A good friend recently asked me for a fashion favor.
One of his client’s sons was graduating college and joining the executive ranks but had absolutely no idea how to shop for a professional wardrobe.
Knowing that I had close relationships with men’s clothiers around town, my friend asked me to select an appropriate men’s store and accompany the young man on his first ever professional wardrobe shopping excursion.
Not a problem – I thought it would be nothing more than an introduction to my tailor.
Turned out though that the young man had never worn a single piece of tailored clothing in his life.
He had no idea how to discern proper fit or how to work with a tailor to ensure that the final fitting was perfect. What I thought would take less than an hour was the first lesson of many for this young man.
Learning the Basics of Menswear
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Few young men ever have the need for a suit before they leave college, and even then, their first suits are likely to be purchased off-the-rack in department stores, with “tailoring” consisting only of hemming the pants. They simply don’t know how much they don’t know.
So, to all those men, young and old, who want to know what they’re doing when looking in a three-way mirror and examining themselves in a suit, here are the tailoring basics that you should know.
First – Shop in a Men’s Store
You’d think this would be obvious, but apparently it’s not.
In order to try on quality men’s suits, sportcoats and pants, you need to start in a quality men’s clothing store. Not a department store (Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus excepted) and not a men’s bargain basement suit store. You need to work with people who live and breathe men’s fashion, have a tailor on staff and will take the time to educate you and work with you through your fittings (note that I said “fittings”, not “fitting”).
Department stores like Macy’s or Dillards simply don’t maintain the same level of talent, professionalism and attention to detail that define a quality men’s store. Just as you wouldn’t trust essential surgical care to a walk-in clinic housed in a WalMart, you shouldn’t entrust the care of your professional wardrobe to a teenaged sales clerk outfitted with a piece of chalk and a mouthful of pins.
The Fitting and Adjusting an Off-the-Rack Suit
The first step in tailoring a suit is trying on both the jacket and pants, ideally over one of the dress shirts that you wear to work (not a t-shirt or polo shirt) and while wearing a pair of your dress shoes.
When heading to a men’s store to purchase a suit, it’s important that you wear appropriate clothing to ensure that you end up with a perfect fit. Wear a dress shirt that you would normally wear to work and also wear a pair of dress shoes so that your pants can be tailored to the precise length that’s appropriate with the shoes you’ll be wearing to the office.
In case you weren’t aware, non-custom suits are measured by the wearer’s chest and come in three separate dimensions: short, regular and long. It’s important that you understand what your basic measurement is, so that you can start with a jacket that will require the least amount of tailoring to your frame.
If you don’t know, ask the salesperson to measure your chest and try on jackets that match that measurement and also one size above and below to ensure that you’re starting with the right size.
What to look for in clothing fit:
- Overall fit. What’s your first impression? Is the suit pulling as you try to button it, indicating that it’s too small, or are you swimming in excess fabric? There are limits to how much any jacket can be tailored to either take in or let out fabric along its assorted seams, so the jacket should be close to an ideal fit or you should try another size.
- Start with the shoulders. The edge of the padding in the shoulders in the jacket should not extend beyond your shoulders. If it does, the jacket’s too big (this may be the single biggest tailoring flaw I see executives sporting day to day).
- Chest. You should not feel any restriction of movement across your chest or back or pulling from armpit to armpit. If you do, the jacket’s too small and either needs to be let out in the chest or you need to try a larger size. The chest of the jacket should lay flat across your chest. If there are any balloons of fabric or the jacket bulges, either the jacket is too large or the tailor needs to make some essential adjustments.
- Neck – angling your three-way mirror, look at how the fabric lies from the base of your neck down your shoulder blades. There should not be a roll of fabric bulging along the base of your neck. If there is, the tailor should correct it.
- Waist – If you have one, so should your jacket. Many off the rack suit jackets are not tapered at the waist, so your tailor will have to make this adjustment for you.
- Sleeves – should break just at the wrist and allow a little bit of shirt cuff to show. As you become more familiar with your personal tailoring specifics, you’ll learn the precise difference to hem the cuff of your sleeve from the tip of your thumb so your tailor can make every jacket fit as precisely as every other jacket in your closet.
- Rise – the first fitting element to note is the pant’s rise (the distance between the crotch of the pants and its waistband). Different men are proportioned differently, so some require a low rise and some require a high-waisted pant. If you typically wear a low-rise pant and the pants you’re trying on sits above your navel, you’ve got problems. There’s not much a tailor can do to alter a pant’s rise, so if the rise isn’t right, you need to try a suit from another designer.
- Waist – the waistband should fit comfortably but not snugly. If the waistband is too tight, it will pull and stretch the fabric directly under the reinforced waistband and look sloppy and ill-fitting.
- Seat – the seat of your pants should follow the contours of your own seat. You shouldn’t get a wedgie from your suit pants nor look like you’re wearing a baggy diaper. If the seat droops, have the tailor take it in. If it’s tight, have him let the seat out.
- Length – You have two decisions when determining how to hem your pants: length and cuff. For length, my personal preference is for the suit pant to break on the top of my dress shoes, but others prefer a full break or no break at all. There is no “right” length of pant, just personal preference. And regarding cuffs, if the suit pant has pleats, I cuff them, if the pants are flat front I don’t cuff them.
The Second Suit Fitting
When you return to the store to pick up your suit, try it on again, stand in front of the 3-way mirror and look for final adjustments. It is exceedingly rare for me to accept a suit after its initial tailoring effort, especially if multiple adjustments were made.
The suit should fit perfectly. It should lay flat across your chest, should button comfortably without any indication of pull across your waist and should have no visible bulges or ripples in the fabric.
The pants should fit comfortably in the waist, the seat should drape without any pull or droop, and the cuff should fall exactly where you intended. If there are any imperfections, alert the tailor and have the minor adjustments made to perfect the suit’s fit.