The Complete Suit Buyer’s Guide

A suit is a big-ticket item that requires a fair amount of knowledge before you commit to buying. Like a car, it’s a significant expense (and a necessary one, trust us), and you wouldn’t head into a showroom at a car dealer without doing your research, would you? Though a suit can’t physically take you places the way a car does, a suit is a means of conveyance—an alternate means of transportation, if you will. It gets you into the corner office, on a second date and maybe even down the aisle. (Or, if all goes according to plan, all three.) There’s a lot riding on this purchase, so you want to be armed with the facts. Lapel types, overall sizing, button placement and vent style—there are many features to consider. That’s why we’ve put together a guide of the things you need to know before you take the leap.

Start with Your Size

The first thing that will jump out to you when you hit the racks is color or pattern. But as any tailor will tell you, it’s the way the suit fits that matters most, so keep your eye on the prize. Suits are sized by combining your jacket measurement with a size category. They are either Short, Regular, Long or Extra Long. Broken down by height, this is how it goes:

•Short – up to 5’9″
•Regular – 5’10” to 6’0″
•Long – 6’1″ to 6’4″
•Extra Long 6’4″ and up

These categories determine the length of the arms and the jacket body itself.

Your jacket measurement is taken by measuring the thickest part of your chest under your arms. Or you can usually take your waist size and add six inches (unless you’ve never skipped chest day at the gym). Whichever measurement is largest is the one you should use. So, if your chest measurement is 40, your waist is 33 and you’re 5’10”, you’re likely a 40 Regular. But each suit fits differently, which is why trying them on is so important.

Beware of the salesperson who tries to tell you they can shorten a 40 Long to fit you. Don’t believe him. While the sleeves can be shortened, and the waist taken in a little bit, there is no amount of work that can be done to get the proportions right on the body of the jacket.

The All-Important Shoulders

When trying on your suit, the perfect fit relies on a top-down approach. The fit in your shoulders is the most critical aspect. If your jacket doesn’t fit here, the proportions of the suit will be off everywhere. So, getting this right is essential.

When you try on a suit jacket, there is one simple rule: Know your lines. Using the tri-mirror in the fitting room, scan your upper back. You’re looking for any exaggerated horizontal or vertical lines in the fabric. If you see horizontal lines, your jacket is too tight. Go up a size. If vertical lines are showing, your jacket is too big. Go down a size.

Next, look at yourself straight on. Shoulders should fit naturally and there should be no overhang of the seam where your shoulder ends—that means it’s too large—and no pulling in the fabric—that means it’s too small. You should only have a smooth, sharp line extending down from the seam to your cuff.

Your jacket collar should sit flat against your dress shirt collar. It should also reveal one half inch of your dress shirt collar in the back. (Overcoats are made to cover everything; your suit jacket is not.) This is something you can get a look at in the tri-mirror as well.

Simply said, your lapels should always lie flat, no exceptions. If they pucker outward—even slightly—when your jacket is buttoned, then it is too small. You don’t want to cram yourself into a jacket. Sure, you can leave a jacket unbuttoned to reduce the effect but it is not worth it, ultimately. And while we’re at it, most suit jackets feature a standard notch where the lapel meets the collar. This style is called a notch lapel and is best when buying your first suit especially. Peak lapels, however, extend to a point towards the shoulders and are more often seen in formal tuxedo jackets.

The Buttons

Your jacket should button without pulling. If you need to breathe in when buttoning it, you’re going to need to size up—makes sense, right? If it’s too loose and you can fit more than your fist in the open space, you should consider taking in the waist. (For those blessed with athletic builds, this is a fairly common alteration.) As a good rule of thumb, the top button of a two-button jacket (or middle button on a three-button) should not extend below your navel.

The Cuffs

A suit jacket is made to fit shorter than any other jacket you wear, so naturally the sleeves will be shorter. That means your cuff should end right around the wristbone below your thumb. You should endeavor to have about a half-inch of your dress shirt showing.

The Bottom of the Jacket

Although this can change a little bit as different style trends come and go, your jacket should end just after your rear does. Suit jackets come in two different styles—center vent or side vents. “Vents” are the slits in the back of the jacket at the bottom. There may be one in the middle or one on each side. Originally, a center vent accommodated men on horseback, allowing coattails to fall neatly on each side of the rider. Center vents are considered standard in American tailoring today, whereas side vents are considered a bit more fashion forward.

The Trousers

Okay, let’s revisit those suit sizes again. With trousers, the Short, Regular, Long and Extra Long are going to determine how much length is in the leg as well as the rise. And, with most suits, you typically don’t have a choice between plain or pleated trousers; the suit will come with one or the other. Pleats are slightly more formal than flat front, and, if you’re a bigger guy in the midsection, they offer more room—and comfort. As far as the fit at your waist goes, if you see any horizontal lines, the fabric is pulling and your pants are too tight. Suit trousers can be let out a fair amount, though, so speak with your tailor before you size up.

How long should your trousers be? Again, it’s a matter of personal preference. The standard is to ask for a one-inch break, which means your pants will end one inch above the beginning of your shoe’s sole. This causes a slight break in your pants as they crease. If your crease remains razor straight when you’re standing up, your pants are too short for the traditional crowd. Conversely, if the fabric is pooling at the top of your shoe, or if you’re stepping on it, your pants are too long.

There are three types of breaks to consider. The full break is the longest and best suited for wide-leg trousers. A half-break is the standard and the best place in which to start if you are uncertain. Asking for no break is a bold choice (be prepared to bear those bare ankles), but you must also remember to ask that the trousers be tapered so they lay correctly. No breaks are fashion forward and better suited to short and/or slim guys.

A Note on Cuffs: Your tailor may also ask whether you want a cuff on your trouser hems. The standard rule is cuffs on pleated pants, no cuffs on plain fronts. 

The End Result

This all may seem overwhelming, but you’re in good hands with a trusted tailor and a knowledgeable store associate. Be sure to go into the process with your preferences in mind—and, as with a car purchase, don’t get talked into anything that makes you uneasy (we’re talking to you, extended warranties). Remember, the fit is your number-one priority. If a suit fits the way it should, you will look sharp and feel good. Have patience with the process, because given the proper care, your suit will outlast most things in your closet. As the old saying goes: The devil is in the details. Fortunately for you, these details have the potential to turn heads more than any sports car ever could. Cheers.