NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – THE RIGHT FIT

Once by mirrors, tape measures and the like, most men relinquish questions of styling and fit to the wisdom of the store’s salesman or tailor. Years ago, when men’s fashions were less fickle and tailors were more studied in the manners of correct dress, this was a reasonable act of faith. Unfortunately, in all but the very fine stores, today’s tailor is simply another cog in the assembly line. He is anxious to get you out with as few alterations, and as little cost to the store, as possible.

Only one man in a hundred is likely to step into a ready-made suit and find that it fits him correctly. The suit is made to fit a standard form, and no two people are built exactly alike. Fortunately, the correct fitting of a man’s suit is not an arcane science.

The successful fitting of a suit actually begins outside the fitting room. If the suit selected is not proportioned to your physique in the first place, no amount of tailoring can make it right. There are three critical areas to consider: the shoulder and chest, the armhole, and the coat length.

Most men mistakenly use the shoulder width as a gauge for sizing their suit jacket. The widest part of the body, however, is that distance across the chest and upper arm. It is here that one should when making a selection. Many manufacturers, in an effort to make a man appear thinner, cut the shoulder so narrow that the upper arm protrudes. Make certain, then, that a jacket’s shoulders are wide enough so that the line down the arm from the top edge of the shoulder falls to the ground, without bulges. The jacket must be broad across the chest to feel comfortable when it is buttoned.

The armhole should be cut so that the lower part fits comfortably up into the armpit, but so that it is not actually felt. This gives a cleaner look and permits arm movement without pulling the jacket all out of place. Conversely, a low armscye (the technical name for the lower part of the armhole) causes the sleeves to bind the arms when they are raised.

As for the length of the jacket, it must cover the curvature of the buttocks. Sometimes a good tailor can shorten a jacket, but there is a risk of ending up with the pockets sitting too close to the bottom hem. Lengthening is, at best, a risky proposition and not
recommended.

Once the correctly proportioned suit is selected, the fitting room awaits. Bring along those items – wallet, cigarettes, pen, address book, change, etc. – that you would normally carry. It makes no sense to have a breast-pocket billfold produce a bulge when the suit can be altered to hide it. It is also a good idea to wear the haberdashery that would normally accompany this kind of clothing. Wearing a dress shirt with the correct sleeve length and cuff style enables one to better judge the length of the jacket sleeve if it is to show the standard one-half inch to three-quarter inch of shirt cuff. The height of the dress shirt collar also helps determine whether the jacket collar is low enough to permit the correct one-half inch of shirt collar to appear above it. A knotted tie controls the position of the shirt-collar points, which should not be covered by the neckline of the vest. Shoes aid in establishing the correct trouser length.

After slipping on the trousers and jacket, with the appropriate items in the pockets, assume a standing position that is comfortable and natural. Fitting a jacket to a stance other than the one normally assumed will only distort the line of the jacket when a man stands at ease.

The fitting should begin at the top. The collar should curve smoothly around the back of the neck while the lapels lie flat on the chest. If the jacket collar stands away from the neck, either the manufacturer was careless in attaching it or the collar needs altering to fit your particular physique. Since many fabrics fit and drape differently, this is a common alteration that can be handled by most competent tailors.

Once the shoulders, chest and neck are satisfactory, continue the inspection downward. The jacket’s waist should be slightly suppressed, responding to the natural thinning of the body. Be careful not to have it taken in so tightly that the silhouette becomes exaggerated and movements constricted. Often, a great suppression of the waist will make the jacket spread around the hips, opening the vent or vents in the rear. The vents should never be pulled apart so that the seat of the trousers shows.

Curiously, one of the most important aspects of a suit’s alterations is the least complicated. Most American men wear their jacket sleeves too long, which makes them appear dowdy. All that business of measuring up from the thumb a prescribed number of inches is a waste of time. Merely let your arms hang down naturally. Then have the sleeves shortened (or lengthened) to the point where the wrist and the hand meet. Remember to make sure the tailor measures both sleeves, since arm lengths also differ. The one-half-inch band of ” linen” between sleeve and hand is one of the details that goes into making a definably well-dressed man.

When having trousers fitted, remember first that they should be worn on the waist. If one buys a fine suit and tries to wear the trousers on the hips, the crotch will hang too low and look sloppy. Moreover, the curvature of the hips will tend to spread the pockets. Like the armhole of the jacket, the crotch of the trousers should fit as high as is comfortable. This is especially important for giving a clean fit without sacrificing freedom of movement. Additionally, if the trousers are to be worn with suspenders, make sure they are fitted that way. Trousers worn with suspenders should be one-half inch fuller in the waist. In fitting pleated trousers, the thigh must be left wide enough so that the pleat does not pull open when one is standing. The original function of a pleat was to respond to the natural widening of the hip that occurs when a person sits down. If one is not prepared to wear trousers with a wider thigh, one is better advised to stick to the plain-front style.

The proper length of trousers results in a slight break over the instep. A rough but practical guide for trouser widths at the cuff is to have them about three-quarters the length of the shoe. The use of cuffs is optional, although they do give more weight and pull, thereby emphasizing the line of the trousers. Cuff widths, like any other detail of the suit, should never be so exaggerated that they call attention to themselves. The cuff should be between one and one-half inches and one and three-quarter inches wide.

When fitting a vest, there are two important considerations: It should always cover the waistband of the trousers and peak above the waist button or the middle button of the suit jacket, and the neckline of the vest should not cover the collar points of the dress shirt.

Successful tailoring can transcend the limitations of the ready-made and render the clothes “alive.” The correct fit may take a few minutes more and annoy an already busy tailor. But, unless one is prepared to spend $1,000 or more for a custom-made suit, there is no other way to insure that a suit will look as if it belongs on the body. If a man truly cares about his appearance and wants his clothes to reflect his individuality, he must rely on himself.