How to Buy Tailored Garments That Last
Here’s what you need to know to invest in sartorial apparel that will maintain perennial appeal.
In Back to the Future parts I and II, protagonist Marty McFly faces major costuming challenges hopping from the 1980s to the ’50s before leaping his DeLorean forward into 2015. In reality, McFly wouldn’t have needed midcentury hipster get-up or futuristic self-lacing sneakers to blend into these different eras. One outfit could’ve carried him through the entire seven-decade timespan: a classic suit. Fashions may have fluctuated wildly over that period, but a classic suit, sportscoat or blazer of the sort trafficked by most traditional tailors has hardly changed since the end of World War II. And the look has decades of life in it yet. If you’re out to invest in tailored garments that will stand the test of time, providing incredible per-wear value, there are certain matters of styling you’ll need to keep front of mind. The always impeccably turned-out Cary Grant gave a great TL;DR summary in the 1960s. All the tailored garments in his wardrobe, he wrote, “have one attribute in common: they are in the middle of fashion. By that I mean they’re not self-consciously fashionable or far out, nor are they overly conservative or dated. In other words, the lapels are neither too wide nor too narrow, the trousers neither too tight nor too loose, the coats neither too short nor too long… simplicity, to me, has always been the essence of good taste.” The iconic grey suit worn by Cary Grant in 1959 Hitchcock classic North by Northwest would look utterly contemporary today, six decades later.
How to divine that perfect balance of proportion? In his seminal book of sartorial instruction, Style and the Man, Alan Flusser provides extensive guidance on identifying the Goldilocks ‘mmm, just right!’ of garments. “While fabrics and patterns attract the eye first, the most important thing to consider in a suit is its silhouette,” he writes. “Most suits are made to last several years; however, more often than not, a suit’s proportions determine its useful lifetime. A suit that is extreme in silhouette is more likely to go out of style... The right choice can give you years of pleasure; the wrong one will haunt your closet.” He suggests avoiding padded and exaggerated shoulders (“Most of history’s best-dressed men had their shoulders tailored to look natural yet smart,” he writes) and opting for the universally flattering classicism of double vents, on a jacket the correct length — no scanty ‘bum freezers’ nor over-long skirts; in almost all circumstances, the bottom hem should hit at half the length from under the jacket’s back collar to the ground, Flusser counsels. Lapels should be neither skinny nor obese, and particular care must be taken with regards to gorge placement. “The gorge is that point where the collar and lapel meet,” Flusser explains. “The coat’s design determines its positioning. While there is some flexibility in its placement on the upper chest, move it outside of this area to where it becomes a focal point and you court instant obsolescence. One American designer used to cut his lapels so high, his coats looked as if they would take flight. Conversely, in the late 1980s, Giorgio Armani dropped his so low, they are now decorating the backs of their owners’ closets.”
In Flusser’s view, “The lapel needs to have enough sweep to produce a graceful upswing without finishing so high on the collarbone as to make the coat appear as if it were moving backward.” Whether river-deep, as was de rigeur in the ’80s, or mountain-high, as is currently en vogue, extreme gorge placement has a fatal effect on a jacket’s longevity, Flusser says. “Like all elements of classic design, the placement of the gorge should follow geometric logic, not the arbitrariness of fashion,” he argues. Another fashionable affectation Flusser warns against is the predilection for super-snug tailoring. “Fit should be neither tight nor loose — a man should be able to sit comfortably in a buttoned jacket without feeling the need to unbutton it,” he says. “If your clothes bind you and make you uncomfortable, it’s impossible to look natural and therefore stylish. Unfortunately, today, the straightjacket fit has reached epidemic proportions. The upshot of such a skin-wrapped male is forfeiture of any personal stylishness that aspires to withstand the test of time.” Tight just ain’t right. Fellow giant of menswear scholarship G. Bruce Boyer writes in his canonical 1985 text, Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear, “The rule is: if it doesn’t fit, don’t wear it; but if you keep your figure, keep your clothes. Time is very gentle on quality clothing.” Boyer believes, “if you bought good clothes to begin with, you will always be in style, something that goes far beyond the frivolities of trendy fashions.” Proper fit is vital, of course, but if you do happen to put on a little weight over the years — “which does seem to be the way of all flesh,” Boyer quips — a reliable alterations tailor should be able to help you preserve classic garments, most of which offer take-out seams providing an inch or so of leeway. (Something to look for during the purchase process.)
When shopping — or visiting a bespoke tailor — Boyer advises, “Buy the absolute best you can afford. Fine clothes will last ten times longer than, cheap, shoddy merchandise, will feel and fit better, and of course will look better. A cheap suit looks cheap even when it’s brand new, while a good one retains its appearance after years of wear. It’s a matter of quality.” Pondering the appropriate level of menswear expenditure, Cary Grant wrote in that ’60s dispatch, “I’m reminded of a piece of advice my father gave me regarding shoes… He said it’s better to buy one good pair of shoes than four cheap ones. One pair made of fine leather could outlast four inferior pairs, and, if well cared for, would continue to proclaim your good judgment and taste no matter how old they become. The same applies to suits, so permit me to suggest you buy the best you can afford even though it means buying less. Rather like the stock market: it is usually more sensible to buy just one share of blue chip than 150 shares of a one-dollar stock.” It’s important Grant mentioned care there, because no matter how trend-resistant the silhouette or how exquisite the cloth and construction, if you don’t maintain your clothing properly, it will not last. So, please: Use sturdy wooden hangers. Brush a tailored garment down after you wear it — dirt and dust cause abrasion and discolouring. Don’t over-launder, and when you do send garments out, use a trustworthy dry cleaner, “a reliable establishment that knows something not only about cleaning but about pressing a good suit,” suggests Boyer. This could double the garment’s life, he reckons, helping it survive to take you way into the future. Who needs a flux capacitor, eh?