Men’s suits: a guide to modern suit styles

Men’s fashion trends are greatly different to women’s. They exist, yes. But their cycle moves much slower. Nowhere is that truer then of men’s suit trends. While there are distinct styles of suits that feature amongst 2014′s fashion trends I should note from the get-go that they’re not unique to the year – in fact, many of the key looks you’ll find in this guide will still be in-fashion come next year and beyond. Which is a great thing – it means you can afford to spend more on a suit thus buying a quality piece of workmanship that you’ll still be able to wear for many a year to come. The same can’t be said of most fashion trends.

But what styles, cuts and cloths should you be looking for? Read on to find out.

2011 suit

Read more on men’s suit trends

While suiting and formal-wear trends for men aren’t seasonal (unless, of course, you’re talking about the weight of the cloth) and play out over several years, the current styles continue the dominance of two qualities that any modern suit you invest in should aspire to have:

  1. classicism
  2. masculinity

Let’s deal with them both.

The classic part is the easy part. A good suit for this decade will take the best elements from the peak eras of men’s suiting (think the formality of the Victorian era, the savoir faire of the 1930s and, for some cuts, the skinny detailing of the 1960s) and apply them to a modern silhouette.

The masculinity of a suit is less easy to define; one can’t simply enter a tailors and say you want a suit infused with masculinity. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, suits right now are all about a cut that compliments the male physique, a suit that broadens the shoulders and trims the waist highlighting (or at least implying) an exercised body. In short, it’s about a cut of a suit that makes you, the wearer, feel more masculine and more confident. And feeling really is key. To some the masculine element will be a suit that is clean cut, with few flourishes, to others it means a suit full of extra details that it takes a certain attitude to pull off well (I’d say that Tom Ford’s suits fall into the latter camp – they’re highly masculine, but are made for a gent with a certain kind of attitude to life).

So knowing the fact that you’re looking for something both masculine and classic, what are the technical elements you’re looking for?

Suit cuts: on-trend styles and designs

You’ll find terms such as skinny and slim peppered throughout this tailoring trends guide, but fear not: I’m not referring to the ‘skinny boy’ suit popular a few years back; with proponents of that style having themselves moved on to other styles, the skinny boy suit has had it’s day. But, despite this, the terms of skinny and slim remain simply because unstructured, boxy suit cuts are out of fashion. So there, from the get go, as we describe the suit cuts you should be looking for this season and beyond we have to say it: you’re looking for a slim cut; and I use slim as opposed to skinny to describe the on-trend cut as your investment in a good suit should be in something that is neither overly-skinny nor overly boxy, but instead a suit cut that would appeal to a military officer, one that accents a sense of the masculine through three key silhouette elements:

  1. broad shoulders
  2. a slim waist
  3. slim trousers

With those three attributes in mind, let’s look at the actual cuts that are in fashion:

Single breasted suits

It seems superfluous to include single breasted suits in a trend article given they are never out of fashion. But despite them being the default style, they’re also the dominant, on-trend suit cut for the season. This sits in contrast to the double breasted suit being the on-trend cut during the previous years.

The cut of the single breasted suit has currently evolved to have two dominant styles:

The sleek cut

The first of the two dominant single-breasted suit styles is what I term a sleek cut. This is the suit for the slick chap who wears his suits in something of a toned down way. They’re still impeccably made and they’re never casual, but when it comes time to tick the masculinity box I referred to earlier, this suit is for the chap who does so with restraint.

To give you an instant mental picture of the sleek cut suit presently, think of it as inspired by the continuing popularity of all things 1960s, a suit very akin to what the likes of Mad Men‘s Don Draper wears into the office though one cut with a trimmer waist.

don draper suit

If a sleek cut, single breasted suit is what you want to add to your wardrobe then you’re after the following details:

  • slim to medium sized notched lapels or a shawl
  • the upper button should be positioned around your navel
  • a breast pocket that accommodates nothing more than a pocket square (as opposed to a elegantly folded pocket handkerchief) – contrast Don Draper’s pocket square to the pocket handkerchief’s featured in the Tom Ford pictures below if the difference is not immediately obvious to you

The confidence cut

I’m still looking for the perfect term to describe this cut of suit. At first I’d termed it the flair cut, but it took only a moment to realise that that would imply that I was advocating a return to flared trousers and suits. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead flair was meant to describe the extra, potentially overt, details it has; this is a cut of suit for a gent who can comfortably wear those extra little details that Joe Average generally lacks the confidence to wear out of fear of derision.

