How To Tailor An Off-The-Rack Men’s Suit

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.

mens two button suitTurned 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.

tailor shop sign

In order to try on quality men’s suits, sport coats 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 teenage 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.

A Man's Guide To Style

What to look for in clothing fit:

Jacket

  1. mens proper suit fitOverall 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Pants

  1. mens dress pants cuffsRise – the first fitting element to note is the pants 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

This is a guest post by John Heaney – for great business marketing advice visit his blog http://orange-envelopes.com/blog/

  • Red_warrior47

    Bravo! This is easily one of the easiest articles on tailoring a suit to read and fully understand that I’ve seen! I’ve definitley learned a few things here. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/RMRStyle Real Men Real Style

    Thank you sir! John did an excellent job – we agree!

  • Wsgreaves

    What about the length of a suit jacket?

  • http://twitter.com/ATailoredSuit Antonio Centeno

    It can be shortened - usually not more than an inch or two because of proportion reasons.  Lengthening is tricky – first is there fabric?  Second, what is the style of the front curve and 3rd will it look right proportionally.

  • jessydiamond

    Really nice article!

  • jessydiamond

    Really a great article. I just bought an off-the-rack navy blazer, I was glad to know to ask the tailor for. Every men should know this. While I’m here, I have a question : how exactly should the waist be tailored? The tailor said he will take off some fabric off the back to make the jacket tighter, but I don’t know if he will taper the waist specifically. I remember seeing pins all the way up in the back of the jacket. Should I ask him to taper the waist more? How can I know if the waist was tailored correctly? Thanks!

  • http://exclaim-apps.com.au Tmstr

    Thanks Antonio. And here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: even if you go to a supposedly good menswear store, if you’re buying an off the rack suit and they say the pants and suit are only sold as a set pair, you’re heading for trouble.

    When I bought my first suit, I went to a well known menswear chain store (Oxford, in Sydney). Found a suit in a cloth I liked, and the jacket was the perfect fit. To use a worn out cliche very appropriately, I looked like a million dollars. But being big of buttock, the pants wouldn’t fit. I tried the next size pants up and they fit perfectly. Problem solved, I said, just match them up!Sorry, the salesman told me, they only come as a set — but we can take the larger jacket in a little and it will be fine. It fitted looked OK, and not knowing better at the time. It wasn’t until I tried another suit on sometime later that I realised that I’d been had.

    So no matter where you’re shopping, if you don’t feel like a million dollars in the suit you try on, don’t get it! And if you run into a shop where suits are sold as an inseparable set — run out again. Run, like the wind!

  • http://exclaim-apps.com.au Tmstr

    Thanks John. I learned this lesson the hard way. Young fellows, take note: even if you go to a supposedly good menswear store, if you’re buying an off the rack suit and they say the pants and suit are only sold as a set pair, you’re heading for trouble.

    When I bought my first suit, I went to a well known menswear chain store (Oxford, in Sydney). Found a suit in a cloth I liked, and the jacket was the perfect fit. To use a worn out cliche very appropriately, I looked like a million dollars. But being big of buttock, the pants wouldn’t fit. I tried the next size pants up and they fit perfectly. Problem solved, I said, just match them up!Sorry, the salesman told me, they only come as a set — but we can take the larger jacket in a little and it will be fine. It fitted looked OK, and not knowing better at the time. It wasn’t until I tried another suit on sometime later that I realised that I’d been had.

    So no matter where you’re shopping, if you don’t feel like a million dollars in the suit you try on, don’t get it! And if you run into a shop where suits are sold as an inseparable set — run out again. Run, like the wind!

  • jtmacready

    I’ve got a suit that I’m supposed to pick up this weekend…the lapels point out in front of me.  So the jacket fits great in shoulders and waist, but as you come up from my abs, the lapels have a definite point, like spikes sticking out of my chest in front of me.  if I unbutton it, it seems to flatten out.  When buttoned, it’s bad.  And, the tailor at Nordstrom has told me that there is nothing she can do about it….it’s my body type.  I’ve got an athletic build and am really unhappy at the thought of having to buy something that looks so silly.
     
    I’ve already purchased the suit.  Do you know of any fix for this problem? 

  • jtmacready

    Also, excellent article…I won’t make this mistake again by purchasing a suit at basically a woman’s store…

  • rmrstyle

     @jtmacready 1st – can you return it?  If you used a Credit Card you should have a period of 90 days you can return (American Express is longer – I think a year?) even if the merchant rejects.  
     
    If this is a no go – take it to another tailor – like doctors, you need a second opinion.  The tailor at Nordstrom’s doesn’t get paid extra to fix this – so she might have just been out of her league.  My guide to finding a tailor is here www.atailoredsuit.com/how-to-choose-tailor.html
     
    It sounds like the lapel is too tightly wound at some point and by cutting the fabric you could relieve the pressure and get a flat lay – but this is a shot in the dark without seeing it in person on you.  
     
    Best of luck sir – Antonio