Since you clicked on a post called “How to Wear a Suit,” I think you’ll agree that there’s no better way for a man to look sharp and stand out than by suiting up in style.
When you know how to wear a suit the right way, you invoke the style, status and swagger of a leading man, and that’s true whether you look more like everyman Seth Rogen or uberman Ryan Reynolds (or, you know, any of the billions of guys who aren’t from Vancouver).
The problem for most guys, however, is that the operative phrase in that last sentence is “how to wear a suit the right way.”
The Modern Man’s Challenge: Making a Suit Stand Out
Forty years ago, most men wore suits to work everyday, which naturally made them pretty familiar with the nuances of dressing up. They had to be well dressed, so they learned how to.
But in today’s more casual world, most guys spend the majority of their time in more relaxed clothes, leaving them unsure of how to wear a suit, and confused when it comes time to dress up for job interviews, weddings, funerals or other big events.
As a result, a lot of guys make too many mistakes in the process of suiting up, and even though they’re technically wearing more formal clothes, they still end up looking more like Regional Manager Michael Scott than Leading Man Steve Crrell.
Fortunately, you don’t need a team of Hollywood stylists or the sartorial guidance of Ryan Gosling to suit up in style. You just need to know the most important rules, tips and tricks that will help you make your suit stand out.
In this post you’ll learn how to wear a suit the right way and learn everything you need to look sharp when you suit up.
How to Wear a Suit: The Ultimate Guide
19 Essential Suit Wearing Rules, Lessons and Tips to Help You Look Sharp and Stand Out
The question of how to wear a suit with style could arguably be answered with just five words:
Make. Sure. It. Fits. Perfectly.
Fit is by far the most fundamental aspect of sharp style, and one of the trickiest to master.
So it’s no surprise that the most common mistakes guys make have to do with the way their suits fit… or more often, don’t fit.
To help you avoid the same ill-fitting fate, our suit-wearing rules will start with a head-to-toe breakdown of each part of a suit.
Here’s everything you need to know in order to make sure it fits perfectly.
How a Suit Should Fit
First Up: How Your Jacket Should Fit
When you’re buying a suit off the rack, shoulders are the number one area you want to make sure fit well, because it’s basically impossible for a tailor to change the width of the shoulders.
The key is to make sure the shoulder seam of your jacket hits right at the point where your shoulders start to curve down toward your arm.
If the seam hits any lower, the jacket is too big and will make you look like you’re drowning in it. Any higher and the jacket will be too small, making it bunch up in the shoulders and arms.
If there are any wrinkles or divots in the shoulders when you have your arms down at your sides, it’s a sign that the jacket doesn’t fit properly. You want the shoulders to just lay flat.
Guys with more rounded shoulders may find that they prefer jackets with a little extra padding in the shoulder pads, to give the appearance that their shoulders are broader.
A broad shoulder will also make your waist look smaller by comparison, so it can be a good option for guys who have a little extra weight in the middle, too.
The most important thing to know about jacket length is that you want it to make your upper body look balanced when compared with your lower body.
Here’s an easy rule of thumb to follow: if you’re 5’9” or below, you want the jacket to hit around the middle of your crotch. If it goes down any lower than that, it’ll look too long and have the effect of making you look short.
If you’re above 5’9”, you want it to hit either at mid-crotch or just a little lower. Taller guys tend to have longer legs, so you may want the jacket to go a touch lower in order to maintain balance with your lower bodies.
Note that jacket length is one area of a jacket that your tailor can adjust for you. They can usually shorten jackets by about an inch without affecting the overall proportion of the jacket.
But if the jacket is already too short, there’s nothing they can really do lengthen it, so keep that in mind when looking at the length.
You can test the sleeve length by standing with your arms at your sides and your palms facing the ground.
When your arms are at rest, you want about a quarter inch of shirt sleeve to be popping out from your jacket sleeve.
So when you do this exercise, your shirt sleeve should hit the top of your hand, and your jacket sleeve should be a quarter inch above that.
Sleeves are one of the easiest parts of a jacket for tailors to fix, so if they’re too long you can easily have them adjusted.
But as with the bottom of a jacket, there’s nothing a tailor can do if the sleeves are too short.
After your shoulders, the torso is the second most impactful area in terms of creating a sharp silhouette. Fortunately, it’s also one of the easiest for a tailor to fix and change.
