How to be a Man: On Suits
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Glenn O’Brien “curates the texts” for Bergdorf Goodman Magazine.
He also writes The Style Guy column for GQ. Recently he has been seen gabbing away in documentaries on Basquiat (The Radiant Child), Halston (Ultrasuede) and Candy Darling (Beautiful Darling). His new book, How to be a Man, is available on the Seventh Floor.
A man must wear a suit. He must not be a suit. The suit works for you, pally, you don’t work for it. You paid the cost, so be the boss. Wear it. Don’t let it wear you.
Some men wear a suit only when they wed and when they’re dead. Some men wear a suit only when they are tried and when they’re laid out. But the suit is not just for those occasions when your name appears in the papers. Many men put on the suit on Sunday-to-go-to-meeting; for some it’s the uniform, Monday through Friday, the management uniform, the frame for the white collar and tie. For some it is simply what a gentleman wears in default mode. For others it’s dressing up, for one reason or another. It is as good as it gets; the suit is eminently suitable.
The modern suit was originally called a lounge suit, and it was intended not for the professional on duty but for the gentleman off duty. It was an informal dress-up ensemble for entertaining at home or traveling. The frock coat and striped pants with wing collar was still the working ensemble of the man-about-town. But after the Great War, as the twenties began to roar, the Jazz Age required a more limber mode for doing the Black Bottom, the Charleston, and the Lindy Hop, and for fleeing from speakeasies during police raids. The frock coat and striped trousers persisted for a while but began to look aged and stuffy, and finally the frock coat was worn only by clerks and the hired help. By the late twenties the lounge suit was the universal public look of the urbane male. He wore it to work and he could wear it out for the evening too, unless he had time to go home and dress for dinner in his tuxedo, which was basically a deluxe lounge suit.
Tailless, trim, and made of one fabric, top and bottom, the suit was a perfect costume for the rise of modernism. Sleek rather than stiff, trimmed of tails that might get caught in the cogs of the machine age, the suit was ready for work and play, and with plenty of pockets it was ready for upward mobility and management of the corporations that would rule the world.
What distinguished one suit from another was mainly its color.
Black: for funerals and the clergy.
Dark gray: suitable for all occasions.
Light gray: normal business and social wear.
Navy blue: suitable for most occasions; not as dressy as dark gray.
Olive green: for the stylish brave; for the warrior of the creative department and the rootless traveling salesman.
There are businesses and there are businesses. Wall Street and banking have always tended toward the conservative suit, and the man in the gray flannel suit had more than one in the closet. Serious firms favored a sober, conservative look and for the most part suits other than dark gray and navy were “simply not done.” Through most of the twentieth century, proper gents would not have worn a brown or green suit to the office. It would have been considered too “racetrack” or too country, although who wears a suit to the track or the farm these days, I can’t imagine. Ironically the brown suit was redeemed by that idol of conservatives, Ronald Reagan. There are still firms where brown is not worn, or plaids, but the codes have eroded and are upheld mostly by frivolous fussbudgets and cloutless curmudgeons.
In the late twenties stripes appeared, borrowed from tennis apparel, and they caught on with stylish men everywhere, though in conservative firms a man had to earn his stripes. Glen plaids, herringbones, and textured fabrics caught on with fashionable men about town, and peaked lapels and double-breasted jackets gave the urbane gent many options.
Pinstripes or chalk stripes have been considered a sharp business look for so long that the association with the gangster movies that helped popularize them has been forgotten. Pinstripes are more formal than chalk stripes, which are bold and can be slightly wise-guy looking, depending on who’s wearing them. I wouldn’t wear chalk stripes to a trial if I were a litigant or defendant, although they could work on counsel. I would never wear chalk stripes to a funeral unless I was celebrating. The usual suit stripe is in fairly high contrast, like white or off-white on navy or gray, or navy on white or off-white. In recent years we have been seeing more colored stripes, such as red or green on navy or gray. These contrasts are obviously less dressy than the traditional white stripe. We have even seen Hollywoodish tailors turn their clients’ names or initials into stripes of fine print, a practice that verges on unspeakable.
