Collective Wisdom: What Suit Should I Buy?

I get a lot of random emails of people asking me for clothing advice. I’m flattered that they value my opinion enough to reach out to me, but mine is just one man’s subjective opinion. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote something to the effect that in asking for my advice you’ve already chosen the answer. Most of the questions are things I feel I couldn’t possibly answer, as there are too many subjective variables — of which I am unaware — on behalf of the man asking the question.

Furthermore, I just don’t have the time to answer them all. However, it occurred to me that I do have the time for something more worthwhile. Instead of writing an email offering one man’s advice, let me instead create a blog post in which the seeker’s question can be put to the entire readership. I will be doing him a far better service that way, and the information gleaned from the discussion will likely benefit others as well.

So let’s call this a new series of reader questions called Collective Wisdom. We already do this in our Facebook group, but now we can do it with a larger audience and for the benefit of those who shy away from social media. So use the contact button above and keep sending in those questions.

But please bear a couple of things in mind. One is the old adage that opinions are like — pick the body part of your choice — and everybody’s got one. The other is that studies have shown that too many choices activates a part of the brain responsible for the feeling of regret. Ask someone if he wants chocolate, vanilla or strawberry ice cream and he’ll probably be quite happy with his sweet treat. But offer him 31 flavors and whichever he chooses won’t be quite as satisfying. Paul Winston of Chipp/Chipp2 told me that he learned very young that when I guy comes in and says he wants a blue suit, you ask him a couple of questions and then show him five swatches. You don’t plop 10 books in front of him with 25 blue swatches in each. He’ll never be able to make up his mind.

And now here’s our first call for Collective Wisdom from a guy who wants a new suit but feels bogged down by too many choices. — CC

* * *

I work in a profession where a daily suit is still the norm. I’ve gotten away with a “uniform” of navy blazer and grey trousers. Not too shabby, but still sometimes falls short in certain settings. I currently have one suit: Hickey Freeman. Great suit. Local Shop. Certain I paid too much.

As I move forward, pulling more suits into the wardrobe — let’s say 4-5 — where should I start? I like going to the local men’s shop, but ultimately I know I am paying top dollar and being sold what they have in inventory. So perhaps the shopping should start somewhere else. I lean toward Ivy/Trad and share you opinion on lapel width.

Money is not an issue per se, but in a perfect world I am not spending the $1,700 I spend on the Hickey Freeman for all of these. I am certainly familiar with all the companies that routinely make appearance on your site, but there are even so many of those I get overwhelmed.

29 Comments on "Collective Wisdom: What Suit Should I Buy?"

  1. I’ll get us started.

    Dear Seeker of Collective Wisdom (you can leave a comment as Seeker), I feel we need more information to help alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed. You seem to have given us two priorities: less than the $1,700 you previously paid, and lapels of 3 inches. That still leaves a lot of variables.

  2. Mitchell S. | May 20, 2017 at 3:30 pm |

    Dear Seeker: let me try to paraphrase your question. You want to know what are the five suits every guy should own. Basically every guy needs two solid suits, two striped suits, and a novelty suit, like a Glenn Plaid or a seersucker for summer. Grey and navy blue are the classic menswear colors. It’s that simple.

    Next, get the best advice you can find. Alan Flusser’s “Dressing the Man” is the bible of menswear. Another good source of information is the suit department at Brooks Brothers. They have been selling suits since 1818, so they are the Harvard, if you will, of suits. Ask what differentiates a Golden Fleece suit from an outlet store suit and they will be glad to tell you.

    Finally, dear seeker, I suspect that you already know this. Without pictures, or more details, it is impossible to answer your vague questions. Rest assured however, that Ivy Style is the Mecca of style blogs, and Mr. C. is the grand guru of fashion, am I right, Christian?