So for those of you who are looking for that extra something, both in their clothing and in their life, I proffer up the (potentially temporarily named) confidence cut. As with all present day men’s suits, it’s a cut that’s about the male physique and the revival of classic suiting elements. Unlike the previous ‘sleek cut’ single breasted suit described, however, it features one additional key attribute: instead of a slim to medium notched lapel, this day’s confidence suit cut is all about peaked lapels. In this regard, the suit cut sits as something of a 1930s and 1970s revival – back then peaked lapels were the only kind worth having.

peaked single breasted suit
A single breasted suit with dual buttons and pointed lapels.

With its obvious appeal, the confidence cut can be more than just a single breasted suit cut, however. When it comes to on-trend double breasted suits, it’s also the dominant cut.

Double breasted suits and sportscoats

If there’s one cut that I’m glad I’ve been able to return to my wardrobe it’s the modern, double-breasted suit. Those of you who recall the last time that double breasted suits and sports coats were in fashion may remember the boxy cut it inevitably came with. Fear not, that cut has gone. In its place is one that defies what double breasted suits were originally designed to do: hide a plump figure. Instead they’re now designed to accent and to heighten the perfect masculine shape: the V-shaped, well worked body.

Incidentally, if you’re still in possession of a double breasted suit from an earlier era, take it off to your tailor to refresh its life.

tom ford suit
Double breasted Tom Ford suits with pointed / peak lapels

If you’re purchasing off-the-rack you’ll note that there are a good number of double breasted suits available to you, each cut to a slightly different variation. What then should you look for? duke of windsor suitSuits right now are all about the same attributes that I keep reiterating: a cut that broadens the shoulders and slims the waist. With double breasted suits you also want to figure in to the overall affect what I earlier dubbed the confidence cut. And that means two additional things for a double breasted suit:

  1. that it has peaked lapels
  2. that its breast pocket is cut to accommodate a pocket handkerchief

As you can see from the picture to the right, the latter mention of a pocket handkerchief is less a requirement and more of a desirable flourish – the added attention to detail of a pocket handkerchief can not only make a look (and would make this one), it can be that one point that sets you apart in a crowded room, particularly when that room is full of chaps wearing their suit with disdain or if they spend their days stuck behind a desk. But the vintage photograph you see also leads to one other additional styling tip: when purchasing a double-breasted suit the “Kent” cut is the in-fashion cut. Named after a style popularized by the The Prince George, Duke of Kent, it’s a cut of double breasted suits where a longer lapel line extends into the waist. That is to say: the part of the double breasted suit that sits on the front buttons on the waist line (as pictured on the Duke of Windsor, right). This small detail will help convey you as being taller than you may actually be and, if cut correctly, also imply that you have a trim waist. You’ll find the Kent suit cut is offered by a number of designers, including D&G (pictured below), and all good tailors.

d&g suit
Double breasted Kent cut D&G suits, please forgive them for the snow boots but do note the differing lapels: a shawl lapel on the left and a pointed / peaked lapel on the right – these two styles are discussed later.

Sack suit cut

For every trend there is an anti-trend.

Despite fashionable suits being all about a cut that heightens a look of masculinity, this is still a world in which every day has become something of a dress-down-Friday. Thus a style of suit is gaining popularity that bucks the masculinity-focused elements of suiting and instead takes its lead from the come back of all things vintage.

The neo-sack suit sports the rolled shoulders that inspired the cut’s name (hence the suit’s shoulders roll down the wearer’s, like a sack would) though with a slimmer waist than the cut of suit originally had, though not as slim as what’s on-trend.

To learn more about the sack suit, with far greater detail on the cut, problems with it to avoid and who is designing it, follow the link.

sack suit
Two sack suits from Polo Ralph Lauren.

Three-piece suits

Let’s face it: the waistcoat has long been a dead item for most men, but thanks to a resurgence in its popularity in men’s street wear the waistcoat is back with a vengeance. And it’s back as a statement piece, a piece that says that you, the wearer, is sartorially savvy and are likely to be a cut above your peers.

Having recently returned to men’s wardrobes as a standalone piece to be worn casually, the waistcoat’s new found popularity means the return of the three piece suit.

The in-fashion three-piece is all about cohesion; forget the mismatching style prevalent in the early parts of the 20th Century and in the 1980s. The return of the three-piece means that the waistcoat has to be cohesive and, thus, in the same fabric as the suit’s other two pieces.

Tip: If you do want to venture outside the realm of three matching pieces, stick to a cohesive colour palette; you may want to pair a pinstripe black suit with a pinstripe charcoal waistcoat. Personally I’d embellish a two-piece suit with a cotton or wool sweater vest / tank top as opposed to a mismatching waistcoat.