Plaids have been urbane business-wear for many decades and are acceptable in most any circle. The more creative your business, the bolder your plaid can be. If you are a CEO, you can wear glen plaid on an average workday. If you are an editor at Vogue, you can have a full tartan run up into a suit. Very plaid suits, bold checks, and windowpanes, like tweeds, fall into the realm of the sporty or country suit, but in this casual era the lines have blurred. Once tweeds were considered country wear, but who wears suits in the country anymore, even when we are shooting at things or exercising our quadrupeds? These traditional favorites seem to still thrive on campus and might take the train into the city on cold days when the calendar is easy.
Suitings, the fabrics used to make suits, have changed considerably over the last half century as climate control has eliminated much of the real need for insulating menswear. Offices and cars are the same temperature year round, and central heating has even conquered London. Thus suit fabrics have lightened up and winter weights practically disappeared. Once wool that weighed sixteen ounces a yard was common in northern climes. Now we see men wearing eight-ounce wool year-round. Caution, please. There is no such thing as a suit for all seasons.
White or cream is perfect for a summer suit. It was almost extinct for years, as we went through a laid-back, blend-in period, but now it’s back in its full brilliance. And light suits in a wide variety of shades pop out like flowers in June. A decade or so ago seersucker was kept alive by the bold few (including bold conservatives) and was generally found with blue, gray, or brown stripes only. Today we find seersuckers with pink, orange, red, or green stripes.
Tan suits are really appropriate only for fair weather, although you’d never know that by looking at NBA benches. We see coaches and injured players wearing tan suits all winter. Maybe this is because men with brown complexions look so good in tan and light brown suits. The rule? If you are good-looking enough, you can break the rules.
It’s a fact that men of black and brown complexion can pull off suits that pinker cats can’t. I love the wild-colored suits that British custom tailor Ozwald Boateng makes and wears, but I have to admit I just can’t wear an orange suit. But there are white men who can. The trademark of the natty Knight Landesman, the publisher of Artforum, is wearing bright-colored suits in any season, which makes it easy to find him at any art fair. He’s the guy in the fire-engine-red or canary-yellow suit. In the art world, there is no wrong-colored suit.
Once, according to tailor/historian Alan Flusser, who knows such things, all pockets were flapless. Then that sartorial maverick, Edward, Prince of Wales (later, briefly, Edward VIII of England, and eventually the Duke of Windsor), created a vogue for the flap. Flapped pockets are more casual, hence their absence from tuxedos and dinner jackets. Better flap-pocket suit jackets feature a double besom, a welted edge above and below the pocket slit that enables the flap to be worn inside invisibly. If that’s the case with your jacket, it’s your choice. (Although if you affect a ticket pocket you’re stuck with flaps.) But with a bulky tweed sport jacket, I doubt the flaps will go quietly.
The Ready-made Suit
Once upon a time, if you wanted a suit, you went to a tailor and he made one up for you. Then in the 1840s the automatic sewing machine was invented and ready-made suits hit the market. Brooks Brothers introduced the concept in 1845, and it was an enormous success. Before long, manufacturers were ready-making suits of a quality that was competitive with the hand-tailored genuine article. Companies like Hickey Freeman combined craftsmanship with technology to churn out high-quality clothing that could pass in the boardroom and at the club, and you didn’t have to have a guy with a tape measure all over you and you didn’t have to wait. The other benefit of a ready-to-wear suit was that it was cheaper. Not necessarily cheap, but cheaper.
Today ready-to-wear suits from fashion designers and premium menswear companies can cost as much or more than a bespoke or custom-made suit. In the store they may have decorative basting around them and lack buttons so they look unfinished, but that’s all for show.
Why are these suits so expensive? Some of them are made from luxurious materials. If you’re going to buy a cashmere suit, it’s going to cost you. Some are made in factories where the workers are paid in pounds, euros, or dollars—not in yuan. And then some are made by designers who spend a lot of money on advertising. Let’s see… Prada suit: $2,495. Lanvin tux: $2,900. Richard James off-the-peg: $1,795. Belvest: $2,895. Kiton: $4,495. All ready-made. Wow.
Generally bespoke Savile Row tailors—like Anderson and Sheppard, where I’ve bought many suits, or my man John Pearse, who has a little shop on Meard Street in Soho—don’t advertise. The substantial prices of their garments reflect the cost of labor (and sometimes the state of the dollar). I figure if I’m going to spend a lot of money on a suit, it might as well be exactly what I want and made to fit my slightly quirky body.
