Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Choosing A Versatile Suit and Wearing Each Piece Separately

January 30, 2014 · 9 comments

in How To, Lean Wardrobe

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Hey Gents,

A good friend of mine traveled home to California last summer to attend a wedding. There was a semi-formal rehearsal dinner the night before, and in the interest of packing light, he asked me if it would be weird to wear his suit two days in a row.

My quick answer was no, not weird at all… just make sure to wear two different shirts and ties. Besides, most people wouldn’t notice or care in the first place.

But this got me thinking: How flexible is a suit, exactly? I then realized, you, the reader, probably have other questions, such as:

  • Is it really worth the investment, even if you’re not a guy who wears suits every day?
  • How many days in a row can you wear one suit?
  • How do you take a suit from formal to casual and back again, if necessary?

Let’s tackle each of these questions one at a time. This should help, in case you’ve ever wondered the same thing.

Suit Flexibility

How wearable is the jacket on its own? What about the pants?

I should preface this by saying, traditionally, it’s not correct to break up suits and wear them as separates. However, I think it looks just fine when done correctly. The trick lies in choosing the right fabric, and of course, the little details that make up the suit.

Fabric: Worsted wool is probably the most formal and traditional fabric among the suits you’d typically find in stores. While flannel, tweed, cotton, and linen fabrics are easier to wear casually because of their texture and appearance. If you have a casual work and home life that doesn’t require you to wear suits every day, you’d benefit from owning a single breasted, double-vented cotton twill suit in navy.

Why cotton twill? It’s a fabric style casual enough for its parts to work on their own, but formal enough for the occasional suit-wearer to don when he needs to get fancied up a bit.

If you’re someone who wears suits every day, you’ll need more than this one I mention, but you would still benefit from having it in your closet for your more casual days.

By the way, linen jackets will work nicely in the warmer months, and tweed in the colder months. You’ll find both as sport coats you can wear with trousers, chinos, or denim. Or shorts! Just kidding, not shorts.

Buttons: If your buttons are contrasting (think gold, silver, or white horn buttons on a jacket) there’s a good chance you’re able to wear the jacket on its own.

Pockets: Patch style pockets are considered the least formal, which help if you’re dressing the jacket down and wearing as a sport coat. If you own a tuxedo or a more conservative, traditional style suit, you’ll most likely find jetted or flap pockets.

Pattern and Texture: If you have a boldly-patterned suit—think a large check pattern, or a houndstooth, etc.—generally, you’d be okay wearing the jacket on its own.

One pattern that doesn’t play nicely: pinstripes. Though bold, they’re considered more formal, and the jackets don’t always stand on their own very well. Again, it all depends, but if you’re unsure, I’d stay away.

Fabric texture can also determine if the jacket can be worn on its own. If the fabric has a slight sheen, or if it’s a fine wool, it’s best to wear the suit pants with the jacket. If the cloth has more texture such as tweed, linen, and birdseye, then there’s more of a possibility the jacket can stand on its own.

So, to summarize:

Largest determining factor: Fabric. If your suit’s fabric is smooth, silky, luxurious, has a slight sheen, boasts a high S-number, or is a combination of any of these factors, you should only wear it as a suit.

Second largest determining factor: Relative formality. Here’s what I mean.

  • Scenario A: Imagine you have a solid gray worsted wool suit. That should only be worn as a suit, because of the fabric’s formality and the fact that they have matching pants.
  • Scenario B: You have a navy wool suit jacket with a large check pattern, and no matching pants. Can you wear this jacket on its own? Maybe. It depends on the pants you choose. The jacket is more formal due to its fabric, but the bold pattern lends a bit of casualness. Pick a pair of pants that are close in formality (i.e. light gray flannels), but avoid ones that are overly casual (denim).

Make sense?

The investment-worthiness of a suit

Get at least one.

Every guy should own at least one suit. Like I mentioned above, if you’re not a guy whose career forces him to wear a suit every day, you’d be just fine owning one cotton twill suit.

Most adult men will need at least two or three suits in their wardrobe, but if you’re a guy with zero, focus on getting just one that’s extremely versatile so you can get plenty of use out of it.

Figure out your budget and stick with it

You can find ready-to-wear suits in a variety of price points. Figure out what you can afford and stick with something in that range. Like I mentioned in other articles, you can look like a million bucks in a $150 suit as long as it’s tailored perfectly.

Don’t cheap out if you can afford a bit better

Buy the best you can afford, especially if you’re bit older and you know you can hang onto the suit for a while. Ideally you’ll have this for years, and as long as you buy the best you can, you won’t have to worry about replacing it any time soon.

Tailor!

This has been said many times in many places: it’s important to find a tailor you vibe with. It’s very rare to find a suit that fits well right off the rack. Even if you buy made-to-measure, there’s a good chance you’ll still need to visit a tailor to make minute adjustments so the suit fits perfectly.

Do your homework, settle on a tailor, give him a test piece (a small job to see if he can handle it, his turnaround time, his quality of work), and if all goes well, take your suit to him (or her).

A more formal choice for year-round wear

If you’re looking for a suit that will be useful year-round and aren’t so worried about breaking it up and using them as separates, you can’t go wrong with a navy single-breasted, two button, double vent suit in worsted wool… like here, herehere, or this and this. The choices are endless.

This is not the most exciting suit you can choose, though it’s extremely versatile and something you can wear to practically any formal occasion. The best way to add variety to a basic suit is to have a wide selection of shirts, ties, and accessories.

Need versatility? Look for a flexible fabric

Flannel, tweed, larger birdseye, cotton, linen. These are examples of fabrics that, when bought as a suit, have the potential to be worn separately. Like I mentioned earlier, anything with a slight sheen or smoothness to it isn’t meant to be worn separately.

Breaking it up

via GQ

Assuming your suit is the kind I’ve described above and you’re able to wear it casually, go for it! Break it up and wear each piece individually. Here are some ideas.

  • jacket as sport coat with denim, or with chinos, or with separate trousers
  • pants as separate trousers with dress shirt and sweater, sport shirt and casual jacket
  • waistcoat (if your suit was a three-piece) with denim and dress shirt

Pick one piece from your suit, and build an outfit around that using other items in your Lean Wardrobe.

Making the most of it: A few final thoughts

Don’t wear your suit too many times in a row. If you find yourself wearing it a lot (either because it’s fun, or out of necessity) that’s a good indication you may need to invest in one or two more, otherwise you’ll wear it down quickly.

Be careful wearing your jacket as a blazer TOO much, because the outdoor elements can alter the fabric’s color. At that point, your pants may no longer match your jacket. This happened to me once, so take it from a guy who’s experienced it firsthand.

Buy a separate blazer if you find yourself wearing your suit jacket too often. That way, your suit stays intact, and you’ll have an actual blazer or sport coat that’s meant to be worn separately.

You can do it!

Hope this gives you a few ideas about how to achieve maximum versatility from a suit, even if you’re not a guy who needs to wear a suit every day.

What are your favorite ways to wear a suit jacket or pants separately? Let’s hear it (or see it) below.

 

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About

Barron is the founder and editor of Effortless Gent, a site dedicated to helping guys figure out what looks best on them. He's based in San Francisco. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

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