By: Derek Nelson
Photos by: Sara Fares
Unless you’re planning to take a lucrative tech job in Silicon Valley after graduation, your days of wearing casual t-shirts and jeans to class are almost over. Leaving the Hilltop means entering the “real world” of business wear, where you’ll have to trade in your canvas sneakers for leather oxfords, and your cotton sweatshirt for collared shirts and ties.
This change doesn’t have to mean panic – in fact, you should be excited for an upgrade, as it invites an opportunity to show off your personal style. Suits are not inherently boring— they’re the most versatile menswear item you can own. That being said, there are some guidelines to follow to bring your formal game to the next level.
Pick the right fit for pants and jacket
It’s 2016. Pleats are dead. Unless you’re going for the retro look that requires pants straight from the 1960s, leave those little folds for your grandpa and buy some flat-front, slim-fit pants. Your jacket should cinch at the waist, so you look more like Otto Porter in the 2013 Draft and less like LeBron in 2003. Three-button suits died with pleated pants, so stick to a two-button closure and NEVER close the bottom button unless you want to look like a seven-year-old at your First Holy Communion.
Mix up textures
One of the easiest ways to bring intrigue to your ensemble is to mix up the textures of your fabrics. A starched white dress shirt with shiny silk tie is boring, and if you wear it on a date or to meet with a client, they’ll assume you’re boring, too. Try a knitted tie, or switch to cotton and raw silk for more casual looks. Trade out that dress shirt for one made of flannel. Wool ties look great for a more rugged look, and silk dress shirts bring a relaxed elegance to any suit, if you’re willing to spend a little more. Your suit is one of the easiest places to mix up fabrics, and worsted wool isn’t always the necessary go-to. If it’s summer, try a cotton chino or linen suit. Heavier wool looks great in the winter and keeps you warm.
Find a statement piece
Buy something that stands out. This can be a floral tie, or a suit that has a windowpane or plaid pattern. Wearing something bright or unusual will draw attention to you; however, you also want to avoid looking like an eyesore. Every outfit should have only one statement piece. For instance, if your suit is a bright color, you might want to stick to a white dress shirt and solid black tie. Anything more dramatic than this is for celebrities and very confident dressers – plus, given the stories on the news recently, you don’t want to be confused with a clown.
Layering is key when styling suits. When the weather gets cold, you can keep your cotton suit from the summer, add a sweater over your dress shirt and you’ve got a new element to your outfit. Vests are a classic look, and they give your suit a more formal appearance, allowing you to remove your jacket without looking too dressed down. Try forgoing your collared shirt all together and replacing it with a thin turtleneck. The options are endless, and all add another option for you to customize your look.
Just as a proper necklace can put the finishing touch on an evening gown, so can the small detail elements you pair with your suit. Pocket squares, watches, tie bars, and lapel flowers can all round out your suit, and they send the message that you’re willing to go the extra mile to present a completed product, as long as you follow the rules and don’t overdo them. Your pocket square should compliment, but not match your shirt and tie. This means picking a different fabric than your tie and looking for colors that work well together, but don’t necessarily show up in the rest of your outfit. Your tie bar goes between the third and fourth buttons of your shirt, and silver is usually the go-to over gold. Slimmer ties also tend to look better with bars, but make sure not to pick one too long for the width of a tie you pick out. Watches could cover a whole other article, but generally just keep to the more conservative side when picking one out for your suit. Go for simple analog faces with leather or stainless steel bands; leave the G-Shock at home. Finally, lapel flowers are a small and inexpensive way to give suits a personal touch, but they are not for those afraid to stand out. Just pick the fabric kind, and leave real flowers for the kids at prom.
Save your wallet, go grey over black
Shoes and belts are expensive, and you can’t wear the same color leather with every suit. As a rule of thumb, your shoes and belt should match in color and texture, and black shoes go with black suits, while brown shoes go with just about everything else. Grey suits can go with either, and for this reason I would recommend going charcoal grey over black. Charcoal suits do everything black can do, and will make you look less like a funeral attendee on an average workday. You also won’t have to buy a new pair of shoes to match your navy suit, a big savings to your bank account.
Put patterns with patterns
It has long been a misconception that patterned ties can’t be worn with patterned shirts. No polka dots with checks. No plaid with stripes. No paisley with gingham. This is simply not true. Mixing patterns can easily liven up your look, and if you do it correctly you’ll show everyone you’re no amateur when it comes to putting together outfits. Just make sure the patterns aren’t the same size, as this looks too busy. For instance, a tie with tiny polka dots looks great with a shirt in a large plaid pattern. While picking your patterns, choose a tie in a darker color than your shirt, with few exceptions. A black shirt with light tie is one of the worst fashion faux pas in existence.
Know your audience & have confidence
With all of this advice for how to liven up your suit, it is important to keep your audience in mind. Picking a shirt or tie with a pattern slightly more interesting than you might normally choose will make you stand out to potential dates and employers, but maybe leave that floral shirt at home for your bulge-bracket banking interview. If you’ve already got the job, or you’ve got an upcoming wedding or social event, then by all means feel free to experiment a bit and take risks. There’s no such thing as being overdressed, but confidence is key. I don’t mean that in an inner beauty, “others will see how amazing you are if you believe it” context, but from a practical perspective. Bold style moves made without the confidence to support them will show in your body language, and you’ll end up looking like a kid playing dress-up in his father’s closet. Conversely, if you’re confident that your outfit looks good, others won’t even question if you know what you’re doing.