Suit Yourself!

O.K., confess. You don't know why we wear suits, what is a good one, how to clean it or why there are buttons on the sleeve.

October 1973By Comments

What Is A Good Suit?

THERE IS A GRADING SYSTEM for suits which is quite arbitrary; in fact it is written into the contracts between labor unions and clothing manufacturers. A Number Six suit, the highest grade, is made almost completely with hand labor; a Number Four suit has a good deal of hand stitching, particularly in the jacket, and the rest is done by machine. A Number Two suit has almost no hand stitching. In the trade, suits numbered Two or lower are known as “sanitary suits” because they are “untouched by human hands.” Since bad pressing can ruin a suit no matter how well made, the higher grade suits get more careful treatment during the original pressing done at the factory. A presser finishing Number Six suits does about four and a half garments in an eight-hour day. A Number Two suit generally costs less than $100; a Number Four, from $135-$160; a Number Six, over $200, sometimes far over.

But the matter does not end there. Nothing has been said about the material. Since the number of yard goods manufacturers have decreased (see discussion of Double Knits), the buying habits of clothing manufacturers have changed considerably. It used to be that makers of Number Six suits would not find themselves bidding against the makers of Number Two suits for the same material. Today it happens all the time.

Number Six manufacturers, with prices rising all around them, are faced with the problem of cutting costs somewhere to keep their suits, though naturally expensive, from becoming so expensive that not even an affluent customer can afford them. Frequently that cost is cut by using a good material rather than the best. Number Four manufacturers, on the other hand, have found that their suits, though not constructed with the precision of the Number Sixes, sell quite well when made from superior material, even at the higher price that that material will necessitate. Consequently, it is not unusual to find a Number Four suit made from better material than a Number Six, even though a Number Six still costs noticeably more.

A Number Four suit is a good suit, a satisfying garment for all but the most fastidious dressers. In the $150 to $200 price range, they are eminently acceptable for most everyone’s business and social occasions. If you’re not content to judge just by price, and you shouldn’t be, these pointers will help you come to an independent conclusion:

1) Check the material. Is it soft enough to be comfortable or will the suit stand in a corner on its own? Crinkle a small part of the trouser leg in your hand. Does it wrinkle easily? Does the material stretch slightly? That’s desirable; but if it stretches, watch how it recovers. A fabric slow to return to its natural shape will soon sag.

2) Check the lining. Is it good material? Is it well sewn, tight stitches, no sloppy threads? Is it hand sewn (distinguishable by irregularity between the stitches)?

3) Check the back seam of the jacket. Is the sewing clean? Is it by hand? Does the seam hang straight and lie flat?

4) Turn up the collar and look at the seam. The collar is a very important part of the suit. If it is tailored incorrectly, the jacket simply will not fit properly. The collar, therefore, should be hand sewn.

5) Examine the buttons. They should not be sewn flat against the fabric but have a short throat of wound thread. They should not be made of plastic, though this is not an absolute test. Some manufacturers of cheaper suits use very fancy buttons.

6) The slacks can have considerable machine stitching without great loss of quality. Still, the work should be clean, not frayed or cluttered with extra thread, and the seams straight and neatly gathered.

7) If the suit or jacket is plaid or any other prominent pattern, be sure it is “mitered” properly. Neither the chest nor side pockets should interrupt the pattern; and the sleeves, when hanging straight, should themselves continue the pattern as if they were part of the body of the jacket.

Do not be inhibited in making such examinations. A store selling good merchandise will not be afraid of what you find. In fact, they’ll probably be happy to sell to someone who understands the quality he’s getting. By the same token, if you’ve asked to see an $80 suit, don’t then complain to the salesman about the lack of hand stitching. In clothing, if not in love, you get what you pay for.

Is That Tie Really Hand Sewn?

For a while there was a rumor floating around that if a tie’s lining was striped, the tie was hand sewn. Whether or not that was ever true, it’s not true now. Clothing manufacturers keep their ears to the ground for such rumors. Had this one gained widespread credence, every tie in America would have striped lining.