On selecting the perfect three-piece suit I’d recommend looking for a waistcoat whose V shape breaks somewhere between the sternum and the base of the rib cage. I’ve seen waistcoats that accompany three piece suits from the likes of Giorgio Armani which don’t sport the V shape at all, simply finishing just under the collar; these are going to be a lot harder to wear and ignore the conservative subtlety this revival depends upon. Moreover, such a large waistcoat won’t convey a slim waist as effectively as one with a deeper neck, though they may imply more height on a particular figure.

three piece suit
A three piece suit from Simon Spurr. Note the peak lapels and flourish to the peak handkerchief while overlooking the fact that the second top button is undone: this is a mistake, the fact that the lowest button isn’t done up isn’t, however.

The Fabric / Suit Cloth

As we’ve returned to the classics with double breasted and three-piece suits, then it should come as no surprise that classic cloths, patterns and fabrics are those most sought after. As an added bonus, adding classic cloths to your wardrobe allows for the inclusions of fabrics and colours that you mightn’t otherwise have as an option (and helps you steer away from having the typical men’s wardrobe: black, grey, navy).

Which fabric cloth should you pick?

The fabric you buy your suit in will be on of the biggest factors in the price you pay, but selecting the right fabric will also play a big factor in whether you buy an investment piece or a one season wonder.

wool suit
Wool
The clear favourite for suits, but pick carefully. I’ve seen some very expensive wool suits fall apart within a few years due to the cloth being a terrible blend. My personal preference is towards a super-wool, with a thread count somewhere between 120 and 150. I tend towards 150 as it’s often works on both cold and hot days. If you live, however, in more extreme climates you’ll need both Winter (200 thread count) and Summer (100 thread count) suits in wool.
cotton suit
Cotton
Cotton can make a beautiful suit, but make no mistake it’s best only as an informal or fashion suit and, unlike wool, is going to crease like anything. I find it best in colours which aren’t black or grey, and your preference should be towards navy and tan colours. It’s definitely a spring / summer suit (and is great for weddings and other functions of the season) and many a European fashion house, as well as those who tailor in Europe, will have cotton suits amongst their spring / summer range. I’ve seen quality cotton suits sold off the rack amongst the ranges of Zegna and Ralph Lauren’s Black Label.
linen suit
Linen
So many men simply don’t understand linen, and it’s often those of us who have had the luck of a childhood in Europe that may ever truly appreciate it. But a linen suit can be perfect for those hot, humid summer days. Try wearing a cotton or wool suit once the mercury pushes past 30 Celsius / 85 Fahrenheit and you’ll see what I mean. Because of its nature, line makes a great summer suit and colours such as whites and creams and particularly suited.One final note on linen: don’t be scared of linen’s penchant for creasing, it’s all a part of the fabric’s charm.
velvet suit
Velvet
While we’ve looked at desirable fabric patterns for suits below, make a mental note now that there is also room in your wardrobe for a statement cloth – that is, a piece crafted out of a cloth that is itself the attention grabbing detail. The most on-trend cloth for this comes to us courtesy of men’s velvet. Follow the link to read more but, in essence: velvet makes a luxurious statement piece suited to evening wear, but most men will find it easier to wear the cloth in the form of a sports coat as opposed to a full suit.

Which patterns should you pick?

For those looking to invest in a suit that isn’t made in a solid colour, the following are classic suit patterns perfect for the season and beyond, but don’t forget that you can also work these same cloth patterns into components of men’s suiting without making it an actual suit; that is, sportcoats, blazers and trousers. In no particular order, these are the dominant suit cloths / patterns available this year that sit at the more conservative end of the spectrum.

Glen plaid
tom ford glen plaid

A mixture of checks, the Glen plaid (or Glen Urquhart plaid) has risen to become the most fashionable of all suit fabric patterns. It is actually a fabric of patterns, meaning that it can be woven into a great many colour and pattern size combinations. Of those, the Prince of Wales pattern is amongst the most popular (the Prince of Wales check is a combination of red, cream, black and gray), and like so many things sartorial derives its name from the late Duke of Windsor.

Glen plaid tends to work best in grey tones, with the checks in lighter shades currently amongst the most popular. It’s an autumn (fall) / winter pattern as it’s best when made out of wool.

Damier check
damier check suit

Another fabric pattern that has regained popularity of late, the damier check wasn’t invented by Louis Vuitton but has certainly been popularized by the fashion house as a menswear offering all the same.