  3. Navy, olive drab, gray, khaki, and a quiet Glen plaid. I like a gray chalk stripe pant with a blue blazer.

    Will

  4. Roger Sack | May 20, 2017 at 5:59 pm |

    Another good source of information is the suit department at Brooks Brothers. They have been selling suits since 1818, so they are the Harvard, if you will, of suits. Ask what differentiates a Golden Fleece suit from an outlet store suit and they will be glad to tell you.

    I have no idea where you have been the past 2 decades.
    Other than a label and mostly Ivy-derived styles, BB is
    hardly like the old BB up through the 80s. In it’s present
    incarnation in terms of quality and style it is not much more
    than a better Mens Wearhorse- less trendy and more expensive,
    perpetually on sale. I was in the San Francisco store a
    few weeks ago. There was nothing in a suit that had a true
    natural should- the Harvard of Ivy, Not!

  5. More comments on the Facebook group than here so far, Seeker. I think you’ll want to join.

  6. whiskeydent | May 20, 2017 at 9:24 pm |

    @Seeker

    The Hart, Schaffner & Marx and David Donahue lines might be less expensive alternatives to Hickey-Freeman. Both are broadly available in department stores, which means you might be able to score one on sale. It’ll be hard to go wrong with a solid gray or dark blue.

    However, I think there are some broader questions that will help you nail these decisions. Often, you can narrow things down by figuring out what you DON’T need or want.

    What shades look best on you? Or look worst? Not what you like, necessarily, but what do others say? Do dark colors make you look pasty? Are medium shades better?

    What’s your build — honestly? Obviously, slim, average height guys can get away with just about anything (the bastards!). However, decisions can become more difficult if one is vertically challenged or generously proportionally. Color and cut can make the problem better or worse. I’m in the latter group and must resist the urge to buy loose fitting clothes. They worsen the situation.

    What’s the climate where you live? If you’re in the Northeast, you might want to purchase a flannel or two and an overall more formal look. If you have to endure endless summers of hellish heat in the South or Southwest, go for tropical wools and, perhaps, have the lining inside the jacket partially removed. And then learn to put on your jacket only when you must.

    And one other thing: be patient and hold out for what you really want. I fail at this all the time.

  7. I guess it’s time to come out of the shadows…

    I’ll start responding to some of the feedback:

    I’d say navy looks best . I am not sure is worst on me. Probably brown. I’m pretty fair skinned.

    I describe myself as having a medium build. Not thin, but not really overweight either. 6′ tall.

    I live in the hot, humid south.

    Let me know what other details will help

  8. whiskeydent | May 20, 2017 at 11:25 pm |

    Go to a store and try varying shades of gray beside your face in front of a mirror. I bet you can narrow in what level of darkness works best in gray and blue. That could probably go for olive greens too, but green can be a tricky color to deal with. For me, florescent lighting in stores can alter the color.

    The next is patterns. Michael S. like pinstripes. I don’t. Do you?

    And then there’s plaids. Beware of loud ones. Check out muted blue plaids on dark gray backgrounds. They can look very elegant.

    Then check out weaves: bird’s eye, nail head, muted herringbone, etc. I have a blue bird’s eye I really like because it creates visual interest by looking darker from a distance than up close. I would avoid houndstooth (too sporty or too busy) and anything with major contrasts.

    Since you’re in the South, you should consider at least one light colored suit in gray or tan, perhaps a wool/linen blend.

    Just keep winnowing out what you like and don’t like until you’ve got 5-6 choices. Pick from there.

  9. Thanks @whiskeydent!

    Great thoughts to begin the narrowing process.

    I’d say no to pinstripes in general, though if they were muted enough I may be able to get onboard. My suit now is navy with a muted reddish/pink plaid. You can barely see until you are up close.

    I confess my ignorance to weaves, so I’ll have to do a bit more homework there.

  10. Mitchell S. | May 21, 2017 at 5:40 am |

    JTM: If you can, buy a three-piece suit, or at least a two piece suit where you can wear the pieces separately. This rules out pinstripes, but subtle stripes, like blue seersucker may work for you. A seersucker jacket can be easily worn with khakis and no one would know that it is part of a suit.

