William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Six Rules For Wearing Suits For Beginners

Don't ever do this

Don’t ever do this

I was looking through the Fedora Lounge and somebody asked whether Details’sThe Complete Guide to Suits: 57 Rules of Style” were of any use.

I thought not. There were too many and they were too persnickety, with too many ‘rules’ mere observations about some suits they happened to have on hand. Worst, there were too many wrong answers. Here’s a better guide.

1— Wear one. If you’re not used to wearing one, you’ll be frightened to do so, particularly if your wardrobe consists of “ironic” t-shirts and ugly jeans which you think look good on you (they do not).

When you finally screw up the courage and don the wool you’ll think everybody’s looking at you. They will be, too, because you’ll be acting like you’re sneaking contraband.

So begin with a jacket. This way you can keep your teenager-gear, but you can mask it with a bit of adulthood. Start with a navy blazer, but eschew shiny buttons. You’re not ready for them yet. Then get a gray. After a few weeks of mixing the two, substitute the t-shirt for a man’s shirt, which is one with a collar and cuffs which extend to your wrist. Give that a go for a solid month and then, on a Wednesday, switch over your high school pants for genuine trousers. If you’re still weak, cotton will do. But if you’re made of sterner stuff, keep to wool, linen, or silk.

Stay with this regime for another four to six weeks, and then add a tie, also on a Wednesday. If anybody asks, tell them your mother’s here to visit. This gives you the excuse to wear a tie several days in a row. People soon won’t notice you have it.

At that point, put on the suit.

2— Some say, “Don’t dress better than your boss.” You know who says this? People who aren’t bosses. Dress better than everybody.

3— Some say, “I don’t care what other people think of how I look.” These people always tell the truth. They become the sort of neighbors who paint their house shocking orange with green trim and never mow their lawn. Or they never brush their teeth, reasoning they’ll just eat again so why bother. “If somebody has to see my fuzzy teeth, that’s his problem.”

These folks forget the main reason to dress well is to please other people, to contribute positively to civilization, to not become a walking eyesores.

4— Which suits not to wear? Don’t wear the suits featured in Details unless you are 22, boyish, and want to look like a slave to fashion, which is to say, advertising. People will assume you watch the shopping channel and drink flavored vodka. Consider, every Details model is anemic and looks to be suffering from depression. Tragically hip. If your underpinnings are no thicker than a supermarket bratwurst, you don’t want to advertise the fact by wearing skin-gripping trousers. You’ll look like the weak one in the herd.

5— Which suits to wear? Go to the most expensive men’s store you can find which is old and not devoted to “brand names”. Once there, examine the wares. You won’t be able to afford these clothes, so when whichever salesman wins the arm wrestling contest to serve you sidles over and asks if he can help, you can say, “I can’t afford any of this stuff. I’m just looking.” He will flee from you as fast as a professor of literature meeting an evangelist. When you go to places you can afford, you’ll know what best approximates top-of-the-line.

If you’re not near any stores, surf over to Paul Stewart, J. Press, Oxxford and the like. You can’t see texture well in pictures, nor can you feel the quality, but it’s better than nothing.

Do not look at Brooks Brothers: they assume all men’s bodies are in the shape of squat parallelepipeds, i.e fat robots. Do not bother with Men’s Wearhouse. Third rate. Joseph A Bank can work. Sometimes. You can be very pleasantly surprised by Macy’s and the like, particularly off season.

6— Which material? You’ll see Super 100s, Super 120s, Super Duper 150s, Super Duper Wowwee 180s, and ever finer. Terrible stuff if you want to wear the suit regularly. The higher the number, the more marketing has been pumped into the material, the easier it wrinkles, the quicker it wears. Look instead for higher weight wools (12+ ounces) which have looser weaves, especially for spring, fall, and winter. Or wear linen, seersucker, or silk (but coarse) for summer. Ask any Bedouin, heavier but looser weaved material will be cooler than any tissue-thin Super Duper Wowwee 180s, which doesn’t breath.

Update John Cook reminds us that one of our most brilliant minds, John von Neumann, was a snappy dresser. For those who don’t know, von Neumann was the computer geek. So there’s no excuse for you.

