt is contradictory to the nature of formal wear and so is not even a consideration. This leaves a choice between traditional suspenders (braces in UK) and modern adjustable waistbands. Men who have the funds for perfectly tailored custom trousers – and the body shape to keep them in place – can choose based solely on personal preferences. Everyone else has to contend with the inescapable fact that adjustable waistbands must be tightly cinched into the stomach to avoid constantly hiking up one’s trousers over the course of the evening. Suspenders, on the other hand, guarantee the perfect placement of the trouser while allowing the waist to be loose and comfortable.
The preferred appearance of elegantly draped pleats versus clean and smooth flat-fronts is a matter of personal taste. There are, however, some practical factors that should be taken into consideration before choosing one style over the other.
When it comes to the naturally high waist of dress pants, pleats add comfort by expanding to allow more room for the way that a man’s hips splay when he is seated. They also serve to emphasize the wearer’s leg line by extending the trousers' crease and they conceal the bulk of any objects placed in the front pockets. More relevantly, pleats can also minimize a protruding stomach by allowing the trousers to fall straight down from the belly rather than curving inwards underneath it. Flat fronts, conversely, require flat stomachs.
Pleats can be forward (facing the fly) or reverse (facing the hip pockets) and there are differing opinions on which style lies flatter against the body. Pleats can also be single, double or triple although double pleats are by far the most common.
The width of the bottom of the leg will vary with current fashions but the ideal is about two thirds of the length of the shoe. Trendy cuts with especially narrow legs don’t harmonize with the natural leg silhouette, require the pants to be cut short (to avoid fabric bunching up on top of the shoe) and are guaranteed to date themselves within a few years.
Whether made as part of a three-piece suit or as a separate accessory, a suit vest (waistcoat in UK) should only be slightly visible above the lapels of the closed jacket and should extend down far enough to cover the trouser waistband. Suit vests are typically constructed with a full back made of silk or of the suit's lining and have a buckled strap that can be used to adjust the fit. Vests should be constructed to fit the torso fairly snugly.