The Art of Manliness Suit School: Part II – The Alterations Every Man Needs

by A Manly Guest Contributor on February 26, 2010 · 33 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Style

Editor’s note: The AoM Community’s resident style hobbyist, Leo Mulvihill, posted a series of posts on the Community blog to help men understand more about buying, wearing, and looking your best in a suit. We’ll be publishing his entries here every other week. Thanks for sharing your sartorial knowledge, Leo!

Fit is the single most important part of looking good in your suit. Without fit, even the richest man in the finest vicuña-cashmere blend suit comes across more as a rube than a rake. And short of having a suit-custom made specifically for your measurements, you will always have fit issues with any off the rack suit purchase. Making that off the rack suit fit you perfectly requires a few alterations.

Shoulders

When you first try on a suit jacket off the rack, you’re mainly checking for a fit in the shoulders. Virtually any other jacket alteration is possible and not terribly expensive. However, to get shoulders taken in can cost upwards of $100.00, and is rarely worth it.

Try on that jacket. The shoulder of the jacket should end where your shoulders naturally end; linebacker shoulders are a throwback to the 80s and early 90s and generally look atrocious, unless, of course, you’re this guy:

Generally, it’s not helpful to remind your interviewer of Patrick Bateman. Side note: Don’t comment on their business cards.

A properly fitting shoulder is one of the most important parts of fitting a suit. If the suit looks strange on you, or it feels either tight or too roomy, then don’t buy it.

Once you have a jacket that fits you in the shoulders, you’re ready to go to the tailor. Unless you’re in a higher-end clothing store, eschew in-house department store tailors or your local dry cleaner. Rather, find a local tailor with favorable reviews and whose work you can see.

The Three Alterations Every Suit Needs

Virtually every suit will need three basic alterations.

1. Sleeves Shortened
2. Pants Tailored
3. Waist Suppressed

Let’s take a look at each of these in depth.

1. Sleeves Shortened

Many off the rack suits have sleeves that are many inches too long. Ideally, you should allow 1/4″ to 1/2″ of shirt cuff (known as “linen”) to show when you rest your hands at your side. In most people, this equates to having the suit jacket end at the bump on the pinky side on your wrist, where your arm meets your hand. It will look something like this:

This look is classic and rakish. Look to the icons of men’s style – the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire – and you’ll notice that each of these men follows this rule.

Walking around, you’ll notice scores of men who leave their sleeve unaltered and too long. As a result, they look like boys playing dress-up in their father’s suits. With properly tailored sleeves, you’ll avoid this juvenile look and instead appear mature and professional, making yourself stand out from your peers who’ve neglected this important detail. It’s small, but it makes a huge difference.

2. Pants Hemmed

Normally, pants on off the rack suits are unfinished and run about 38” long – too long for anyone to wear. You must have these hemmed. You have a few options.

To Cuff or Not to Cuff?

The first decision to make is cuffed v. non-cuffed pants. This is a matter of personal preference.

Cuffed pants are a more traditional option. Cuffs add weight to the bottom of the pant and allow the fabric to drape naturally because of the added weight of the cuff. Done right, it looks clean and classic.

If your suit trousers are pleated, cuffs are your best option. However, make sure that you’re wearing the trousers at the proper height. Pleated pants are not meant not be worn at the same height as jeans. Hike the waistband up to around your natural waist (around your navel) to avoid looking like you have about 30 extra pounds in your hips and thighs.

Non-cuffed pants are generally better suited for slim, plain front pants. Slim legs hug your body better and don’t require the extra weight at the bottom to make them drape properly. That said, cuffs do look excellent on straight leg pants. It’s a matter of your preference. If you want to really stand out, try getting two-inch cuffs.

The next decision you need to make is the break of the pant.

Break It Down

The break is the degree to which a pant extends down your leg, ranging from a full-break to no-break.