    Alan Flusser once wore ripped jeans with a formal, striped suit jacket, but somehow he made it work. This look however (ripped jeans and striped formal suit jacket) is not for amateurs because you risk looking like a hobo.

    Fit, color, and proportion are three criteria that will make or break a suit. Here, Flusser discussed how different styles suit different body types:
    https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=wWqMzLxMj1c

  11. Start with solids.

  12. juan cruz | May 21, 2017 at 6:19 pm |

    A redundant comment, but one that supports the general idea.
    First thing first, consider where do you live. It is of extreme importance, because a poplin suit in winter in Saint Paul Minnesota, or a Wool Tweed one in August in Miami will certainly make a difference. Second consider your physical appearance and your skin color complexion ex: thin pin stripes in a 6.4” dude uhmmm. Large windowpane in a 5. 4” uhmmm again. Someone recommended Flusser for reference, an excellent choice; color can make or destroy the best and most expensive of them all. And third forget all about it, and buy whatever fits you better, the one you can afford and foremost the one that you like best.

  13. Great thoughts Juan. I especially appreciate the third point. It’s easy to get too caught up in the details.

  14. Seeker-
    I assume you’re a creative who does some sort of freelance work…so…I’d start with an exploded seam, candy stripe rowing costume from Jack Carlson. $1700 will only get you the jacket, so budget another $1800 for the pants. Once you have that (you lucky dog) – and have bought all the patches and knick-knackery you need to round out the ensemble – you should be ready for your first F.E. Castleberry bespoke number. CC can arrange an appointment with F.E. (they’ve been friends for many years) – you’ll need $3000.00 and a copy of the book ‘Rowing Blazers’ to get started. Be sure to have F.E. paint a neon stripe on your book for you (another $1000) so it matches your Jack Carlson stuff! See you at the golf simulator!

  15. Dear Seeker:

    First piece of menswear advice, never ask for advice on menswear. Go to your local Dillard’s or Brooks Outlet and try on as many till you find what you like. You’ll find great suits for $350-800 all day and you’ll get a feel for what “suits” you. Shop for fit not style. Wear what you feel confident in. Try and stick with 1-2 labels once you know what works for you (then you can buy online when sales come about like Brooks Summer Suit Sale). A silk/wool blend navy with good lapel stitching for business/client facing meetings is a must. In the south we enjoy sport coats so maybe consider adding a couple.

  16. Dear Seeker,
    Pakeman, Catto, & Carter in the UK produce suits in sturdy British fabrics (mostly Fox Brothers) that are classically cut and thankfully ignore the current fashion of wearing tailored clothing too tight. Best of all, minus VAT and with the current exchange rate, one can obtain a suit that will last decades for under $500. Wonderful accessories as well.

  17. VEA: ummm…

    WFBjr: great thoughts. The online experience can’t compare to getting out there an trying on.

    227style: Never heard of this group. I’ll add them to the list to check out.

  18. Charlottesville | May 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm |

    Seeker — I would echo the call for navy and medium-to-dark gray solids or chalk stripes, augmented perhaps with a glen plaid. And since you are in the Steamy South, a tan poplin and a seersucker would be nice for the summers. I bet a muted, blue-gray glen plaid would look great on you if navy is your color. I’d also like to put in a word for Southwick, which still produces well-made sack suits in 2-button and 3/2 models, as well as the more standard darted jackets. They can be had in your fabric of choice for a good bit less than what you paid for Hickey Freeman. If you can get past the idea of buying second-hand clothes, I also recommend eBay. It’s not for everybody, and it took me a while to get over my initial reluctance, but I have been quite pleased with several purchases, particularly since the 3/2 sacks I prefer are getting pretty rare outside O’Connell’s and J. Press. Glad to see that you are keeping the suit-wearing tradition alive.

  19. Henry Contestwinner | May 22, 2017 at 4:36 pm |

    I was just about to suggest poplin for warm weather—and I see that my sartorial twin, Charlottesville, beat me to it.