But for years, I did buy off-the-rack and I did fine. My body was well within minor alteration range. So what do you look for in a ready-made suit? The basic aesthetic decision is the silhouette, or style, of the suit. Do you want a full-cut traditional American sack suit, with little or no waist suppression, or do you want a more British cut that fits closer to the body?
It’s not about the name on the label but the fit. Every company that makes suits makes them for a certain man. They have a fit model. “Off-thepeg”
suits are made to fit that designer’s median customer. The buyer’s strategy should be to find the house with the fit model closest to him in physique. Some suits are made for thinner guys, some for bigger, some for more athletic. And a brand may change its fit from year to year, depending on fashion.
In recent years we’ve seen an increase in drop—a term referring to the difference between the jacket size and trouser size. A size 42 with a six-inch drop would mean the trousers have a 36 waist. Some brands might offer an eight-inch drop. The most crucial element of the fit is in the shoulders.
Most other areas can be adjusted, but the shoulders are the backbone of a suit.
Then consider how the suit was made. The question you want answered is, how was the jacket constructed? Is it full canvas, half canvas or fused? The traditional construction, which you’ll find in bespoke clothing and most (but scarily not all) expensive clothing, is full canvas. There is a middle structural layer to which the front and back of the jacket are attached or basted, i.e., sewn loosely with hand stitching so the garment will move with you. If you wear your suits frequently, canvas construction is well worth the extra cost. It looks better, particularly when you move, and it will last much longer. The glue in fused jackets ages and sometimes reacts with dry-cleaning chemicals. The front of the jacket may even bubble, and then it’s trash.
We are often told that fusing and the glues used in the process have improved, and that may be true, but generally speaking such suits are not a good investment. This matter is complicated by half-canvased jackets, which combine the techniques. Sometimes the chest is canvased while the lapels are fused. These jackets achieve a softer effect than a full-on glue job, but again there is a risk of bubbling, and you don’t get a nice soft feel to the lapels. If your salesperson doesn’t know how a suit is constructed, he is in the wrong business, or he’s lying and should be arrested by the fashion police, who are never around when you need them.
Fashion vs. Eternity
There are more styles available now than ever before. Fashion suits are generally inspired by Hedi Slimane’s very slim Dior clothes or Thom Browne’s short-jacket-and-skinny-pants take on Ivy League. Do fashion suits lack longevity? Who knows? My late stepfather’s early-sixties Hickey Freeman suit looks precisely in fashion today, except for the trousers, which have about three inches more rise. (Rise is the length from crotch to waistband.) The tide goes out and the tide comes in. That’s fashion. But in general, men’s clothing changes very slowly. A classic suit, styled like those offered by Savile Row or Ralph Lauren, could remain in style for a lifetime. My best suit is fifteen years old and nicely worn in. In The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs, John, the Duke, wrote:
“Suits must be made of excellent material, that goes without saying; but
though they have to be new, yet they must look old. Or not too new at any rate.
Filling the pockets of one’s new suit with stones and hanging it out in the rain is
one possible solution; another is to let your man—your valet—always wear
your suits for the first two years.”
Most of the suits that I have worn in my life, I could still wear today without embarrassment. I avoided the big lapels of the polyester seventies. My only errors, I think, were made under the influence of Italian designers in the nineties. Somehow those enormous shelflike shoulders looked fine back then, apparently, but in retrospect they’re absurd. In a suit with heavily padded shoulders, Michael Jordan appeared to have a head the size of a grapefruit.
The blousy pleated pants of that era have dated badly too. I blame it all on coach Pat Riley. Whatever fashion is worn by athletes and coaches on television seems a must to avoid—high vests, high-roll three-button suits, and four- to six-button single-breasted suits. And incidentally, nothing can be done for your nineties “power suit”; any good tailor will tell you that the shoulders are inoperable.
My advice is, keep the shoulders naturalistic. I like a suit jacket almost as softly constructed as a sweater, with very little if any shoulder padding, a British-style nipped waist, and reasonable lapels. I am convinced that the lapels I wear—about three and three-fourths inches wide at the widest point, about four inches wide for double-breasted or peaked lapels—will never go out of style in my lifetime. If they do, civilization as we know it has ended.
