Monday, November 27, 2006

A Suitable Wardrobe

At a certain point in their lives, most men begin wearing suits. Some may wear them only for particular ceremonial occasions; others may wear them seven days a week. By wearing them they participate in a world-wide custom that arose when the British were the mercantile rulers of the earth.

Successful participation in the custom of wearing suits requires a wardrobe that is sufficient to each man’s requirements. Many men need only a couple of basics. Others wear suits every day in their professional lives and require a more substantial wardrobe that offers them a choice of appropriate clothing for a variety of occasions.

In 1960, the columnist George Frazier singled out the late A. J. Drexel Biddle, then sixty-three and the Adjutant General of Pennsylvania, as the best-dressed man in the United States. It’s worth examining what was in his closet because it was much less than we might expect.

Biddle's wardrobe contained seven suits:

  • three blue solids, two of them double breasted and one single breasted
  • two blue pinstripes, one single breasted and one double breasted

  • one charcoal gray single breasted
  • one double-breasted light-grey semi-solid in a lighter weight cloth

This collection was supplemented by formal day wear, which was worn more frequently in 1960 than it is today. Biddle had a charcoal-grey cutaway with waistcoat and trousers as well as a charcoal-grey single-breasted sack coat with trousers.

Most men no longer require Biddle’s formal clothes for wear during the week, and will want a selection of clothing suitable for a wider range of temperatures. But we can conclude from Biddle’s wardrobe that a man can be well dressed with a relatively modest amount of conservative clothing.

Building a Basic Wardrobe
The basic suits in a wardrobe should be made from high quality fabrics in unremarkable colors and patterns. The suit is the most expensive garment a man wears during the day, and the purpose of conservative suitings is to minimize the number of suits required to realize a reasonable variety in his appearance.

Accessories let you achieve different looks with the same suits. A dark gray suit, for example, will be comfortable paired with a pink checked shirt, maroon necktie and dark brown shoes, and look different but equally appropriate with a wide spread collared blue twill shirt, dark green foulard necktie and black shoes the next wearing.

The man who wears a suit infrequently, or is just beginning his wardrobe, should begin with suits in dark gray and navy. The navy is better for evenings and for more formal occasions such as a wedding. The gray is a basic daytime suit, appropriate for a job interview.

The next step up, for the man who wears suits every day, is five suits, with a sixth recommended to allow for cleaning and repairs. The additional suits give each garment time to rest and recover its shape between wearings in addition to providing greater wardrobe flexibility. For example, midnight blue is a better choice for evening wear than navy. Navy is a better daytime color for most complexions.

A basic selection of suits could include:

  • Dark gray solid

  • Midnight blue solid

  • Medium gray semi-solid

  • Gray pin stripe

  • Navy blue chalk stripe
The sixth suit can be less formal than the first five, for wear on Fridays as well as less formal weekend occasions. A black and white check, with or without a blue or red over check, is a good choice.

A Bit about Cloth
The two components of any suit are the tailoring and the components, principally the cloth. Cloth deserves its own chapter – here we’ll just explain about fabric weight.

Men in temperate climates should begin with a basic wardrobe made from medium weight cloth. Fabric weight is measured in ounces per linear yard (36” x 60”) or linear meter of fabric. Standard medium weight cloth of 10 - 11 ounces per yard is considered “ten month” suiting that can be worn on all but the very warmest days.

If you’re having your suits made to measure or made by a tailor, you’ll choose the cloth from swatch books containing actual samples. An established tailor may offer thousands of choices.

The challenges grow greater when you are buying suits off the rack, as your choices are limited to those chosen for you by the retailer. Few stores will offer heavier cloth for winter or the best open weave cloths for summer. Your best defense is to visit a tailor and learn to feel the different weights for yourself. Suits are expensive, and the education will prove worthwhile

Expanding a Basic Wardrobe
For most men, building a wardrobe takes years. To expand your wardrobe you’ll need to acquire more suits each year than you wear out, a formula that varies according to the frequency that you wear each suit and the quality of its construction.

As you expand your basic wardrobe your objectives should be to extend the lives of your existing suits, provide choices for different occasions and acquire clothing that will be comfortable in a broader range of temperatures. Men in temperate climates who wear suits every day should initially supplement the basic six suits with three suits for hot weather, and three suits for cold weather.

Cold weather suits of 13 ounce wool will provide durability, warmth and drape. 13 ounce suitings are comfortable without an overcoat in temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit as well as in normally heated offices. They wear, hang and keep their shape better than suits made from lighter weight cloth.