The key to nailing the fit of the torso is to make sure that the jacket comes in at the waist so that there’s plenty of space between your sides and your arms.
If you follow my advice about shoulders above and get the shoulder width right, then creating a silhouette that will be masculine and flattering should really just be a matter of having your tailor take the jacket in along the sides.
To get the perfect fit, do up the top button and have your tailor pull the jacket back and pin it on the sides. Then, put your fist behind the button, in between the jacket and your stomach. If your fist slides in easily, the jacket is too loose. If you can’t even get a fist in there, it’s probably too tight. You want to just barely get one fist in there.
Another visual cue to watch out for is the “X” that forms when your jacket is too tight. Although you want the jacket to fit trim and hug your sides, when you go so tight that your jacket forms an X it takes things a little too far, and makes it look like you’re busting out of your jacket. Not a great look.
For the purpose of helping you nail your suit’s fit, when I say “collar” here I’m not talking about the size or width of your jacket’s lapels, which are the flaps that extend down from your neck toward the center of your stomach.
Instead, I’m referring to the collar that the lapels form at the top when they reach your neck. Your suit’s collar should rest comfortably against the shirt collar on the back of your neck.
You basically want a light amount of contact between the skin on your neck, your shirt collar and your lapels. Not so much contact that you feel restricted in any way or have trouble turning your head, but enough so that there’s no daylight between the shirt and suit collars when you’re standing up straight.
To cut a striking silhouette, you want your suit’s armholes to be high, otherwise they’ll droop down and affect the way the torso of the suit looks.
You should be able to slide your arms into the armholes easily. If there’s resistance as you slide your arms in. the sleeves are probably too tight.
But if there’s too much space between your armpits and the bottom of the hole after your arms are in, they’re too loose.
Don’t worry if you feel like you can’t move your arms as liberally as you can in a shirt or a more casual jacket.
If you’re in a situation where you need to be able to raise your arms up to your shoulders, you probably shouldn’t be wearing a suit jacket in the first place.
The final aspect of the jacket’s fit is the button stance, which refers to where the top button falls in relation to your body.
The rule of thumb here is that you want the top button to hit just above your belly button, which will create the perfect angle for the V formed by the jacket’s lapels.
It’s ok if the button lies a little bit above the belly button, but you want it to be within an inch or so.
And you never want it to hit beneath your belly button, which will throw off your suit’s proportions.
Pro Tip: Never Do Up The Bottom Button!
By the way, as a rule you never want to do up the bottom button of your suit.
No one knows exactly why or how this tradition started, but one theory attributes the rule to King Edward VII of England.
In the early 1900s, he was just too portly to do up the bottom button of his jacket, so he started leaving it undone.
This prompted the gentlemen of the court to follow suit, lest they be out of step with the king.
This isn’t a particularly sound reason, but the tradition has stuck, and to this day doing up the bottom button of your jacket is considered a rookie move you want to avoid.
How Your Suit Pants Should Fit
Unlike more casual styles like jeans or chinos, you want suit’s pants to sit at your hips, or even a little higher. If your zipper bunches up it’s a sign that your pants are sitting a little too low.
You want the waist of your suit pants to fit snuggly enough that you don’t actually need to wear a belt (although you of course can if you choose).
You should be able to get no more than two fingers into the waist. If you can get more than two in, they’re too loose. If you can’t quite get two in, then the pants may be too tight, unless they’re made with elastane or some degree of stretch.
Seat and Legs
Moving down from the waist, you want the pants to fit slim and hug your body pretty closely.
But you don’t want them to be so tight that your seat is crammed in there like a sausage, otherwise everyone will be able to see your… well, you see where this is going.
The same thing goes for your legs. Your quads are usually quite a bit wider than your calves, so you want the fabric to hue closely to your body and then begin to taper around the knee.
As a rule of thumb, your quads should be about 1.6 times as wide as the calves, so that the legs of your suit taper down toward your ankles.
Getting the right length is important for all styles of pants, but never more so than with suit pants.
A pair of pants that fits perfectly everywhere else but bunches too much at the ankles will end up looking sloppy instead of sleek.
The best practice is to have no more than one inch of what’s called “break.” The break is the point at which your pants create a divot near your ankle.
If you’re standing up straight and your pants hit perfectly right at the point where your foot meets your ankle, then they’ll have almost no break at all.
