Let me first say that an off-the-rack (OTR) suit will never beat a well-tailored or custom, made-to-measure suit. In terms of fit, fabric, function, and customization options—custom is the way to go. But that doesn't mean buying OTR is all that bad. If you're lucky, you can find a suit that fits like a dream at a fraction of the cost of buying custom.
But for many of us, the struggle is real, because OTR suits are made with generic body types in mind. More than likely, you do not fit the exact specifications that the clothing industry deems an "average" build. The last thing you want to do is hit up your local H&M or Express, haphazardly try on a suit that you think is your size, and be on your merry way.
Like most, you'll probably end up with a jacket and trousers several sizes too large and think it actually fits well. You don't want that. With a little bit of awareness of what to look for when shopping for a new blazer or complete suit, you'll increase your chances of striking gold with your next OTR purchase. The following article will explore: I. The fit of an OTR suit II. Color and fabric options III. Suit features to be aware of
I. First Focus on the Fit
1. Shoulder fit:
If there's one aspect of an OTR suit that you want to fit flawlessly, it's the shoulders. The jacket should lay flat across your shoulders. The jacket's shoulder seam should end where your shoulder naturally ends. If it's too large, you'll look like you're a kid playing dress up. Too small, and you'll be struggling to move your arms.
One other thing you'll want to be on lookout for is something called a shoulder divot. Though not the worst thing in the world, it's unmistakable. Many modern suit jackets are cut to fit more snug with higher armholes. And since everybody's body type is different, if the arm holes and sleeve are not cut in proportion to your body and arms, then it will likely result in a shoulder divot.
The bottom line: While standing in your natural position, avoid any jackets with ill-fitting shoulders or visible shoulder divots. To learn more about shoulder divots, please click here.
2. Collar fit:
The collar, like the shoulder is another area that should fit well from the get-go. There's one thing that's all too common when it comes to suit collars, it's the unsightly "collar gap" that you can never un-see. Many celebrities and very well dressed men have fallen victim. From tv show hosts to sports analysts, the collar gap doesn't discriminate. It's particularly noticeable on men with athletic builds and wide upper bodies. This can be caused by a variety of things like a flawed fit in the chest or shoulders or a jacket cut that's too short for your neck size.
Another cause can be due to incorrect posture. If you tend to slouch in your natural position, then wearing a jacket meant for someone with a straight posture can reveal the gap. Another common issue with collars is when a ball of fabric bunches up behind the neck, particularly when sitting down. This phenomenon is a bit complicated, but the causes and solutions are explained extremely well in an article by The Parisian Gentleman. View the article here. Though not impossible, it's difficult (and expensive) for a tailor to alter this area. If it doesn't fit well, move on to the next one.
The bottom line: Standing with your arms at your sides, the jacket collar should lay flat against your shirt collar, just as your shirt collar lays flat against the back of your neck. There should be no visible gaps or bunching behind the collar.
3. Sleeve length:
Get your shirt sleeve length right first. Because a wrong shirt sleeve length can throw off your suit sleeve length. This is an area that opinions vary. Some say the shirt should hit at the base of your wrist while others say it should hit on the wrist bone at the base of your pinky.
I think the latter is a bit short, especially when you raise your arms up or answer the phone, causing the shirt to ride up. A good length is for the shirt sleeve to hit between the knuckle of the thumb and the wrist bone just above the start of your palm. This will allow for a proper sleeve length while buttoned, but also allow for you to move freely without the sleeves riding too high up your arm.
Now that you've got a proper shirt sleeve length, you'll want the suit sleeves to fall about a quarter to half-inch short of your shirt sleeve. Don't worry if the jacket sleeve is a bit long. It's an inexpensive alteration for a tailor to make. But do keep in mind that the sleeve buttons have to be non-functional for an easy alteration. Functional button holes, though not impossible to shorten the sleeves make it very difficult and expensive to alter.
The bottom line: Get your shirt sleeve length right first. You want your shirt sleeve to fall between the wrist bone and the knuckle of your thumb. Make sure a quarter to a half-inch of shirt cuff is shown below the suit sleeve.
4. Jacket length:
As a rule of thumb, you'll want the jacket to fully cover your bottom. In recent years it's become trendy to wear a jacket with a higher crop than normal.
We can thank the likes of GQ for this. Trends are cool, but you may want to go with a jacket that falls to a proper, more classic length.
A good way to test this is you'll want to be able to curl your fingers up under the jacket without creasing the jacket. Another good indicator of the right length is that the jacket should hit around your thumb's knuckle. If it's too short, there's no way for a tailor to lengthen it as there's no fabric to do so. And if it's too long, the best a tailor can do is shorten it about an inch. Any more, it will throw off the proportions of the jacket.
The bottom line: CYA. Whether you like to wear your jacket longer or cropped higher, it should always cover your back side.
5. Jacket closure:
You'll want this area to be able to close with just the right amount of waist suppression. The last thing you want is the dreaded 'X'. How do you know? You'll see creasing in the fabric around the buttons in the form of a huge X.
When you're standing straight, there should not be a significant 'X' visible. Keep in mind as you move around, an 'X' may become more pronounced, which is okay. You just don't want the jacket closure to be so tight that you literally struggle to breathe.
The opposite problem is a jacket waist that's too large. A tailor can remedy this fairly easily. Keep in mind once the tailor takes this area in, there's no way to let it out, so make sure you have an experienced tailor that knows the right amount to take in.
The bottom line: When you button your jacket, it shouldn’t feel constricting, but you also don’t want to find yourself swimming in your jacket either.