There is one sure way to tell. Turn the tie over and look at the broad end. Is there a thread dangling from somewhere within the tie? That’s left after the seamstress ties off her last stitch. Machine-sewn ties don’t have it. Yet.

Another fashion myth is that a suit whose jacket is fully lined is a good suit. Remember that lining can cover up bad work as well as good. A $50 suit that is fully lined is a $50 suit that is fully lined.

Staying Fashionable While Staying Solvent: A Few Hints

Remember that the noticeably new soon looks noticeably old. Men’s fashions change rather slowly so that a well-made, well-fitted suit should look stylish for at least three years and maybe, depending on the suit and the times, for as long as five. So look at the suit you’re thinking about buying. Are you going to like yourself for buying it three years from now? If you aren’t, you can spend your money in a better way. Remember that while you may buy gimmicks, you must choose style.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you must never buy a gimmick even if your budget is limited. Gimmicks can be fun, can prevent you from looking somber, straight laced, stuffed-shirted, morose. Just don’t buy them with such a major investment as a suit. If there is a new trend coming out in shirts (shirt styles change more rapidly than suit styles) go ahead and buy a couple especially if you can’t afford a new suit this season. Pick out a few of the newest ties to go with those shirts. Odds are they will wear quite well with that suit from last year or the year before and, for a limited investment, you’ve got yourself not so much a new wardrobe as the appearance of one. But in the world of fashion appearance is reality.

When buying sports clothes, lean toward solid colored slacks and jackets of either solid colors or quiet patterns. Here again, let whatever color and patterns your personality requires come through in your shirts and ties. Slacks and sports jackets are not as visible as you may think. For one thing, the weather in Texas being what it is, the odds are that for comfort’s sake you’ll be slipping out of your jacket as soon as you get where you’re going, making your shirt all the more visible. Two pair of slacks and 10 shirts cost about the same as four slacks and four shirts. There are 20 outfits available from the two-ten combination, 16 from the four-four, and those six extra shirts are going to seem like a lot more clothes than the two extra slacks.

A word about sales. Shopping for a suit or sports jacket, you must learn which stores have sales that are really sales and not low priced dispersals of junk from two years ago. A good store cleans its racks once or twice a year. These suits, as noted earlier, should be stylish for another two years at least. If the savings is enough to make up for a year’s lost wear, you’ve got yourself a good buy. Be careful, though, that you know what you’re doing. Some stores, whether it’s sale time or not, give salesmen bonuses for selling something old. Decide which store(s) you trust, then watch for its (their) sales.

There are, however, certain items which can be bought on sale at considerable savings and with little risk: underwear, T-shirts, socks, even gloves and scarves. An executive at a very fashionable store told me he had customers of 20 years standing who bought all their clothes at that store and who had never paid full price for one stitch of underwear. You shouldn’t either.

A Word About the Blazer

You probably ought to have one, even in Texas, since the blazer can be made to look appropriate for almost any occasion. It is acceptable in most offices (If it’s not in yours, why the hell not?) worn with solid-colored slacks, a dress shirt, conservative tie, and lace shoes. For occasions slightly more casual, the blazer can be worn with brightly colored or patterned slacks, patterned shirt, adventurous tie, and slip-on shoes. If that same outfit is worn with a tieless sportshirt, the blazer becomes more casual still. One hundred dollars will buy a beautiful blazer that you will be proud to wear for five, six, seven years, maybe longer. Cheaper models cannot be counted on for the style, material, or craftsmanship to last that long.

Them Fancy Eastern Dudes Ain’t Got All The Answers

Since a large part of being well-dressed is feeling comfortable, not only with the way the clothes fit but also with the image they present, it follows that your clothes should complement your surroundings. The tweed jacket and wool or leather vest, long recommended by Eastern sages for “country” weekends, look just fine so long as the “country” is upstate New York. They would, on the other hand, look pretty silly on the streets (or street) of Luckenbach. Almost as silly as a Stetson and rough-out boots in Westchester County.

