How to Buy a Suit
Recruitment season is here and you’re beginning to realise that your ‘lawdrobe’ could use a bit of an update. You want to look sharp in your interviews but buying a suit seems a little shrouded in mystery.
Recently I had the pleasure of spending time in Vietnam witnessing the wonders of bespoke suiting. Here are some tips I picked up from chatting with the tailors of Hoi An…
The Initial Purchase
Every law student will need at least one suit during their law school days. Whether it is for clerkship interviews, a graduate job interview or just to play dress-ups with, be sure to have a suit on hand well in advance. Buying a suit the weekend before a critical job interview is perhaps not the best idea: it takes patience and time to locate something that is right for you in terms of quality and cost.
A good way to start is by familiarising yourself with the various stores that sell suits. Make a note of their prices and then wait for mid-season or end-of-season clearance sales and snap up the suit you’ve been coveting for weeks.
Avoid buying suits based solely on the fact that it’s a ‘designer’ brand; price doesn’t necessarily equal quality. Take your time and (window) shop around. A suit is a large investment, and when you find the right one it should last you for years.
Ideally the base material in a suit should be wool. Most suits off the rack are made of a wool blend, such as wool and polyester, wool and cashmere or wool, cashmere and silk. These blends differ most obviously in weight and should be chosen with climate and season in mind. If you live in Melbourne for example, you probably wouldn’t go wrong with a 100% wool suit in winter and a wool plus cashmere blend for summer. If you are not sure of what you need, try to find a 100% wool suit and work backwards from there.
Polyester should be avoided if possible because it does not drape well. Polyester suits often don’t dry clean well either – the heat from dry cleaning can literally melt the fibers and cause the surface of your suit to ripple. An easy way to spot a high concentration of polyester is by looking out for material that appears shiny under natural light. Natural fibers will absorb glare from light, allowing you to see the texture of the material, whereas polyester will give the suit an almost plastic-like sheen. This shine will get worse with wear because friction will in effect buff the polyester, giving your suit shiny patches around the elbow, collar and seat areas.
For your first or second suit chose a neutral colour such as black or a very dark grey. A suit in these classic colours will be worn for longer. It also gives you more options for shirt/blouse colour combinations. While you are still in law school it is probably wise to resist the obvious pinstripes: you ain’t Denny Crane (yet).
Three types of lapels are found on suit jackets - shawl, notched and peak. The shawl collar is usually seen on tuxedo jackets for very formal occasions and can be disregarded for office and day suits. The notched lapel is the one that looks like a little triangle of material has been cut out just under the collarbone area. It’s a good choice for everyday office wear because it looks smart, neat and relaxed. The peak lapel, as the name suggests, is the one with a little pointy triangle of material extending beyond the line of the lapel, at the same spot where the notch would otherwise be. This is the more formal look and makes the chest look broader. It would be a good choice for appearing in court, for example.
The suiting practices of Australian professionals is probably not as strict as the Europeans who first derived these rules, so use them as a guide in choosing what makes you look and feel the best.
The traditional men’s jacket has three buttons, although these days it is fashionable to have two or one button only. If you have a long torso, go for three buttons because it will balance the length of your torso with your chest. When wearing a suit with three buttons, the rule is always, sometimes, never. The top button should always be done up unless you are sitting, in which case all buttons should be undone. The middle button should for most purposes also be done up to draw the shape of the jacket into your body. For example if you are walking from the office to court you would have the top two buttons done up. The third button should never be done up because it will make you look like a rectangular tube. It is there to support the cut of the suit but not to actually be used.
On a jacket with two buttons, follow the above rules but disregard the third button rule. For a jacket with one button, it should always be done up unless you are sitting. The rules for buttons on women’s suit jackets are the same as for men’s, except that women’s jackets usually only have the option of two buttons or a single button.
A vent is the slit found on the back of the suit jacket towards the bottom. It is important in the construction of the suit jacket because it affects how the material drapes on the body. On a men’s jacket, the traditional approach is two vents. This flattens and weighs the material on the back panel evenly onto the torso, providing a structured and smooth look. More recently single vents in the centre of the back have been favoured. This is perhaps a more informal look - often coupled with notched lapels - and is easier to produce. A single vent can look slimming by lengthening the torso and drawing the gaze down the legs, but it can also look messy if not fitted properly because it can bunch and flap about.
Women’s suit jackets are usually found with a single center vent or no vent. The solid back with no vent has the advantage of figure-hugging potential that accentuates one’s non-intellectual assets. It can make the back look smooth by following the natural curve of the spine. However for it to be effective it must be tailored properly to the body. For your first or second suit as a law student, the safest choice is probably the single center vent because it is readily available, neat and versatile.
Trousers and Skirts
When you buy a suit it is obviously no use to buy just the jacket. Remember to pair it with at least two pairs of pants or one pair of pants and a skirt. Your pants or skirt will see more wear than the jacket, so having double the number should help your whole outfit last longer.
I absolutely believe in the value of having access to a good tailor. Don’t be afraid to spend money on tailoring services to enhance the look and experience of wearing your suit. A quality tailor will also be a source of wisdom so ask for and follow their advice on:
Shortening/lengthening of the jacket body, jacket sleeves, trouser legs, skirt hem.
Adding/removing buttons/hooks: on jacket body, jacket sleeves, trouser/skirt.
Waist suppression: the slimming and tying in of the area about midway down the jacket, to give you a waist and organic silhouette.
Suit shopping can be a daunting experience. It has its own rules and language, and can make a large dint in your meager law student savings. Remember that ultimately a suit should make you feel and look confident, so take your time and choose what feels right for you.
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