Full Break

A trouser with a full-break extends to about the top of the heel on your shoe and generally covers about 2/3 to 3/4 of the laces on your shoe. The pants neatly fold once where they meet the top of the shoe. Your socks generally do not show, even while walking. A full-break is best for wider-legged, pleated pants. It’s a traditional, classic look, popular with many older men and those who strictly adhere to the rules of dress.

No Break

A trouser with no break is known colloquially as a “flood.” The pant neatly ends at the top of the shoe. This is a look that is best suited for a slim, flat front trouser.

When you walk or sit, your socks are pretty much out there for everyone to see; this can be a good look for you if you like to showcase your wacky sock collection. While not terribly popular with any but the 60’s Ivy crowd, or Thom Browne, it can look rakish when pulled off well. A no-break trouser looks best with a cuff to weigh down the bottom of the pant.

If you decide to go this route, you have to know that it’s not without risks. Because you’re essentially breaking a rule of classic men’s style, you are going to have to do it with confidence; otherwise, you run the risk of looking like you’ve outgrown your trousers.

Half-Break

A compromise between the two extremes is the half-break. A half-break trouser is slightly shorter than a full-break, but longer than a flood. Instead of the pant hem ending at the top of the heel, it ends about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way down the shoe, allowing a slight fold where the cuff hits the shoe. Your socks may show while you walk. Half-break trousers are a nice look that’s equally suited for trousers of all finishes– flat front or pleated, plainly finished or cuffed.

Don’t forget to make sure the pants are properly sized around your waist while you’re at it.

So your sleeves are properly shortened and your pants are finished. Now it’s time to focus on your jacket’s fit.

3. Waist Suppression

Waist suppression is the descriptive term for the cinching of a jacket’s waist to accentuate the ideal “V” shape of the male torso. Many off the rack suits are rather boxy, so your tailor can rectify this by suppressing the waist of your jacket. When your tailor suppresses the waist, he helps the jacket hide whatever flaws you might have in order to make you appear that much closer to the masculine ideal.

This Ralph Lauren Black Label suit has rather aggressive waist suppression, but works well for illustrative purposes:

Compare that jacket to this, which has very little to no waist suppression:

With proper waist suppression, you’ll look less like a burlap sack and more like a human with shoulders and a waist. But remember – the jacket should be fitted, not tight. If you notice any pulling around the button in an “X” shape, it’s too tight.

I challenge you all to take out your suits, try them on, and see what alterations you need to get done. Take a trip to your tailor and see what he can do for you!

That’s it for today’s lesson, gentlemen. If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

For further reading on waist suppression and alterations, as well as some excellent examples of tailoring done right, look at Ask Andy About Clothes and StyleForum.

And stay tuned for the next installment of the Art of Manliness Suit School.
_______________
Art of Manliness Suit School: Part 1 – Fused vs. Canvassed Suits
Art of Manliness Suit School: Part 3 – A Primer on Suit Buttons

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel February 26, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Great article, Brett. Many thanks!

2 Brett McKay February 27, 2010 at 12:09 am

Glad you liked it, Daniel. But don’t thank me, thank Leo!

3 Chris February 27, 2010 at 1:44 am

Great stuff Leo! Fitting helps sooo much.

4 John M February 27, 2010 at 9:05 am

Great article, Leo. There is nothing better than having a tailor you trust. I’ve had the same tailor for the last 10 years – I won’t buy anything off the rack any more without having him work on it first.. makes a huge difference in how I feel in a suit, when it fits you perfectly.

5 Marty G February 27, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Great article Leo, it explained the basics to me very well. I’d love to read more beginners articles about suit colours, styles etc.

6 Miss Gracie February 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm

^.^ I can’t wait to tailor all of my boyfriend’s suits in the future. This summer I am going to practice making men’s shirts for him.

7 Leo February 27, 2010 at 6:09 pm

@ Daniel – glad you enjoyed it.

@ Chris – As I said in the article, I think fit is the most important element, followed by craftsmanship, followed by fabric, followed by silhouette.

@ John M – Having a good tailor is like being married – after a while, you can finish each others’ sentences and know exactly what each other wants.