Many Texans dress quite conservatively so they will not look like Texans. More power to them; people should look the way they want to. But an Easterner has no qualms about looking very Eastern and, within certain limits, there’s no reason why a Westerner should have qualms about looking Western. There is an indigenous style of dress in Texas. It originated with the settlers who came here and evolved through some pretty rough history. Since Western clothes are essentially working clothes, dress clothes of the same design retain those functional virtues: They’re comfortable; the lines are simple, straightforward, and clean; they can be dressed up for one occasion, down for another. You probably don’t want a jacket with a blue rhinestone horse’s head on the back and matching brocade guitars on the front, but those are the frills of the style and not its essence.

In fact, Western-styled garments are being sold and worn all over the country. It’s predicted to be a very important look this fall and winter, especially in casual clothes. If it becomes very popular, Texans may find themselves in the peculiar position of becoming once again recognizable as Texans from not wearing Western clothes.

Of course the proper old money will continue to dress with that quiet, effortless tastefulness, very English in approach, which is at once eloquent and maddening. But in Texas the instinct for that style has never developed; perhaps there hasn’t been time, perhaps it will never take. Still, there is a difference in the way our “theys” dress and the way most of us do. In the future that difference may be (and this casually leaves aside the question of style) in the selection of natural fibers over synthetic ones. Cotton shirts, for example, which used to be all anybody had, are now relatively rare and expensive. There’s no doubt that in many ways they’re far superior to synthetic shirts. Cotton feels better against the skin, it “breathes” so that the shirt is cooler in summer, and it will dye richer, deeper, brighter colors. That cotton shirts must be frequently laundered and ironed is no drawback to the kind of man we’re talking about. Much the same thing applies to wool. How strange it will be for an ordinary man to find himself thinking, “I wish I could afford to wear cotton shirts and wool suits like Reginal Van Reginal IV.”

So you Can’t Stand Clothes and Don’t Want to Think About Them. What Then?

Buy everything of one color. Probably dark blue is best since it is appropriate for any occasion for which a suit is appropriate. If there is a pattern in the suit, that’s okay—you want a little variety after all—but make sure that it is muted enough that the suit seems still to be your basic blue. Now, buy black shoes, as many or as few as you care to. Buy shirts in colors that go with blue. (Your salesman can help you here.) Since the suits are solid blue or muted patterns, the patterns in the shirt needn’t concern you particularly; again, a salesman will be helpful. Same procedure with ties only avoid aggressive patterns since they might not go well with certain of your shirts. Buy black belts. Buy black or dark-blue socks.

Now, if you have chosen carefully, you should be able to dress in the dark, putting on any shirt, any suit, any tie, any pair of shoes, any pair of socks and walk out to meet the world looking not bad at all. After doing this for a while you may overhear someone saying about you, “That man Scarftight always wears blue.” But you don’t care. You can’t stand clothes and don’t want to think about them, remember?

Taking Care of Your Suits

Many men ruin their suits by having them cleaned and pressed too often. Frequent and/or faulty pressing will destroy even the best suit. Further complicating the problem, few modern cleaners really do a good job of pressing because proper pressing takes so long that most customers could not afford it.

Let a suit hang for a few days before wearing it again. You’ll be surprised how infrequently it really needs pressing. And the better the suit the longer it can be worn between trips to the cleaners. The head of a distinguished New York tailoring firm wore the same dinner jacket for over 30 years. During that time he didn’t have the jacket pressed once.

A Fitting Finish to a Fitting

By this time in your life you probably have a pretty good idea how long you like your pants, your jacket, your sleeves; but you may wonder why your suits never seem to fit quite that way when they come back from those final alterations. The reason may be that you’re not giving the tailor a chance to fit you properly. Stand naturally when the suit is being fitted. If you slouch by habit, don’t suck up your chest and throw back your shoulders for your tailor’s benefit. He’ll tailor the suit to fit that strutting he-man you’re looking at in the mirror, but the suit won’t fit the you that walks out of the store. Another thing: Put your wallet, change, keys, notebook, handkerchief and whatever else you habitually carry into the suit while it’s being fitted. The addition of a fat wallet to a carefully altered pair of pants can make the tailor’s work go all for naught.