1. The waist:
The pants waistband should fit comfortably around your waist without a belt. Not too loose, not too tight. There should be enough room for a shirt to be neatly tucked in.
2. The Seat:
This area shouldn't be too baggy like you are wearing a diaper, yet not so tight like you're wearing butt huggers. Well maybe you workout and want to show it off, but whatever the case, make sure it fits comfortably without excess fabric.
3. The rise:
A pant's rise is the distance from the waistband down to the crotch area. Some men prefer a more classic rise closer to the navel, while others prefer a more modern, low rise down on the waist. For a while now, it's been trendy to wear low rise jeans, especially from designer brands like Lucky or Diesel. Go with what you feel more comfortable with. I recommend a higher-waisted pant for a suit because it looks more polished and well put together.
4. The taper:
The example above shows a generous taper from the thighs down through the legs. A more classic look is less tapered whereas a more modern look is tapered like the example above. Go with whatever suits you best.
5. The length:
You'll have options here. Option 1 is a full break, option 2 is a half break, and option three is a quarter or no break. The example above is no break, as the pants are not touching the shoes. This is the more modern and trendy look that even shows off a little sock swag if you've got it. As with taper, the pants length is personal preference. You can't really go wrong with a minimal break. Brian over at He Spoke Style put together a nice guide to pants break if you're interested in seeing the differences.
II. Color and Fabric
There are endless options when it comes to suit colors. Whatever you do, don't make it black. Unless you're James Bond or regularly attend formal events and funerals; a black suit is rarely the most appropriate. A mantra I've adopted since getting into menswear: Navy and Gray all day. OTR you'll find plenty of navy and gray options. You can't go wrong with these two, as they are the most versatile colors in menswear. If you already own a navy and a gray suit, then feel free to experiment with trendier colors.
Spring/Summer fabrics: Go for something that's lightweight and breathable.
Fall/Winter fabrics: Go for a heavier weight fabric with a bit of texture
• Worsted wool
Though the four-season suit is a bit of a myth, if you want something that can potentially be worn year round, go for a heather gray or navy, wool suit with a mid-weight fabric. But more than likely, you'll want to wear your suits according to season.
III. Suit Features
Okay, so you won't get the options to customize an OTR suit, but you will be able to choose from a single or double vented jacket, a narrow or wider lapel, and so on. These are the features to look for in an OTR suit: To simplify, we're going to talk about the single breasted suit as it's more common than its double breasted counterpart.
1. Fit type:
Courtesy of Black Lapel
Many years ago it was trendy to wear suits with a much looser cut. Just look back to the shiny suit era in hip-hop and you'll see baggy suits galore. Thank goodness the trend has become much more close-cut, tailored suits. "Slim fit" has invaded the lexicon of men who are looking to dress more stylishly, and for good reason. Slim-fitting, tailored suits are flattering to many men's natural V shape. Look for an appropriate fit for your body type, whether that's a looser standard fit, or a slim fit.
Courtesy of Indochino
Take a look at the back bottom of the suit jacket. Two of the most common are the single vent (center vent) and double vent (side vent). Single vents are typically seen on cheaper OTR blazers because it requires less fabric than the double vent. If you want a more classic, streamlined look, then go for the double vent. There's also an option for ventless jackets which are less common, but offer the most streamlined look of all.
Courtesy of Indochino
You'll generally have the option of a one or two button suit jacket. One is for a more contemporary vibe. Two is classic and more appropriate for everyday settings. Make sure you only ever close the top button, never the bottom. And if there are three buttons, the rule is Sometimes, Always, Never—as in you sometimes button the top, always button the middle and never button the bottom.
Courtesy of Indochino
The most common is the notch lapel. More than likely if you already own a suit, it's probably notched. It's also the most appropriate for any type of setting. The peak lapel (peaks upwards) adds a bit more flair to your suit. A slim notch lapel is more streamlined and trendy. It looks great on a well-tailored, close-cut suit. The slim peak lapel on the other had is the most fashion forward of all. Choose the lapel that suits your personality, but if you're looking for something you can wear most often, go for the standard notch lapel.
Courtesy of Indochino
Straight flapped pockets are probably what you're most used to seeing. It's the most traditional of the bunch. Slanted flapped pockets are a bit trendier and can also be a sign of a custom suit. The non-flap, piped pocket is primarily reserved for tuxedos, but can be seen on normal blazers as well. It's also a sign of a custom suit as most OTR suits will be flapped. Another OTR option is the patch pocket which is the most casual of them all. Finally, the pants are pretty basic. You're not going to see much variety here, in terms of features. One thing worth noting though, if the pant has a flat front then I'd recommend no cuffs. And if the pants are pleated then it will look good paired with cuffs.
One Last Thing Before We Go
Before rocking that brand new suit, make sure you carefully cut all of the sewn pockets, including the breast pocket. And don't forget to cut the little 'x' that's sewn on vents as well. It's surprising how many men carelessly leave the vents sewn shut, making them look like a total amateur. Don't be that guy! There you go. I hope you are now equipped with the knowledge and awareness so that you knock your next OTR suit purchase out of the park. Go get it!
Thank you for having read this article! I hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!
This article has been written by Khoi Nguyen with Gentleman Within.
Khoi is a Temple University graduate working as a creative the in advertising industry. He created Gentleman Within as a way to share his passions with the world. He believes that style is worth caring about. And that through style, men can become their best selves. Connect with him on Instagram and Twitter.