In essence it’s akin to a gingham, but to call it that would be to turn you off the pattern altogether. Instead, think of it in dark, masculine colours without the white base typical of a gingham check. Because it is a rather busy pattern, however, this is one pattern that lends itself better to a fashionable sportscoat (paired with un-patterned trousers) then it does to a full suit.

Herringbone
herringbone suit

Herringbone has become something of the third place pattern in men’s suiting; solid colours take out first place and pinstripes second. While the fashionable fabric is currently a Glen plaid, herringbone remains something of the more conservative choice.

Traditionally made from wool, herringbone works best with autumn (fall) / winter suits and is typically produced in a alternating black / white colour combination. While the traditional colour way, this gives an overall bolder look and I’d recommend opting for a charcoal / light grey colour combination if you don’t find the black and white combination pleasing to your eye.

Harris Tweed
harris tweed

Harris Tweed has been making something of a come back for the past years – some put it down to the fact that the BBC opted to dress the latest incarnation of Doctor Who in it. We put it down to the fact that, in an age where everything old is new again, it was simply time for a comeback.

It’s place as a fashionable pattern is unique as Harris Tweed is both pattern and fabric, its fabric being a tweed and its pattern a mixture of herringbone and twill (the latter gives the alternating vertical lines you can see in the picture above).

Best suited to autumn (fall) / winter, Harris Tweed can be worn both as a suit and as a sportscoat.

Pinstripe
pinstripe suit

If you’re one of the many men who have never invested in a suit with a pattern then a pinstripe suit should be your starting place. Easiest to wear in a black with grey / white pinstripe, I’d personally recommend looking to a navy or grey cloth with a white pinstripe to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Do not, however, attempt a lighter cloth with a darker pinstripe.

A pinstripe cloth also provides a great visual trick of making the wearer look taller, so is a must for those men after such an affect.

Rope-stripe
ropestripe suit

The rope stripe is the pinstripe’s bolder cousin. Attracting all the sale ‘rules’ of a pinstripe, the rope stripe differentiates itself with a strip that is not ‘pin’ thin – usually the stripe is a few millimeters thick and is finished with a rope like, repetitive pattern.

If the rope stripe does appeal to you, you might also consider a chalk stripe (not featured here as it’s neither in or out of fashion).

Buying the perfect suit

So far we’ve looked at a lot of the on-trend details of current suits, and hopefully by now you have a clearer idea of the style that you’re after – or at least the styles, shapes / cuts, colours and fabrics you should be picking from. There are of course many other elements to consider when investing in a good suit. Not all are trend related, so below you’ll find major elements you’ll want to consider in order to have a wardrobe of suits and sportscoats that mixes fashion with quality.

How many buttons?

A lot of people defer to personal preference when it comes to the amount of buttons a suit or sportscoat should have, but let me say this: when it comes to a single breasted suit, which this section truly applies to, unless you have good reason stick to one or two buttoned suits this season. In greater detail:

One Button
A single button suit currently falls into the realm of both a classic and a fashion suit; the single button has been a trend before now and will eventually go out again (it was notably out of fashion in the 1980s, but then most everything good was out of fashion back then anyway).

Society’s fashion tastes aside what you want to really consider when purchasing a single buttoned suit is this: how tall you are. They might be very fashionable, but a single button has a shortening affect on a gent; generally speaking, the closer to the neck the button is, the taller a gent will look. A single buttoned on a suit is often closer to the waist, making your torso seem smaller. That’s not an issue if you’re 5’10″ or taller, but can be if you’re not.

Take-away: A single buttoned suit or sportscoat can reduce stature and height on a short or stocky figure, so pay careful attention to this detail when trying on such a piece. Best for those over 5’10″ or those whose main aim is to own a suit that is considered fashion forwards as opposed to being a fashionably classic.

Two Buttons
My preference for a modern suit. It conveys height, slims the waist, and fits perfectly within the realm of fashion and classicism.

Three Buttons
Very much a look of the 1990′s, thought it has been making a come back as a very fashion forwards option where the buttons are sewn on an angle (see the picture of Jefferson Hack below).

The more traditional, buttoned straight-up-and-down three-buttoned suit is still out there, however, and has been seen amongst the tailored wares of Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label – though I suspect the former includes it more for his clients who are stuck on the style then because he sees it as forwards or sexual. Three buttons convey a greater sense of height than a two button suit, but are harder to pull off. I own several, and tend to dress them down opting to wear them over a quality cotton t-shirt from Ralph Lauren Purple Label then with a crisp shirt.