The Double Knit Fiasco

They blitzed the fashion market several years ago. So frantic was the demand that yard goods manufacturers spilled every stitch they had into the men’s suit market, even patterns and colors not originally intended for suits at all. That’s why, now that the craze is over, most men are ashamed that they once succumbed to those silly, awful, tasteless checks and plaids and zigzags and those repelling burgundys and cherrys and mauves. To further distinguish knits as something new the manufacturers lost their heads over design. Flaps appeared on pockets; then pointed flaps; then pointed flaps with buttons; then belted backs; then the Lord only knows what else. Terrible. Hideous. If you are shopping at a store that still has these things on the rack, you’re shopping at the wrong store. If your salesman sold you two of those things in some fabulous two-for-one sale in order to clear his racks just about the time everybody stopped wearing them, then you’re really shopping at the wrong store.

The reaction against double knits had more behind it than just disillusionment with styles and colors. The material, a novelty at first, seemed to solve the problem that had made suits a rugged cross to bear for so many suffering men. They would not wrinkle, they felt comfortable to move around in, and they were not expensive. Unfortunately they created new problems that old materials never had. Double knits could not be mended and were perilously vulnerable to cigarette ashes and other hazards. Men who had never quite understood why their wives were so worried about snagging their stockings found that double knits snagged and unraveled at least as easily and much more expensively. Double knits didn’t breathe like natural fibers and were, therefore, hot during the summer, when they stuck to the skin like wet sheets; and cold in winter, when the chilly wind that never penetrated in summer came whistling through the fabric or up shivering legs. Double knits did not take colors like wool and could not be styled as accurately. They made stout men look stouter, and thin men seemed to disappear within their folds. All these things finally turned the balance against double knits.

We are still paying for that indiscretion. During the height of the craze, certain manufacturers decided that American men would never go back to wool. They canceled long standing contracts with wool mills, many of which went out of business. In Australia, where most of the world’s sheep live, some herders were forced to kill off their flocks for meat since the demand for wool had fallen so low. These herds are not yet replenished. In the meantime Japanese speculators started buying available wool in immense amounts. Today the demand for wool far exceeds the supply and the Japanese can practically name their price. Most suits in stores, no matter what the price, are some combination of polyester and wool. If you find a 100-percent-wool suit, finely tailored, in a good color and pattern, don’t bother to look at the price tag. Croesus could afford it; you probably can’t.


One idea for this article was to ask various clothing experts how they would spend the clothing budget of a professional man who needed to dress well for business and social reasons but who had to do so on a restricted budget. The article didn’t quite pan out that way because what we hoped would be a diversity of expert opinion turned out to be almost unanimity. The results of these discussions are given below.

It should be noted that “minimum” does not mean “inadequate.” The following wardrobe should be just enough clothes for business and business-related social events. (In sports and casual clothes pretty much anything goes and it’s every man for himself.) They should also be, at these prices, good enough clothes to wear practically anywhere—to an important appointment in Houston, to a famous restaurant in San Francisco, to the theater in New York.

3 suits, medium weight; solid color or conservative pattern or classic plaid; at least one dark blue; @ $150…$450
1 navy blazer; worn to office as fourth outfit; doubles as sport coat (see discussion of blazers)…$100
2 slacks; for blazer or without blazer; one grey, one your choice; @ $40…$80
6 shirts; should be bought at same time as suits and/or blazer; @ $15…$90
6 ties; bought at same time as shirts; try to choose ties that will go with as many shirts and shirts that will go with as many suits as possible; @ $8…$48
3 pairs shoes; two for office; one more casual; @ $50…$150
1 lined raincoat; serviceable as both raincoat and top coat…$150
personal preference: gloves, umbrella, scarves, extra shirts, shoes, whatever…$132

There’s one catch in all this. The suits were “medium” weight. Generally speaking that’s good enough for Texas winters, but may be too heavy for the summers. If you work in an air-conditioned office and seldom have to leave it during the day, you’ll make it through the summer just fine. Otherwise (or if you travel takes you north during the winter), you’re probably going to need six suits: three medium-to-heavy and three light weight. That adds another $450 to the $1200 listed above. Sorry.

