If you don’t wear suits all the time, knowing all the style rules to follow is a daunting task. Many of them are unspoken and you’re only clued in if you’re doing it wrong or live and work as an expert or avid fashion follower.
So we took time to round up the most important rules for how to wear a suit and put them into a simple, condensed cheat-sheet that you can easily refer to whenever you find yourself neck-deep in a three-piece. Also, if you’re in the process of building your “suit wardrobe” the good news is you only need three staple suits that will work for any occasion.
There are always exceptions and qualifications for each of these rules, so don’t take them as the end-all-be-all. Having personal flair is key.
Level I: The Basics
- Your belt should be relatively thin and also the same color as your shoes.
- Your tie should always be darker than your dress shirt.
- Your tie bar should never be wider than your tie.
- If you’re wearing a vest, always keep the bottom button unbuttoned.
- Always unbutton your suit before sitting down or you risk ruining it.
- Always remove the stitching on the vents and the label on the left sleeve before wearing a new suit.
- Never remove the stitching of the jacket pockets and never use your pockets, they can easily be stretched out, warping the entire suit.
Level II: Finer Points
- The width of your tie should match the width of your lapel.
- Your tie should just reach the waistband of your trousers or the top of your belt buckle.
- Your suit jacket should be just long enough to cover your pants’ zipper and butt.
- The top button of a two-button (or the middle button of a three-button) jacket should fall at or above your navel.
- Sleeve cuffs should be exposed about half an inch.
- Make sure that your socks are long enough that there’s no exposed leg when sitting down.
- A good tailor can work wonders on a suit that you love, but know it won’t fit or feel like it did before.
Level III: Style Savvy
- A pocket square adds an extra level of polish, but make sure it doesn’t match your tie in either pattern or fabric choice.
- In general, thin lapels are more modern, whereas wide lapels are more old-school (read: dated).
- Opt for a charcoal or gray suit over black, unless you’re attending a funeral or other equally conservative event.
- For a more fashion-forward look, the pant hem should hit right at the top of your shoe.
- When you go without a tie, it’s best to keep your shirt collar on the smaller side.
- Double vents in the back are more modern and fashionable.
- Avoid over-accessorizing. If you’re already wearing a pocket square and a tie bar, you’ll want to reconsider that clever lapel pin.
Level IV: Shopping Smart
- Choose fabric according to how often you’ll wear the suit. The most versatile option is a soft, but durable wool like super 120 (a measure of yarn fineness), any higher is too delicate for daily use.
- When buying an off-the-rack suit, the number one thing to check is how the shoulders fit.
- A collar gap between your jacket’s lapels and your shirt’s collar can signify an ill-fitting jacket.
- If you’re going for more formal business attire, opt for a double-button, notched lapel jacket.
- For a more casual, trendy look, opt for a single-button, peak-lapel jacket.
- You should be able to slip your hand between your chest and your buttoned jacket such that it feels snug, but with room to move.
- Visible stitches around the edges of your lapels (called pick-stitching) aren’t necessarily a sign of a well-made garment anymore. However, they can be an attractive decorative flourish—as long as they’re subtle.
Level V: The 3 Suit Styles You Must Have
Eric Powell, Founder of Ratio Clothing, a digital and brick-and-mortar business that custom-tailors your shirts and suits, says these three suits should be the building blocks of your suit wardrobe:
Dark All-Season Solid
“If you only want one suit in your closet, this is the one. This is the all-purpose suit you can wear to weddings, funerals, job interviews, and everything in-between. Dark charcoal or navy is the move here- not black. A black suit can look stark in daylight and is generally reserved for service staff uniforms,” says Powell. “Keep things simple on this one with a two button, notch lapel. A solid fabric will make it versatile, so you can pair with virtually any shirt or tie. We like a Super 110’s or Super 120’s gabardine that will be comfortable to wear in any season.”
“Not a suit exactly, but these days the situation often calls for something less than a full suit. The navy blazer is your friend when the formality is unclear or if you want to kick your casual wear up a notch. Wear it with jeans or your finest wool trousers. Throw on a tie. Or not. If you wear a navy blazer you’ll rarely be underdressed or overdressed,” he says. “We like a travel-ready fabric like hopsack for your navy blazer. Connoisseurs will often go with an unconstructed model for their all-purpose blazer. This keeps things less rigid, literally and figuratively, and will be comfortable for long days that take you from the office to an evening on the town.”
Powell’s Pick: Unconstructed sport coat in Super 140’s light navy performance hopsack from Drago, $798 made-to-measure at Ratio.
A Summer Suit
“Situation: It’s your college friend’s wedding. Or maybe you’re heading to the horse track. Whatever it is, that dark suit in your closet just feels too sober. If the situation calls for a suit but you want to be more playful and fun, here’s your chance,” Powell adds. “Choose a lighter color, even tan (you’re not the President, so it’s allowed) in a summer fabric like seersucker or cotton. If those feel too far out of your comfort zone, a true blue fresco–a light wool–can still feel more seasonally appropriate (aesthetically and temperature-wise).
Powell’s Pick: Two-piece suit in Italian tan cotton. $1095, made-to-measure at Ratio.