Tip: if you do opt for a three button suit, ensure that you only do up the middle button when wearing it.

jefferson hack by StreetFsn
A modern three buttoned suit as worn by Jefferson Hack. Note that the buttons are stitched to an angle and that the lapels are notched / stepped.

Four Buttons or more
Please don’t. I’m yet to see any four button suits which truly impress me or fit in with the current men’s suit aesthetics. Generally speaking, four buttoned suits are the thing of discount wedding stores.

The shoulder of a suit

A lot of suit terms can be mixed and matched, but I’m a fan of something I’ve always called the ‘British rolled-shoulder.’ Others might call it something else, but it is effectively where the shoulder padding finishes. A lot of Italian and US based designers prefer to have the shoulder padding finish precisely where the bone does. A British rolled shoulder has the padding extend over the shoulder and roll down into the sleeve. It’s a technical difference, but it’s also a visual trick that makes the shoulders seem broader and the arms better built.

Such a padded shoulder is perfect for the masculine figure a modern suit is meant to convey, hence it isn’t an element of the preceding sack suit. If you’d like to try on such a fit, Ralph Lauren’s Black Label features such a shoulder in their Anthony cut of suits.

ralph lauren black label suit
A suit from Ralph Lauren Black Label in an ‘Anthony’ cut. Note how the suit’s shoulder extends beyond where the model’s shoulder actually would be, and rolls down, implying broader shoulders and a more masculine physique.

Suit vents

Suit vents are the splits on the tail / rear of the skirt of a men’s suit. This one is really simple: preference a suit which offers two vents (with either, effectively, placed over the buttocks). Let me explain:

A suit without vents will not sit right for day-to-day suit wearing, and is only recommend for a dinner suit.

A single vent is a cut predominant to American, and often Italian tailoring. Sitting down the centre of the rear of a suit it still allows movement but not as effectively as a dual vented suit. Duel vents also allow one to easily put their hands under the suit and into their trouser pockets without damaging the overall silhouette.

Lapels

There are three types of suit lapels generally available to the modern male:

Step lapel
A notched lapel, or the step lapel / collar as it’s known in British parts of the world, is the most prevalent style of men’s lapels. In essence the lapel has a ‘notch’ taken out of either side. The angle of that notch steps down. Hence you now know both the style and how it has come to have different names associated with it.

Takeaway: suited to single breasted suits with any combination of buttons. If you encounter a double breasted suit that offers a notched / step lapel: run.

notch lapel suit
A two button Zegna suit with a notched lapel.

Pointed lapel
This is presently the on-trend lapel style, with the actual cut again given away by the name: pointed lapel / peak lapel (the difference again comes down to which side of the Atlantic you lean towards). Cutting across the chest, the pointed lapel enhances the much coveted V shape of the male physique, enhancing that elusive masculine quality I’ve referred to throughout this guide.

The only question remains as to what size the peak should be, which is really a question of confidence: how large to you dare wear them? Personally I opt for a natural balance, where the peak sits half way between the top of my arm and the lapel’s natural line. Anything more I find excessive, too 1970s-comeback, and anything less feels pointless.

Takeaway: this season’s most fashionable style of lapel. Perfect with both single breasted and double breasted suits.

gucci pointed lapel
A peak / pointed lapel from Gucci.

Shawl lapel
A style of lapel that features neither a notch nor a peak, but instead is one continuous, fluid lapel. Generally speaking a shawl lapel should solely be worn with a dinner suit, though as a flourish on a sportscoat / sport jacket worn as evening wear it can be very effective.

white suit jacket
A white dinner jacket from Ralph Lauren with a shawl lapel. Note that this rounded finish where the shawl meets the top button is not the on-trend cut, but nor is it out of fashion.

shawl lapel
A Tom Ford suit with a shawl lapel. Note how the shawl finishes with a defined cut, as opposed to the roll of the Ralph Lauren jacket on the left.

Other tailoring & suit trends.

a man's wardrobe essential - what it is and how to wear it.

A man's wardrobe essential - what it is and how to wear it.

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Written by .

He was 5 when his teacher wrote on his report card “Daniel can’t sit still.” Taking it as a compliment, he’s been on the go ever since. Having flown over 590,000 kilometres in a single year (2012), he’s done much to push the boundaries of a fashioniser, always looking to fold one extra Tom Ford suit into his set of Samsonite cases and for one extra occasion to tie a tie for. As much an editor-at-large as he is Fashionising.com’s Editor-in-chief, when he's not travelling to all the fashion weeks his passports will allow him to, Daniel works on guiding this publication’s editorial and trend views. He is one of Fashionising.com’s co-founders.

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