Published May 26, 2011
“Invest in a good suit.”
If you’re looking for a job, you know that phrase well. It’s a simple piece of advice circulated by career counselors everywhere, but one that’s hardly as straightforward as “Bring multiple copies of your resume” or “Make sure your gigantic skull tattoo is covered.”
In fact, unless you happen to be applying for a job in the fashion industry, figuring out what makes a suit “good” can be downright daunting. There’s a lot to consider: How much should it cost? Should it have two buttons or three? Is black better than gray? Wait, what’s a lapel?!
Before you drop hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a suit for your next interview, here’s what you should know.
“Good” doesn’t have to mean “expensive”
It would be nice to stroll into a fancy boutique, pick up a $3,000 suit and not think twice about it – but most people don’t have that luxury.
Luckily, what counts more than how much a man spends on a suit is how well the suit fits and how it makes him feel, says Lauren Solomon, founder of image advisory firm LS Image Consultants. Solomon says going into debt over a suit isn’t worth it and says people who spend more than they can afford are putting too much on the line for an interview that ultimately may not even result in a job offer. The key, she says, is to purchase a suit that you “get joy out of” and can wear multiple times – whether it’s a Zegna suit for $2,500 or a Men’s Wearhouse suit on sale for $199.
“It’s the confidence that overrides the suit – it’s just the suit that helps to create it,” she says, adding that a quality suit should last a person two to five years.
Erika Chloe, celebrity stylist and founder of fashion consulting company My Image Expert, says it’s reasonable to expect a suit to cost somewhere between $300 and $1,000. She suggests that students and others who are strapped for cash check eBay for suits at a discount, and cites Men’s Wearhouse, Banana Republic, Kenneth Cole and Hugo Boss as brands that offer quality options at practical prices.
Some fabrics should be avoided
A telltale sign of a “bad” suit is that the fabric wrinkles too easily or pills (forms tiny fuzz balls) on the surface, says Chloe.
She suggests those looking for an interview suit steer clear of linen as it tends to retain creases and advises against 50/50 blends (fabrics made of 50% wool and 50% cotton or polyester, for instance) because they’re more susceptible to pilling than fabrics that have contain higher proportions of wool. Chloe says 100% wool, which can be purchased in lightweight varieties for spring and summer and heavier weights for fall and winter, is the best option for men.
Don’t blindly default to black
Black is often seen as a safe color, but it’s not always the best choice, especially if you’re trying to set yourself a part in an interview. Solomon says wearing a black suit can make a person blend into the crowd and, in some ways, connote a sort of formality that is better suited for other occasions.
“The truth is a black suit is usually worn by a waiter, a maitre d’ and a funeral director,” she says. “Black suits really are a social occasion look. They’d never been used for business until recent times.”
Solomon suggests job seekers use their eye color to guide them toward a suit color. If your eyes are blue, try a navy suit; if they’ve got a grayish rim, try a gray. Solids are better than patterns she says, as they are the easiest to match to shirts and accessories.
Equally important is the color of your shirt, which should be on the lighter side if your suit is dark to create contrast and draw attention to your face.
“The suit should never wear you. It’s all about you. The clothes are simply the supporting cast.”
Sleeves, pants and lapels: The long and short of it
Figuring out whether or not your sleeves are too short or your pants are too long is one of the key elements to making sure your suit works for you.
Chloe offers the following guidelines:
Sleeves: Your sleeves should generally hit at the crease that appears when you bend your hand backward at the wrist. If you purchase a suit that fits everywhere but is short in the sleeve, check the inside of the sleeve near the wrist to see if there is additional fabric there that can be let out in alterations.
Pants: You should only ever see a quarter of an inch of the back of your shoe, so when you have your pants tailored, make sure to wear your dress shoes.
Lapels: If not the right width, the lapel – the portion of the suit that fans out against the chest – can make your head look really big or really small compared with the rest of your body. The widest point of the lapel should never be smaller than 2-1/2 inches or larger than 3-1/2 inches.
Pleats and cuffs: Pant pleats give men additional fabric in the hips and seat, so they are best suited for heavy-set men and those with larger waistlines. If your pants have pleats, they should have cuffs at the bottom; if they don’t have pleats, there should be no cuffs at the bottom.
Stripes on a shirt: If your shirt has stripes on it, the stripes should never be wider than a quarter of an inch.
The nitty gritty on buttons
Determining what type of suit jacket to purchase depends greatly on a person’s body type. A double-breasted jacket – which contains two vertical columns of buttons – tends to look heavier on the body than a single-breasted jacket, which contains only one column of buttons, and thus is better suited for someone with a leaner body type who can afford the extra bulk, says Chloe.
She says single-breasted suits with two buttons are a “good, classic style” that work best on normal, average body types, while three-button single-breasted suits look best on people who are very tall or have long torsos, she says.
If you flip through any men’s fashion magazine, chances are you’ll see that the bottom button on any suit will be left undone. The reason is more than just a styling preference; Chloe explains that it’s a way of preventing the jacket from becoming too tight on the body, especially when a person sits down.
Because a suit is only one element of the total package, here’s a look at three common wardrobe concerns people face when dressing for an interview:
1.) French-cuff shirts: Are they for older men only?
Somewhere along the line, French-cuff shirts (shirts whose collars and cuffs often contrast with the rest of the shirt; must be worn with cufflinks) developed a reputation for being an “older man” thing. Chloe says French-cuff shirts give people an opportunity to jazz up their look with cufflinks and says designers are adding patterns to collars and cuffs that appeal to some of the younger men she dresses. If you’re wearing a French-cuff shirt to an interview, Chloe suggests wearing white, gray or something with a very light pattern, as dark is more for eveningwear.
2.) Cufflinks: Can I wear my “fun” ones?
Cufflinks are great conversation starters, but should not “steal the show,” says Solomon. Wearing cufflinks shaped like dice or roulette wheels would be appropriate if you’re applying to a casino, and globe-shaped cufflinks could be a nice touch if you’re applying to a global shipping company, but otherwise people should err on the side of simplicity, she says.
3.) Ties: How crazy is too crazy?
The color and pattern of your tie is a great way to inject personality into your suit, but, like cufflinks, shouldn’t draw attention away from you.
“You don’t want somebody to be distracted by a tie that has leprachauns or four-leaf clovers on it,” says Chloe.