A wardrobe, however, is not a static thing and maintaining it year after year at a fairly high standard is not that expensive. The following is a yearly buying plan:

2 suits; one light, one heavy if necessary; or perhaps one suit and one sports jacket and slacks; @ $150…$300
5 shirts; @ $15…$75
5 ties; @ $8…$40
1 pair shoes…$50
2 slacks; @ $40…$80
personal preference…$55


There is one approach to fashion that is never touched on and it is, by any standard of style, a valid approach and possibly a more difficult approach to bring off properly, or at all, than the traditional one of style, taste, and grooming. I am speaking of the Non-Dresser, a type found in three classes of society: bohemians, college students, and workingmen.

The Non-Dresser comes by his clothes completely by accident. They are given to him or left behind in empty apartments or have been in his possession for so long that their origins are obscured by the dimness of ages past. He seldom goes into stores because he’s not comfortable there, but when he does it is completely spur of the moment: “It’s cold today. I guess I need a jacket.” He walks into the first store he sees and buys the first jacket he sees that comes close to fitting regardless of style, color, pattern, or price. All he wants to do is find a jacket and get out of there as soon as possible.

To worry about price would mean more looking, more trying on, and it would mean that he cared. And care is exactly what the Non-Dresser must not do. He must dress each day without any regard for color, fabric, pattern, style. His only concern is the weather, hot or cold, rainy or clear. If he has a jacket, he has one jacket and wears it everywhere. If he has shoes, he has one pair of shoes and he wears them everywhere. The shoes and the jacket have no relation to one another.

The Non-Dresser may have nothing in his wardrobe that he likes for the way it looks, nothing that postures, nothing that stands out, nothing that is conspicuously in or out of style. This total unselfconsciousness makes his clothes invisible, as unnoticeable and unremarkable as his elbows.

The irony is that the Non-Dresser gets away with it. He looks good. People remember his face, his words, his gestures and can’t recall a single article of his clothing the moment he’s left. And that can be maddening for the man who has to lunge into a suit each morning and find a tie to match it.


Although Brummell’s name has by now come to suggest affectation, foppery, and effeminacy in dress, those were not qualities the man himself presented. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the way men dress today and have dressed since Brummel lived. The course of male fashion was set, Max Beerbohm wrote, “that bright morning when Mr. Brummell, at his mirror, conceived the notion of trousers and simple coats.” The modern business suit is a direct descendent of the costume Brummell designed, while formal tails, though different in detail, are precisely Brummell’s in concept.

Probably as important as Brummell’s discovery of trousers and coat was his insistence on being clean. Early in the 19th century, people still did not bathe with any great frequency. Instead they splashed themselves with perfume to cover their smell. Brummell’s pride was that he did not need perfume because he did not smell. His toilet began with vigorous daily washing, a habit unheard of at the time. Certain noblemen, permitted the honor of watching Brummell dress, were shocked to find him apply a brush to his teeth and scrub vigorously, sloshing, gurgling, and then spitting into a silver basin (“It is impossible to spit in clay,” Brummell said.). He also shaved carefully, brushed his skin to bring color to it, and finished by using tweezers and a magnifying mirror to search out and pluck any whiskers that still survived.

His wit was as large a part of the legend as his appearance. Brummell considered vegetables too gross for his palate; asked his hostess at dinner if he had ever eaten them, Brummell replied, “Madame, I once ate a pea.” Bored once by a visitor’s accounts of his travels through the Lake Country, Brummell suddenly summoned his valet: “Robinson, which of the lakes do I admire?”

“Windermere, sir.”

“Ah yes, Windermere. So it is, Windermere.”