This looks great while you’re standing, but it means that your pants will ride up your ankles quite a bit while seated.
Personally I don’t mind this look, especially if your sock game is on point, but if you want a little bit of extra fabric to keep your calves covered when you’re seated, have them hemmed so you have an inch of break.
The rules of fit are universal and apply to suits of any color, fabric or pattern, so nailing the above section will get you about 80% of the way to sharp suit style.
But if I’ve said it before, I’ve (obnoxiously) said it a thousand times: the handsome devil is in the details.
Now that you understand the fundamentals of fit, the next stage of learning how to wear a suit the right way is learning how to master the situation-specific details of wearing certain kinds of suits in certain kinds of situations.
Below you’ll find specific details that will help you nail the three most popular colors of suits: navy, grey and black.
How to Wear a Navy Suit
In my post about how to buy your first suit, I strongly recommend starting your suit collection with navy because it’s so versatile.
It can be worn in almost any scenario, it’s flattering on all skin colors and complexions, and it’s an absolute classic color that will never go out of style.
On top of all of that, navy is probably the easiest color to pull off in a suit. But there are still a few things you should keep in mind to get the most out of the look:
Make Sure Your Colors Match
One advantage of navy suits is that they pair equally well with either black or brown accessories—but note that I didn’t say black AND brown accessories.
As I outlined at length in my post about how to nail the blue suit and brown shoes combo, if you decide to wear brown shoes with your navy suit, then make sure every other piece of leather you wear is also brown.
The same thing goes for black shoes: once you decide on a shoe color, keep everything else consistent.
| Deep Dive:
Consider Going Monotone
One other nice thing about blue is that it comes in so many shades, patterns and styles.
That means you can put together a look that’s unique and eye-catching while only using variations of one color.
For instance, try pairing your navy suit with a light blue shirt and a medium blue tie, like the guy in the photo at the top of this post:
You could even take it one step further and add a a light blue pocket square to dress it up a little more, all while staying in the blue color family.
You’ll look great and totally coordinated, without having to worry about the science behind color pairing.
Think About Contrast Colors, Too
This one may seem somewhat paradoxical given the last tip, but keeping all your colors in the blue family isn’t the only way to make this look work.
Another option is to opt for contrast. Instead of wearing a blue shirt under your navy suit, opt for a stark white that will really stand out from the darkness of the suit.
Then, pair the white shirt with a dark tie that’s in a different color family from blue – Burgundy is my go-to choice – so that it really pops.
To top it off, try going with a pocket square that ties into the colors of your shirt and tie combo to step the look up even further.
How to Wear a Grey Suit
Coming in at a close number-two to navy, grey suits are almost as classic and versatile.
If you wear a suit more than once a year, then both a navy and grey option should be staples of your wardrobe.
But not all grey suits are created equal. Here are a few things to keep in mind when going grey.
Consider the Shade
Where a “navy” suit is pretty easy to picture and admits of little variation, “grey” is a much more nebulous term.
A charcoal grey suit can be almost as dark as black (more on which below) and should be treated similarly, while a light grey suit can be almost as bright as white, and admits of a totally different set of rules.
If you don’t wear suits that often and don’t want to spend the money on multiple suits in the same color, split the difference and go for a medium grey. It’ll be your most versatile bet, and like navy can be worn in a wide variety of situations.
Remember the Color Rules
Like navy, medium grey suits can be paired with both black and brown accessories, so everything we covered about leather above applies to them as well.
Whenever on the fence and want an easy go-to color combo, opt for a grey suit with a white shirt, black tie and black shoes/accessories.
This is the look that made Don Draper a menswear icon, and looks just as sharp in the 21st century as it did in the (fictional, but historically accurate) 1960s of Mad Men.
How to Wear a Black Suit
At this point, this sprawling post has covered a lot of ground. But, please, if you only manage to remember one thing from this article, let it be this:
NEVER EVER, EVER WEAR BROWN SHOES WITH A BLACK SUIT!
This is by far the biggest, most egregious black-suit mistake I see guys make, and it really is a dealbreaker.
It doesn’t matter how well your suit fits or how perfectly you’ve nailed everything else – if you don’t pair a black suit with black shoes, your feet will stand out like a sore thumb. (And don’t even get me started on black suits with brown belts…)
Follow the Funeral Rule
The second thing to remember about black suits is that in 99% percent of situations, you shouldn’t wear one at all.
