The Style Manual: Suits 101

Feature image via DapperQ

Everywhere — from Paris catwalks to grocery store checkouts — is filled with ideas about how to dress. They’ve got rules and handsome men clones galore, but what do you do when they’re not talking to you? Sure you can ignore them, but even dapper queers, fancy bois and dandy ladies need some help now and then. With that in mind, Anita Dolce Vita of dapperQ rounded up some experts and set out to create a style guide for us.

Chapter 1: The Suit

Part 1: An Introduction To Suits

Part 2: Classic Rules, Sizing and Fit

Part 3: The Fashion Council Answers Your Questions


The suit. It doesn’t get any more dapper. There’s a reason why the word power often precedes it. And, although it hangs dusty in many o’ closets waiting for events that call for conservative attire, it can be dressed down — think paired with sneakers — to give a casual feel, a la Ellen Degeneres.

One three-piece suit four ways

Why is it, then, that so many masculine presenting genderqueers, transgender men, lesbians, bois, studs, AGs, doms, dykes, and butches (referred to from here on as dapperQs) feel so powerless when shopping for a suit?

Finding a good suit is a painstaking challenge for most people regardless of their gender presentation, sexual orientation, and personal taste. Most suit designers make their standard prototypes to fit models, not the average consumer. It’s unrealistic to expect mass produced suits to fit as if they are custom made; just as not all size 2s are the same, not all size 22s are the same. A few of us are lucky and can get away with building a substantial wardrobe without ever visiting a tailor. But the majority of us need a little help; we have to get comfortable with the idea of tailoring!

With that in mind, let’s take finding a good suit step by step.  We’ll start with definitions and “universal rules” (Queers are already used to breaking the rules, so feel free to break some more…just do it with style.) because, equipped with this information you can better advocate for yourself in shopping situations that are already stressful. Later on, a couple of members from our fashion council will answer some of your more specific questions.

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Suitology 101: Vocabulary

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Section 1. Interpreting the Dress Code on the Event Invite

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Black Tie-Attire: This means it’s time to break out your tux. Stick with basic black and white.

Black Tie-Optional: You can opt for a dark suit instead of a tux. Black patent leather shoes are appropriate in this case. Those who feel like a million bucks in a tux can put theirs to good use because, as the invitation implies, the host expects that some guests will arrive in traditional black-tie attire.

Business: Suit. Dress shirt. Tie. Dress shoes. Period.

SIGNIFIED Co-Producer Anna Barsan in business attire via dapperQ

Business Casual: People generally only see the word “casual” on an invitation that calls for business casual. Do not arrive underdressed. This is not the time for your Old Navy polo shirt. Wear a crisp ironed dress shirt, dress trousers and dress shoes. Save the sneakers and jeans for the sports bar.

Cocktail Attire: This is not to be mistaken with business casual. Try business with a twist. Add some color or patterns to avoid looking like you just came from work, but do not overdo it.

Writer Sinclair Sexsmith in Cocktail Attire for He Said/We Said via dapperQ

Dressy Casual: Again, easy does it. Put away your sweatpants and baseball cap. Instead, this is the time for a button-down shirt, a tie (optional), a sports jacket or blazer, slacks, and loafers/wing tips/oxfords. If the invitation just says “casual,” you can even get away with jeans, dressy shorts (e.g. for a beach wedding), substituting the jacket with a pull-over sweater and exchanging loafers/wing tips/oxfords for a hip pair of sneakers.

Pop quiz: Is Sinclair Sexsmith wearing business, business casual, or dressy casual?

A: Depends on the season, the company’s dress code, the industry, and how dressy the bottoms are (e.g., jeans or dress trousers), according to fashion and etiquette gurus.

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Section 2. What is What on a Suit

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Lapels: Lapels are the upper folded flaps on a suit jacket.

Double-Breasted Suit: A double-breasted suit has two columns of buttons with two to three buttons per column. The jacket flaps have enough fabric to allow for buttoning with overlap on the left and right sides.

Single-Breasted Suit: A single-breasted suit has only one column of one to four buttons. The jacket flaps have just enough fabric to allow for buttoning with no overlap.

The Break: The break is the horizontal line created when your trousers, pants or jeans meet your shoes.  The three different types of breaks are short, medium, and full. Designers use different breaks, depending on the trend or look they are trying to sell. Overall, you want to go for a medium break if you don’t have a lot of money to buy multiple suits; it’s classic and prevents your pants from appearing too short or too long. With a medium break, your pants should hit midway between the top of your dress shoe and the top of your sole.  Your pants should hit your shoes with no more than an inch of fabric to spare.

Tuxedo:  The biggest question: What is the difference between a tuxedo and a suit? The simplest answer: The tuxedo jacket is more formal and typically adorned with satin trimmings. It should be paired with formal tuxedo shoes that are patent leather, not matte. You should avoid wearing a dress shirt with a pocket on the front with a tuxedo. Here’s Ellen and SamRo with their takes on the tux:

Stroller (AKA Stresemann, a director, or simply black lounge): A black or dark gray jacket, cut similar to a suit jacket but with peaked lapels, that you might wear to your own wedding. It is appropriate to wear if your wedding is a semi-formal daytime event. Strollers are always paired with striped or checked formal dress trousers, a gray or silver necktie and a waistcoat.