Asked by a contemporary his opinion of a new coat, Brummell replied, “Do you call that thing a coat?” When a nobleman approached Brummell at the horse races to compliment his clothes, Brummell answered, “But how could I be beautifully dressed if you have noticed me?”

Brummell believed that his distinction in dress should be apparent only to the initiate, that to be noticed on the street because of his dress was the worst indignity a gentleman could suffer. He wore a coat with high lapels, collar, and tails. This coat buttoned tightly across the waist and was always blue. Complementing it were buff trousers, neither loose nor tight, a vest and cravat of which very little showed, the cleanest, brightest white linen, and the blackest, high-topped boots, the soles of which were polished as highly as the tops. His materials were the simplest: wool, linen, leather.

These styles and fabrics were not the exclusive province of the rich or the royal; as England prospered through the rest of the century, they became accessible to a great many. It’s ironic that Brummell, the Regency’s arbiter of elegance, should have democratized fashion for the next 200 years. He would neither have desired this result nor found it repelling. He could oppose a man’s admission to White’s by saying, “His boots smell of cattle dung and inferior blacking”; at the same time, asked the secret of his dress, Brummell replied, “Fine linen, plenty of it, and country washing.”

Brummell’s contemporaries report that his presence and manners were quite masculine, but there is not a hint of any liaison between Brummell and any women—or man. He seems to have been completely indifferent to sex of any kind. He loved himself. He could not, after all, wear another person; the presence of another, man or woman, would spoil the perfection of his costume.

His legacy to us, the modern business suit, is a particularly unerotic garment. It neither hangs loosely enough to complement the movement of the body nor tightly enough to reveal the body. A suit’s effect is calculated, straightforward, sensible; nothing is playful, accidental, blatant, or—and this is really the most significant—hints at being somehow, somewhere vulnerable. A man in a suit might look handsome, competent, successful, intelligent, and a good many other things; but if he looks erotic it is in spite of his clothes not because of them.

“Well,” you may say, after a shrug of the shoulders and a long sigh, “so what?” The odds are you can’t go to a business meeting looking like a rock and roll star; if you did, the explanation that you wanted to dress more erotically wouldn’t do you any good either. But your whole life isn’t going to be spent at that meeting and you shouldn’t let its needs dictate the look of every piece of clothes you own.

More than 300 years ago, Robert Herrick, who understood such things, wrote this about his mistress:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A Lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectfull and thereby Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticote:
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when Art
Is too precise in every part.

And isn’t it true that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?


A man goes to Henry the Tailor and buys a suit of clothes, but comes back the next day complaining that one sleeve is too short. “I’ll have to fix it later,” Henry says “but in the meantime pull down the sleeve, hold it with your fingers. You’ll have to walk with your arm stiff at your side, but anything for a good fit, right?”

The man agrees but when he gets I home he notices that holding down the sleeve and walking with his arm stiff at his side makes the jacket wrinkle across the back. He goes back and points this out to Henry. “Why don’t you reach around behind you with your other arm,” Henry says, “and pull the jacket down from the back flap. You’ll have to walk with one arm stiff and the other curled up behind you, but that’ll get rid of the wrinkles. Anything for a good fit, right?”

So the man agrees but when he gets home he notices that walking with one arm stiff and the other behind his back makes him lean forward from the waist and that makes his trousers ride up a little bit. He goes back to Henry. “I still don’t have time to fix it,” Henry says, “but why don’t you just scrunch down the waist of the pants with each elbow. You may have to bend down a little bit and walk a little funny, but anything for a good fit, right?”

So the man is walking down the street and one arm is stiff and the other is curled up behind him and he’s bent over and walking funny holding both elbows tightly against his waist. Two old ladies see him, “My, my,” says one, “Look at the poor cripple walking over there.”

“Yes,” says the other one, “but isn’t he wearing a beautiful suit of clothes.”


Last year, a year in which almost 11 million new cars were sold, American men bought only 16 million new suits. Although predictions are that more suits will be bought this fall and winter than during the last few seasons, there are still only about the same number of suits sold each year as were sold in 1930.

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