    With a small wardrobe of only four or five suits, each one needs to be nondescript. This means that solids are the way to go. You’ve told us that navy looks good on you, so after you have one or two navy suits, see if you can find something flattering in medium blue as well. Charcoal gray is the standard suit color, wearable any time you need a suit, so that is another suit. See if you can find something in mid-gray; if not, two charcoal gray suits will work well.

    That’s four suits. For the fifth, your current suit, with its subtle pattern, seems nice.

    Once you’ve have the basics, then start looking at seasonal suits and patterns. In the South, seersucker is a classic, and is now available in quite a few colors. See which one(s) work for you. Poplin is another good warm-weather choice, See what colors flatter you.

    Patterns? Whatever floats your boat—and is acceptable in your workplace.

  20. Henry –

    Awesome feedback. This is very helpful, especially in terms of fleshing out the entire 5 or so suits. Thanks so much.

  21. Henry Contestwinner | May 22, 2017 at 4:43 pm |

    P.S.: Never mix suit parts with other clothes. A suit is one article of clothing, in two or three pieces.

    The exception is for certain casual fabrics, such as seersucker and tweed. With skill, parts of suits in such fabrics can be mixed with other pieces.

  22. May I add that fit is (almost) everything. An inexpensive suit, well-fitting and correctly tailored, will look so much nicer than an expensive suit that isn’t

  23. Henry Contestwinner | May 22, 2017 at 7:14 pm |

    JTM, I’m very happy that you found my comments helpful. Thank you for letting me know.

    Don raised an important point: tailoring is key. Try to find a good alterations seamstress who knows how to fit men’s clothes to men’s bodies. To find one, ask around. Ask someone whose suits fit him well where he goes. You might also find one through a dry cleaner or a high-end men’s clothing store. You can also try searching on-line, but a word-of-mouth recommendation is probably better. Don’t be afraid to try several, and fire the ones who don’t do satisfactory work.

  24. CC

    “Sad”. I commend your restraint. I would say VEA is a First Class Schmuck.

    Henry

    Excellent advice regarding breaking suits. The only suit I break is my seersucker. I have a couple tweed suits; but I never wear them as anything other than suits.

  25. Henry Contestwinner | May 23, 2017 at 3:09 am |

    While Fred deserves the disapprobation he gets for his sartorial silliness, I’m afraid that AEV/VEA’s most recent salvo is subpar. If this keeps up, he’ll soon be found wandering the streets of his town in the finest elder preppy garb, hair tousled like Bernie Sanders, muttering to himself things along the following lines:

    “That consarned Castleberry! Who does he think he is, charging $2000 for his trademarked skidmark pants? Why, I could pass water on a camelhair blazer and—wait a sec, blazers are supposed to be navy blue, not tan! Drat that Dingleberry! Him and his pansy skintight suits! And he goes sockless the wrong way! Then he wears those hideous monogrammed velvet slippers, sockless in winter, with his outlandish critter pants, when everyone knows he’s from Texas!”

    And so on. AEV/VEA, I hope you let go of Fred and let him be his ridiculous self—for your sake.

  26. If Fred is successful in selling pants and suits for thousands of dollars then I want to read your book you magnificent bastard.

    Will

  27. Henry Contestwinner | May 23, 2017 at 1:25 pm |

    Will, it remains to be seen whether or not Fred is successful in hawking his wares. It would be a wonder indeed if he were, seeing that he is adding only his name and his “style” to what he sells.

  28. FEC provoked too much sartorial controversy even for Rugby. However, I have it on good authority that he’s a nice guy.

    Let’s leave the ad hominems ad domum.

    Opining on the original topic, in my career thus far I’ve made off splendidly with two charcoal grey Southwick suits. One in flannel with a muted chalk stripe and one worsted with pinstripes. Supplementing that, I have a flannel Southwick blazer and a worsted Samuelsohn… both navy, naturally. I gravitate towards the “updated American” cut. Still traditional, still with a natural shoulder, but with moderate shape.

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