Suits have long come in single-breasted and double-breasted styles. The double-breasted suit imitated a naval uniform jacket; it became popular in the thirties and remained so into the fifties, but in the sixties it nearly disappeared, being worn mostly by stubborn older men. No American president between Harry Truman and Bill Clinton wore a double-breasted suit, but today the double-breasted jacket is high style once again. It is not for children, and generally does not work well on small or short men, or on the portly. Young men usually prefer single-breasted suits, but a stylish and good-figured fellow of any age can pull off double-breasted.Where do you draw the line? Bill Clinton, at his peak weight, was pushing the double-breasted envelope.
Even when the double-breasted suit was out with the suit-wearing masses, it retained a foothold in fashion. The radical tailors who made “Mod” and “Carnaby Street” household terms liked to play with that style, along with the Nehru and other occult cuts, and they revived it in sharp Edwardian and quasi-military executions, with high closings, lots of buttons and stovepipe or belled trousers. Then, in the mid-eighties, the power suit appeared with its big shoulders and blousy pants, and the double-breasted style reasserted itself again among moneyed Italianate dressers. Single-breasted suits have also had their evolutionary ups and downs, with lapels going from superslim in the early sixties to superwide in the early seventies, with peaked lapels going almost extinct in favor of notched lapels, then staging a comeback in recent years. The jacket vent went extinct in the power-suit era, mimicking the perennially ventless Hollywood film silhouette. Vents don’t film well. Then the British double vent returned to dominate.
Two or three buttons are always safe and reasonable. Four buttons or more tend to make one look like a sportscaster or a Vegas entertainer. But I have noticed that the higher-rolled three-button suits that were in fashion a decade ago, as opposed to three-rolled to two, are looking a little long in the tooth these days. Another jock-fashion pitfall. The three-button suit and the three-piece suit nearly disappeared between the seventies and eighties. But fashion won’t let a good idea get away forever; it needs to change things up periodically and force some obsolescence on the male kit. Fashion is more motivated by economics than aesthetics.
Vests, called waistcoats in England, have been a part of a man’s suit from the beginning. As a part of a suit, the vest was hard to find in the U.S. from the late sixties to the nineties, and I was delighted when they made a comeback. I think they were, for a time, a casualty of central heating, but then we discovered that actually they’re very good for offices that can be overheated or overcooled, and today we need more pockets than ever, with the phone, the PDA, and iPod nano.
There are those who would have you believe that pleats are, once again, obsolete. I don’t believe it. Big extreme triple pleats and reverse pleats are very nineties, but discreet pleats, especially on suit pants, are, to my mind, simply good engineering. They help you move and make it less likely you’ll ever bust the ass of your pants. For trousers worn without a jacket, I did hop on the fashion bandwagon and wear flat fronts for their clean look, and I do have suits with flat fronts and they work fine. Maybe they look better when the jacket comes off, but pleats are a fact of life.
Cuffs—or turnups as the Brits call them—are strictly a matter of taste. Traditional guys usually go for them, but the old truism about plain bottoms making your legs look longer is probably true, and cuffs don’t work on skinny trousers. Despite the trend for showing sock initiated by the visionary designer Thom Browne, I think a slight break at the shoe will remain proper until the end of the world. One of the biggest mistakes American men make is not wearing their trousers too short but having their overlong pants bunched up around their shoes. Jacket sleeves shouldn’t be too long either. A half inch of shirt cuff should show with arms at rest.
One trick that off-the-peg customers can employ is to have a tailor open their jacket-sleeve buttonholes so that the buttons function. It costs about $10 per button, and it does give the impression of a bespoke garment. But nothing gives that impression like a good fit. Make sure you use that three-way mirror to check your fit. Perhaps the most crucial area of fit is in the back around the collar. The fabric should lay flat and not gather, and the jacket should fit snugly up against your shirt collar and not gap when you move. I always say you should be able to take a full golf swing or your jacket doesn’t fit right. And don’t just take the word of the fitter. Look at how he’s dressed. Usually these guys are too long in the sleeve and trousers, just like most of their victims.
I was talking to Ralph Lauren about change in men’s style not long ago and he took a really hard line that I agree with. He said, “If it doesn’t look right now, it never looked right.” Something to think about when you buy that suit. Shop for eternity.
Illustrations by Jean-Philippe Delhomme
How to be a Man is published by Rizzoli