@ Marty G – thank you. I am planning on writing such an article in the future. Antonio from A Tailored Suit wrote an article re: interview suits a bit ago, http://artofmanliness.com/2008/12/18/interviewing-in-recession/, but I would be happy to touch on the subject of the elements of a proper man’s wardrobe.

@ Miss Gracie. If you;re interested in learning more about proper tailoring, take a look at http://www.cutterandtailor.com/, The site and its forum are made up of, well, cutters and tailors and know a ton about bespoke and alterations of OTR clothing.

8 Andrew Barbour February 27, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Not sure if Leo’s mentioned this already, but a KEY piece of advice when ordering a suit: get *at least one extra pair of pants per suit*. If you’re like me, you may wear the coat 15-20 minutes a day, but you’ll be sitting down at your desk for 8-10 hours. All that time, wearing on the seat of your pants. By the time your pants actually wear a hole in them and you decide it’s time to get a replacement pair for your jacket, your tailor may be long out of that fabric. Your jacket may have another ten year of life in it…but it’s not much good without a matching set of pants.

9 Leo February 27, 2010 at 9:05 pm

@ Andrew,

I’ve heard this advice before, but frankly have never had this issue, nor have I seen many places that offer this option.

I’ve yet to see a worn-through pair of trousers. I wear my coat all day at work and first notice wear on my elbows, never on my trousers.

10 fisayo February 28, 2010 at 12:38 am

I like the article. I wish I had it a week ago though, I just had some alterations done on suits I got from my brother who’s about half a foot taller than I am. I altered everything but the waist. Upon reading this, I’ll try to reach my tailor to take the sleeves in a half an inch in more.

11 Pipp March 1, 2010 at 7:40 am

A tip if you choose one of the half break or full break pant lenghts. Do not wear ankle socks! No one wants to look at your hairy legs when you sit down. So make sure your funky socks are long enough to cover your leg properly when you are sitting.

12 Titus Andronicus March 1, 2010 at 8:30 am

The waist suppression isn’t really in the same category as the other two: its necessity depends on the style of suit you’re buying. If you’re buying a European-cut or a slim updated American style suit, this makes sense. But if you buy a traditional sack suit without darting and then go have someone cinch the waist all in, you’ve effectively destroyed the defining quality of your garment: you’ll look like a screwball in some oddly mongrelized jacket.

Re: wearing out pants
Don’t keep your wallet and keys in your pockets while sitting at your desk. That will save a lot of wear, as will having pants that fit properly.

13 Turling March 1, 2010 at 10:24 am

With regards to waist suppression, be sure to ask how your tailor will be achieving it. I have had tailors in the past simply take in the sides of the coat. While this works on side vented coats, it can pull the vent open on a single vented coat exposing your backside. Slender men will have this issue as much of the coat may need to be taken in. Be sure to ask your tailor if the middle seem running down your back should not be taken in, as well. This will keep the vent properly closed and let him know that you have some idea of what is being done. Or, just buy side vented coats.

14 Living with Balls March 2, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Good stuff. There are way too many guys out there who walking around with suits that just don’t fit right. If you are gonna spend lots of money on a nice suit, you might as well make it fit properly!

15 H. Clyde Disney March 5, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Hello, Great article, I would like to make a couple comments if I may.

Concerning to cuff or not to cuff; I do believe that it is more tradtional to not have cuffs on a business, or more formal suit. Cuffs, or turns up as some of our British cousins would say, were first used on trousers that might be worn at a place or time where the possibility of getting wet or muddy might be likely. Materials such as Tweed, Corduroy, or any cloth that could be used to make *uniforms, would be good candidates for cuffs. But not for more formal suiting fabrics. Try to picture wearing a Tuxedo (dinner jacket) with cuffs on the trousers…. Doesn’t work does it?

( Isn’t it gratifying to be opinionated, but be enough of a Gentleman to be tolerant of others, even when you know they are wrong?
Keep up the good work Gentelmen!

