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October 14, 2008

Chicago Manual of Style—October 14, 2008

Whether he aspires to the glory of manly sports or to be a dapper man-about-town, sometimes a guy needs to suit up. This can be a sticky sartorial situation.

On one hand, the suit raises the specter of bar mitzvahs, prom, and cheesy yearbook photos. There’s no question that when worn at a young age, suits can make boys look like babies trying to be men. For many young men, the suit marks the pubescent transition from sweaty to sophisticated. Despite the fact that they looked uncomfortable and uptight whenever they were forced into suits, I was delighted to see my endearingly gangly, pimpled high school classmates looking scrubbed and dapper for a change—even if my prom date did accent his crisp black suit with scuffed Chuck Taylors and enormous aviator sunglasses. You can put a boy in a suit, but the clothes don’t make the man; I’ve found that the ubiquitous yearbook photos with the somber and scholarly suit and tie always wind up making the gentleman who wears them look awkward, terrified, and somehow, even younger than his eighteen years.

On the other hand, suits are the uniform of our parents’ generation. My father has a closet full of suits purchased BCF—Before Casual Fridays. When he was applying to law school, crisp suits were as much a prerequisite as good LSAT scores.

So today, as we get ready for restaurants without drive-thrus, dinner parties that include wine in bottles instead of boxes, and scary “real-world” job interviews, the question becomes, how does a guy wear a suit without looking like either a little kid playing dress-up or a middle-aged businessman?

I posed this question to fourth-years Wayne Kang, Jay Martinez, and Sheldon Levy, three well-suited fashionistos. All three agree that the key to suit success is proper tailoring; youthful, bold accessories; and confidence to spare.

First rule of thumb: Never wear a suit right off the rack. “There’s no such thing as a suit that doesn’t need to be tailored,” explains Kang. “A tailor will check the fit across the shoulders and examine the width around the torso to make sure that the jacket closes but isn’t too loose. The reason that people look like they’re little kids wearing their dads’ suits is generally that the shoulders are too loose or that the pant legs are too wide.”

Martinez agrees. “Make sure that the suit is custom-fit for your body,” he advises. “It’s important to keep your body type in mind. Remember that there are multiple cuts of suits. For a guy with more weight around the middle, three buttons works better than two buttons.” Martinez himself just bought his first suit in celebration of his 21st birthday. He chose a three-button pinstripe suit, which lengthens his already tall frame and has an overall slimming effect.

Taking a cue from Neil Strauss’s bestselling memoir-cum-dating guide The Game, Martinez and Levy suggest that college students should “peacock” their formal outfits with pieces of flair. Martinez says that students can keep a suit from looking stuffy by jazzing it up with flashy accessories like “a paisley pocket square, a colorful tie, cool cufflinks, or even a flower.” Levy, a passionate proponent of the suit vest and fedora, believes that when worn with confidence, unique accessories draw positive attention. “It’s a confidence booster,” says Levy. “When you wear something you feel good in, people respond well, and that gives you the push to be more outgoing.” All the men agree that the suit itself should be classic and somewhat conservative. “You should generally stay away from more exotic fabrics, because as a student, you’ll only have the budget for two or three suits. Gray suits and pinstripe suits are good investments. Seersucker and linen suits are really hard to pull off—also, they scream Ivy League, yacht club, and over-preppiness,” says Kang. Adding points of visual interest to a timeless suit keeps the look fresh and age-appropriate.

Kang, Levy, and Martinez agree that confidence is the key to pulling off the look with style. By their early 20s, most men have probably only worn suits for interviews, internships, and the occasional formal event, but Kang likes to integrate pieces of his suit into his every day wardrobe by pairing the jacket with different pants and shirts. “Wearing a suit in a more casual way implies that you’re a confident, independent person who knows how to make subtle changes to be dressed appropriately for any situation,” he adds. Martinez suggests that a man can dress a suit down for more daily wear by omitting the tie or substituting a plain polo shirt for a stiff, collared one. Confidence makes it clear that you’re wearing the clothes and that they’re not wearing you.

“It’s the man, and not the [tailor], who makes his clothes, that makes a good impression,” says Kang. While intelligence, eloquence, competence, and a sense of humor will ultimately carry you much further than nicely cuffed suit pants, a sharply tailored ensemble is a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal. My arbiters of male style believe—and probably rightly so—that when they suit up and hit the field, they can tackle both potential employers and dates without looking like they just escaped from a cubicle. The combination of style and substance will never go out of fashion.