Other than funerals, where black suits are both called for and appropriate, there’s really no reason to where one.
In addition to severely limiting your options for accessories, most black suits tend to take on a kind of brownish hue when they’re under artificial light (which is most of the time), so they end up looking cheap and a little run down, rather than sleek and sophisticated.
That’s why navy is my top choice if you only want to own one suit: not only does it have a ton of advantages in and of itself, but it’s also the perfect alternative to black in any non-mourning situation.
One Key Distinction
It’s worth noting that when I say you should never wear a black suit anywhere other than a funeral, I don’t mean to say that you should never wear a black tuxedo.
Tuxedos are in a league of their own, and while many of the suit-wearing rules above also apply to tuxes, the rules around where and when to wear them differ significantly.
While those rules could fill a whole other blog post (note to self: write post about how to wear a tux), for now suffice it to say that you can wear a black tux to weddings and other formal events without fear of breaking protocol.
How to Wear a Suit Without a Tie
(aka, How to Wear a Suit Casually)
As I mentioned way back at the top of this post, the world today is more casual than eras past, so even when guys decide to suit up, they often don’t go all the way.
Going tieless is a great way to look sharp and well put together without looking too buttoned up or boring, but mastering the no-tie look is a sneakily tricky aspect of learning how to wear a suit with style.
Now that you know how to rock the most popular suit colors, let’s look at how to wear a suit casually by going tie-free.
Keep it Stiff*
*I meant your collar, pervs
Whether you’re going with the tie or without, you want to make sure your shirt has collar stays inserted.
Collar stays are those small tabs that you slide into the back of your shirt collar that keep it from curling or looking wrinkled. Your shirt’s collar should have slots where they can slide in sewn right into it, and many shirts actually come with the stays already inserted.
When you’re wearing a tie, the collar stays keep your collar looking sharp, which is in keeping with the buttoned-up look you’re going for.
But even though going tieless is a more casual look, the collar stays actually become even more important. That’s because the key to making the tieless look work is the structure of your collar.
If your collar is floppy, curled, wrinkled, or looks anything other than stiff and straight, then going tieless will make you look sloppy.
On the other hand, when your collar is stiff and stands up straight, then going tieless looks more like what it is (or at least, should be): a purposeful choice.
Stick ‘Em Up
Using plastic collar stays will definitely help you look better without a tie, but if you want to nail the look, I strongly suggest you take your collar stay game to the next level. (And yes, there is such a thing as collar stay game!)
What’s the next level, you ask? Switching from flimsy plastic collar stays to magnetic metal ones.
Metal collar stays are thicker and stronger than the plastic ones that come standard with most shirts, so they’ll be more effective at keeping your collar straight and stiff.
But their real advantage comes from their magnetic properties. Brands like Wurkin Stiffs offer metallic collar stays that come with small magnets that you can use to keep your collar magnetically pinned to your shirt.
This not only keeps your collar looking stiff, but keeps it from flapping over the lapel of your jacket, which looks sloppy and unkempt.
Just as the question of how to wear a suit can be succinctly answered with “Make sure it fits perfectly,” the question of how to wear a suit without a tie can be answered with one line as well:
Make sure you use metallic collar stays.
So You Know How to Wear a Suit with Style. Now What?
If you’ve read this far, you’ve got all of the timeless suit wearing rules, hacks, tips and tricks you need to look sharp when you suit up, whether your style inspiration comes from classic icons like Steve McQueen or modern gentlemen like (the fictional, but no less dashing) Neal Caffrey.
And while mastering the suit game is an important part of the menswear puzzle, it’s far from the only piece.
As noted above, today we live in a casual world where most guys have few opportunities to rock a suit, which means if we want to look sharp and stand out, we have to know how to do it not just when we’re wearing suits, but when we’re wearing everything else.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the handsome devil is in the details. And if you really want to learn how to look great and out-dress the other guys, you need to know how to nail them (the details, that is…).
And I’ve created a checklist that will help you do just that. Enter your email address below and I’ll send you the Nine Details You Need to Nail to sharpen your style and stand out from the crowd, no matter what you’re wearing.
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Irreverent Gent founder Dave Bowden is a men’s style specialist, an Amazon bestselling author, an unrepentant introvert, a (patient, if long-suffering) Toronto sports fan and the husband of a wonderful (and fortunately much more patient) wife.