(* This is not to meant say it is traditional for uniforms to have cuffs)

16 Leo March 6, 2010 at 10:14 pm

@ H. Clyde Disney,

Cuffs are traditional for business wear. However, they are strictly verboten for formal wear – one should NEVER cuff formal trousers.

In fact, cuffs are superior on worsteds and flannels because they allow the trouser to properly drape, whether or not the trousers are pleated.

17 Greg March 17, 2010 at 5:50 pm

I often have an issue with the rear-end portion of my pants. The crotch often ends far below where my actual crotch ends, and it looks like I have no butt whatsoever (I also have this problem with jeans). Is there something that can be done?

18 Leo March 24, 2010 at 4:49 pm

@Greg-
Wear your pants higher on your waist. They should be worn, generally, around your waist – not your hips.

19 Andy March 28, 2010 at 3:44 am

This is the first time I’m visiting the site, and I’m impressed. While a lot of the postings here decry the “Details” style magazine attitude towards waxing and suiting the modern male, I would highly recommend the “Details: Men’s Style Manual” to any man interested in becoming serious about how he dresses. I bought a copy several months prior to the end of my last Iraq deployment and studied it like a text book. It is accessible, fully illustrated with real photos, and provides a nice summary of everything I’ve seen posted here. Biggest take away: mens fashion is a lifestyle choice like fitness. You can take a shortcut every once and a while, but as a rule you need to stick with it every day for the rest of your life to get the results you want. Fortunately the results are worth it! Great site, keep up the good work.

20 Mark March 30, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Great suggestions. Can I ask what a tailor actually does to cinch a waist? Strikes me that shortening trousers and sleeves would be pretty straight forward, but changing the shape of a coat is going to be more complex – perhaps beyond the abilities of most alterations tailors?

21 Leo April 9, 2010 at 9:25 pm

@Mark

Take it to a REAL tailor – not a dry cleaner alterations shop.

22 Edmund Schrumpf May 31, 2010 at 11:41 pm

hi,beautiful pants in your post,I love thatgreatpants,I need to find one for me,bill

23 papabear16 June 9, 2010 at 11:09 am

I’ve been horrible about wearing my suit pants like jeans – much too low, resulting in a saggy crotch. I’m trying to correct this, but have a few related questions.

1. I have a little bit, but not too much, of a belly. So my pants don’t want to stay up around my navel. Is there an alteration that can help with this?

2. Now that I’m trying to hike my pants up properly, they’re too short. Since they’ve been hemmed, am I screwed, or is there material there for the tailor to add length pack to the pants? Most are hemmed (about an inch, I think), if that matters.

3. Is the “around your navel” rule the same for flat-front suit pants as it is for pleated pants? I assume so, but you only mentioned it while writing about pleated pants.

24 Justin Kimmel August 13, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Very descriptive, this helped me a lot when choosing, fitting and tailoring my suit. Thanks so much, and keep up the great work!
- Justin

25 Seth December 4, 2012 at 10:15 pm

What exactly are linebacker shoulders?

26 MarZ February 8, 2013 at 12:50 am

Any tailor worth his (or her…) salt will walk you through alterations with great patience. Don’t be afraid to ask them about parts or whatever might be your size.

27 CAS June 9, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Question for anyone willing to help. I am looking to purchase a couple of nicer suits. I wear a 38R suit jacket and it fits perfectly. Unfortunately, the pants that come with the jacket are usually 31.5 or 32 at the most at the waist. My waist is 34-35. I have spoken with a couple of tailors who told me the most they could take out the waist was 1-2 inches. How will this affect the pants? Is there a greater risk of tearing? Not sure what to do. Thanks.

28 Michael November 7, 2013 at 7:54 am

If anyone knows of a good tailor in Knoxville, TN, please let me know. Been here 6 years and still haven’t found anyone who knows anything other than how men’s clothing was “supposed” to be altered in the 1940′s.

29 Tristan December 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm

These articles are fantastic. I’m getting some suits tailored in Bangkok and these are great for my basic understanding of what to look for during fittings.

Thanks!

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