There's an old cliche that says that fashion goes out of fashion, but style never does.
If you're a man ready to embark on an autumn search for a new business suit or sport jacket, that nugget of wisdom can guide you toward fall clothes that are both timeless and sophisticated.
The quest for sartorial perfection, however, goes beyond choosing style over this season's fashion. Yet many men shopping for a new suit get flustered by a blur of color, shape and fabric -- and a crucial element often gets neglected.
It's the subtle art of acquiring the proper fit.
"Fit very often can make or break the way you appear," says Glenn Christenson, director of advertising for Jos. A. Bank. "Quality clothing that doesn't fit looks no better than poor-quality clothing that does fit."
Because the suit is the uniform of business, fit is even more important for managers and professionals, adds Gordon Ashby, manager of Brooks Brothers. "The better the suit fits, the more respect you get from people," he says. "It gives you a neater, crisper appearance. A good-fitting suit makes you look like you take your job seriously."
Men who attend to the nuances of drape, length and proportion reap another reward: A suit that fits well not only looks better, it feels better, too.
"When you're in business and going to an important meeting, you want to feel especially good," says Howard Shapiro, owner of George Howard Ltd. in Cross Keys. "People should look at you in a suit and say, 'You look terrific.' Then you don't have to make any excuses about yourself."
While it's true that a man looks assured and feels sensational in a perfectly fitted suit, locating one isn't as easy as grabbing a size-40 regular off the rack. If it were that simple, everyone in a business suit would look suave, poised and comfortable. The human body, however, just won't cooperate.
"A stock suit is made to fit everybody in that size, but not everyone has the same build," says Elio Casalena, a tailor with 28 years' experience. "Because everybody must fall into a short, regular or long length, the seat on a stock suit often can be baggy or the thighs too large."
The solution? A custom suit made to your exact measurements, suggests Mr. Casalena, fashion consultant for the English American Tailoring Co. in Westminster. With 340 employees, the firm is one of the largest custom-suit manufacturers in the United States.
"When we make a custom suit, we coordinate everything to your measurements," Mr. Casalena says. "We don't adjust a suit made for someone else. That's because every little imperfection in a man's build shows if it's a stock suit -- or a custom suit that's not fitted properly."
Yet for reasons of cost and convenience, most men purchase suits that are pre-manufactured. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred -- men buy off-the-rack suits and have them tailored," says Leonard Kronsberg, manager of the Rothschild's Clothing store in Pikesville.
The purchase of a stock suit, however, doesn't necessarily condemn the wearer to a sloppy, ill-fitting garment. While the flawless fit of a custom suit usually isn't possible with an off-the-rack version, you can get close: With a little knowledge, the right attention to detail and some expert alterations, a stock suit can mimic the flow, drape and proportion of a custom model.
Let some Baltimore-area clothing experts tell you how it's done. First things first: When shopping for an off-the-rack suit, it's important to know what a tailor can't alter. "When trying on a suit, first look at the fit across the shoulders and chest," Mr. Shapiro says. "That's something that can't be changed in a jacket -- the top has to fit right. If it doesn't fit there, the jacket is the wrong size."
Here's a test to determine if the jacket fits: The shoulder should be smooth and not show any bumps, says Tom Jackson, director of retail training at Jos. A. Bank. "And the front of a coat should lay smoothly across the chest, with no pulls or wrinkles showing when it's buttoned," he adds. "From the back, the collar should fit snugly without bunching. A slight gap can be fixed, but if the collar is standing away from the neck, the jacket is the wrong size."
For proper sleeve length on a jacket, make sure a quarter-inch of shirt sleeve shows at the cuff, says Brooks Brothers' Mr. Ashby. And to assure the jacket is the correct length? "Stand with your arms at your side and your fingers bent, creating a groove," he recommends. "That's where you want the edge of the coat to fall."
Here's another rule for determining proper jacket length: "Have the salesman measure from the bottom of the collar to the bottom of the coat," Mr. Ashby says. "It should be the same as the bottom of the coat to the floor. A variation of a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch is OK, so long as the coat covers your butt."
The same rules apply to finding a perfectly fitted sport coat -- unless a casual, non-business image is the goal. "Some people want a fuller look in a sport jacket for wearing a flannel shirt or sweater underneath," says Mr. Shapiro. "It's a little more casual and comfortable looking."
The experts also have a few tips to help determine the proper fit for suit trousers. When trying on a pair of pants, check that the waist is level all the way around and parallel to the ground, Mr. Jackson says. "Make sure the pant is worn on your natural waist," he adds. "Some men have a tendency to wear their trousers too low, like blue jeans. For comfort, a suit pant should be worn as high as possible."
Mr. Jackson offers more hints for evaluating pant fit: Pockets should never gap open and horizontal wrinkles across the back indicate the pants are too tight. For proper length, the bottom of the trousers should rest slightly on the top of the shoe -- "or the pant will look too short when you walk."
Another rule of thumb for properly fitted trousers: The line should follow the natural contour of the body from the hip to the ankle. "If the pant looks baggy and the salesman says that's the look, go to another store," says Arnold Borenstein, owner of Eclectic. "Don't be talked into a suit where the pant is out of proportion to the body." How a man holds his pants up also affects the way trousers are fitted: Men who wear braces should size their trousers differently from those who wear belts, Mr. Borenstein says. "With braces, the pant should be a half-inch larger in the waist and a half-inch longer."
As helpful as these rules are for most men, they don't apply to everybody: A small percentage of men can't be fitted to an
off-the-rack suit. But that doesn't mean the only option available to him is a custom garment: Suit separates offer men with dTC non-standard builds the ability to purchase separate jackets and trousers in a wide array of sizes and styles. "It lets the customer buy the size he needs for those pieces, offering the hard-to-fit guy a viable option," says Bank's Mr. Jackson. "It's also terrific because you can buy two pairs of pants -- important since pants usually wear out first. And for the man with an average fit, it can cut down on the alteration bill."
For the man who demands a perfectly fitted suit or sport jacket, custom tailoring is usually the only option. Attention to detail in the fitting room and expert alterations can result in a less-expensive, off-the-rack garment that copies the flow, drape and proportion of a custom suit:
* Proper fit across the shoulders and chest is critical in a jacket. While everything else can be fixed by an expert tailor, it has to be right across the top of the garment.
* Another important area is the position of the armholes. For ease of movement, the arms should be comfortable without being felt.
* The collar of the jacket should fit snugly at the neck, with a half-inch of shirt collar visible. While a slight gap can be altered, a collar that stands away indicates the jacket is the wrong size.
* Never shorten or lengthen a jacket's length more than an inch. More than that and the pockets are thrown out of position, ruining the jacket's symmetry.
* Sleeves should hang naturally; for proper length, they should end where the wrist and hand meet.
* Trousers should fit smoothly around the waist on your natural waist, neither tight nor baggy. Hint: Cuffs add extra weight to pants, which helps them retain their shape.
* Thinking about shedding a few pounds or worried about gaining weight over the winter? The experts say don't let it influence you in the fitting room. Get the clothes that fit you now.