At his 1926 doctoral exam, the mathematician David Hilbert is said to have asked but one question: “Pray, who is the candidate‚Äôs tailor?” He had never seen such beautiful evening clothes.

Update My collection of posts on men’s fashion.

11 Comments

  1. “These folks forget the main reason to dress well is to please other people”

    No, they are very well aware that that is the main reason to dress well. They just aren’t interested in pleasing other people.

  2. My opinion of suits is best expressed by the following passage in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”

    All in all, I must say I enjoyed the visit to Sweden, in the end. Instead of coming home immediately, I went to CERN, the European center for nuclear research in Switzerland, to give a talk. I appeared before my colleagues in the suit that I had worn to the King’s Dinner–I had never given a talk in a suit before–and I began by saying, “Funny thing, you know; in Sweden we were sitting around, talking about whether there are any changes as a result of our having won the Nobel Prize, and as a matter of fact, I think I already see a change: I rather like this suit.”
    Everybody says “Booooo!” and Weisskopf jumps up and tears off his coat and says, “We’re not gonna wear suits at lectures!”
    I took my coat off, loosened my tie, and said, “By the time I had been through Sweden, I was beginning to like this stuff, but now that I’m back in the world, everything’s all right again. Thanks for straightening me out!” They didn’t want me to change. So it was very quick: at CERN they undid everything that they had done in Sweden.

    You can read the whole thing here.

    http://buffman.net/ebooks/Richard_P_Feynman-Surely_Youre_Joking_Mr_Feynman_v5.pdf

  3. I read Details rules. The rules themselves are not so bad, except they do not follow their own rules in the photographs.

    Rule #1
    We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Fit is everything. Even the world’s most expensive suit will look bad if it isn’t tailored to the contours of your body.

    And then they show a whole bunch of people wearing suits that don’t fit.
    They also say to not get a suit that is cut to short, and then show a whole bunch of people wears suits that are short.

    I agree that 57 is too many, but half their rules apply to overcoats, watches and other accessories.

    A suit is “city wear” If you do not live or work in a city, a suit may be only be appropriate for weddings, funerals, and high holidays.

    Brass buttons — A “blazer” is a navy bule jacket with brass buttons. A sports coat in any other collor or without brass buttons is not a blazer.

    Brooks Brothers — They opened a “Black Fleece” store in my old neigborhood, that is everything wrong with Brooks, but in the opposite direction. Too narrow, small, ungodly expensive. It tries be “hipster”, but the store is always empty.

  4. Orange houses with green trim. Anyone with an Orange house does care what people think about him. And, in San Francisco, it is considered very neigborly to paint your house with “traditional colors” of pink, green, fucia, eggplant…

  5. I always liked this book. I first read it in the 1970s.
    http://www.amazon.com/John-Molloys-New-Dress-Success/dp/0446385522

  6. “Beware of ALL enterprises that require new clothes.”
    — Thoreau (correct, as always)

  7. Will and everyone else,

    Are there any books, in addition to Ray’s contribution, that would be highly recommended for those with a stunted fashion ecumen.

    Say a short history of suits, then the different types of suits, and finally what to wear in suits.

    Any information would be invaluable.

    In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,

    Tito

    P. S. I grew up in Hawaii, so I enjoy wearing shorts and a patterned t-shirt–always (except for Mass of course).

  8. The wonderful thing about suits is that if one were to engage in time travel, one would nearly always be attired well enough to fit in.

  9. Possibly just as important, maybe more for some, than the material & fabric quality is the skill of one’s tailor. One’s suit WILL need some adjustment–usually more than just the hems & the addition of a cuff… Bad tailoring can ruin the image…and many of us don’t recognize the subtleties there.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY: Get a good grade of Seersucker suits! Seersucker–made from cotton; no animals harmed or inconvenienced there!! That stuff really breathes in hot, humid, and, hot & humid, weather. With Global Warming firing up out of control this is an absolute necessity to one’s stylish survival in an overheating world. There’s not a moment to waste. And don’t forget, a straw hat or foam skimmer hat (with band!, see: http://www.funcarnival.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=JAC12574-EA ) makes a great accessory both for style AND for keeping out those killing solar & cosmic rays.

  10. Ken,

    A year or two ago I recall seeing a story about a plant rights organization starting up in the EU. All natural fibers are out.

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