Open weave 10 ounce cloths are best for warm weather suits, which should be no more than partially lined as the lining material inhibits air circulation. The warm weather standard for tailor-made suits is a quarter lining, which means that the sleeves are lined so your arms slide smoothly in and out, but most of the rest of the coat is unlined.

Loosely woven fabrics for warm weather include high twist wool fresco, mohair and wool blends. Ten ounce versions of these combine temperature control with reasonable drape and durability. They are actually cooler to wear than lighter weight tropical wools that do not breathe, but they are also more difficult to find unless you have them made for you.

If at all possible, most men should avoid tropical weight cloth of 7-8 ounce fabric in their basic wardrobe. Suits made from tropical wool are prone to wrinkle, less durable, and are warmer to wear than medium weight cloth that has been loosely woven to permit air circulation in hot weather. Unfortunately, tropical wool is also the ready to wear cloth sold most widely because it’s less expensive than heavier cloth of the same quality. It is usually offered with a full lining that further inhibits air circulation.

Spring and summer suits can be in lighter shades of blue and gray, as well as tan, because lighter colors look better in bright sunlight.

If you have reason to wear suits on weekends or holidays, one or two tweed suits for cold weather and one or two linen suits for hot days are excellent choices.

Irish linen’s typically rumpled look is also too casual for many offices but it’s an elegant choice for warm weather weekends and holidays. Like the Holland & Sherry cloth in the photo, it should weigh as much as 14 ounces, to minimize wrinkling but its open weave promotes air circulation and keeps you cool. A cream double breasted linen suit is one of the classics.

Tweed suits became rarities once central heating became commonplace. Typically 18 ounce cloth, they were too warm to wear indoors. Fortunately, there is now a selection of tweed weighing as little as 12 ounces that offers excellent alternatives for travel and suburban wear. Since they won’t usually be going to the city, choose country cloths with a brown or green base.

The Medium Wardrobe
As your suit wardrobe grows, you should continue to balance it so as to provide a selection of clothing for any weather and occasion. A medium-sized suit wardrobe in a temperate climate might be comprised of two dozen suits:

  • Ten city suits for spring/summer
  • Two country/weekend suits for spring/summer
  • Ten city suits for fall/winter
  • Two country/weekend suits for fall/winter
Of the ten suits in each season’s wardrobe, six or seven should be of the same types of conservative stripes, solids and semi-solids that make up the basic wardrobe. One or two others should be particularly elegant, such as a blue mohair and wool blend with a sophisticated sheen, for a speaking engagement or a night at the opera.

If you are so inclined, the remainder of each season’s suits can be “Friday suits” that are more relaxed and fun to accessorize. In fall and winter, your Friday suits could include a textured brown cheviot and a soft black and white flannel with a red windowpane check. In spring and summer they might be a black and white houndstooth check that appears gray at a distance and a silky tan gabardine.

Whether your suit wardrobe grows to fill all your closets or never needs to expand beyond the two basic suits that every man should own, an appropriate suit for the occasion places a man in the company of gentlemen around the world.


manton said...

I like this post very much and agree with almost all of it. I would make three comments:

1) A gray SB suit with a DB vest (as in the Apparel Arts illustration above) makes fine wedding or formal day wear. Not sure I have a consistent rationale for this, but as a groom I would wear blue, as a guest gray. That is assuming that the wedding dress code is loung suit and not formal day wear.

2) A midnight blue lounge suit is elegant, but somewhat impractical -- not really right for business day wear. A navy suit is fine for business and dark enough for smart evening attire short of black tie. A navy DB (or two, one for warm weather, one for cold) will be most useful for business and social occasions.

3) By all means avoid most tropical worsteds in favor of fresco and mohair. The one exception is the Lesser Superfine Tropical 8/9 ounce book, which tailors magnificently, drapes like steel, and is quite cool.

john said...

As a new poster I would like to give greetings to all and what a fine website.
My tailor in New York said that I can split certain suits to use as separates with odd trousers and jackets.
Is this appropriate?
Thank you.

Will said...

No reason you can't John, particularly the trousers. Be careful not to wear one part more than the other, and don't have them cleaned separately ot they will grow to be increasingly mis-matched.

vm said...

Firstly, what a terrific site. Secondly, I am looking at two double-breasted suits in excellent condition from the 1940s. One is a wool gabardine, the other quite lightweight and possibly, (but not definitely), a wool-rayon blend. I intend to wear one of these suits to a wedding in September where the temperatures may be anything between 20-29C (66-81F). I see now, it's all about the ounces...but how to tell? I'd appreciate any thoughts no end.

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