Vents: Vents are the slits on the lower back or side of a suit jacket that help the jacket hang better when in a seated position. There are non-vented jackets (rare), single-vented jackets (one center slit down the lower back side of the jacket) and double-vented jackets (a slit on each side of the bottom of the jacket).

Waistcoat: Short and sweet, it’s just another term for a vest.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for Suitology 102

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65 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    I went to dapperQ’s site, and ended up on a link to lesbian wedding photography, ww.onabicyclebuiltfortwo.com, and now I haven’t accomplished any.work.at.all. for the last 90min.

    I fully support my choice to procrastinate, and yet again and again have Autostraddle to thank for my smile in the office :)

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        For button up shirts, there are a surprising array of options. Look online for these companies: Campbell & Kate, Rebecca & Drew, Biu Biu and Pepperberry. *Suits* seem like a harder deal, though Pepperberry and DD Atelier have blazers. I’ve also had good luck with boob-friendly button ups at Express, leading me to think that their suits are options for my body.

        This blog is a great resource for business-dressing busty people, and has a big ol roundup of companies: http://hourglassy.com/clothing-for-big-busts/

        Of course, most–if not all–busty clothing companies are geared towards relatively femme-presenting people, and might not feel friendly to more masculine busty people.

    • Thumb up 2

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      As a dapperQ contributor I would agree with Anita’s post below. If you’re proud of your bustiness and you still want to wear a suit – you’re best bet is a tailor. Find something reasonably priced and local. For example, in Austin, I go to Marfiel’s tailor, downtown (http://www.yelp.com/biz/marfiels-tailors-austin#query:tailors), but when I lived in Houston, I used to go Star Tailor (http://www.yelp.com/biz/star-tailor-houston). In this case, when buying the suit jacket, the most important thing to look for in terms of fit is the shoulders. Things like length can always be fixed later but if you have a problem with the shoulders, that’s going to cost you a little bit more.

      If you want a more masculine frame and you think your bustiness is just getting in the way of the straight, un-curvy look you desire (which is definitely my case) once you discover the magic of wearing a dress shirt with a binder you will never go back. I would recommend getting something from Underworks (http://ftm.underworks.com/).

  2. Thumb up 1

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    This was very comprehensive. Kudos. But may quote myself from a recent interview on Lesbian Clothing in DapperQ:

    “I don’t like or use the terminology that is so popular these days: transmasculine, genderqueer, masculine-of-center, boi, etc. These are all words and phrases that obscure the fact that women and men are trained by patriarchy to live in constricting, life-denying, soul -sucking, yet totally made-up categorical boxes. It obscures the fact that men, as a class under patriarchy, created these conditions, and that men, as a class under patriarchy, benefit from that pervasive world-view.

    “Far from expanding our world view, the language of transmasculine etc. has, in my opinion, shrunk it. One of the goals of feminism, certainly of Lesbian Feminism, is to make the category of woman bigger, not smaller. Phrases like transmasculine or masculine of center suggest that woman, as a category, is not large enough, or expansive enough, or elastic enough, to encompass a full range of behaviors, aesthetics, expressions and attitudes.”

    Check out the full interview for more of my views on Lesbians and clothing. Thank you!

    http://www.dapperq.com/interview-with-liza-cowan-of-dyke-a-quarterly/

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      As lesbian feminism has been historically oppressive towards trans* identities (such as genderqueer), I certainly wouldn’t want to cite it as an overall goal of feminism. These people don’t identify as women, and that’s the point. While the notion of expanding the category of women (which I think terms like masculine-of-center do) is certainly nice, suggesting that people who don’t fit within that category conform to it feels gross. People generally identify these ways because they feel it fits, because it makes them feel more comfortable in their skin- not because of political or philosophical motivations.

      Basically, in a place where the philosophy is “you do you,” the notion of policing or critiquing others identity labels doesn’t feel right.

      • Thumb up 4

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        Thanks Ash!

        I agree. (Lesbian) feminism. Not all of us claim to be lesbians or women. Some of us identify as women, men, neither, or both. Deal with it!

        Also, this is partly about reclaiming language, not making it narrower in scope. If I want to call my vag masculine, it doesn’t make it any less womanly, or manly for that matter. A woman who identifies as a woman but uses masculine pronouns is changing and broadening the definition of masculinity while expanding what it means to be a woman. These goals do not have to be mutually exclusive or binary. This is a different way of thinking that is probably foreign to a self proclaimed former lesbian separatist, I know.

        I also find that it is inappropriate to use this opportunity to plug your personal writing and political agenda on a site that is clearly a resource for a broader audience than just women-identified lesbian feminists.

        Can we get back to talking about the topic of this article now? SUITS! Can’t wait for more! Thank you Autostraddle and DapperQ.

  3. Thumb up 1

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    I think it depends on what look you are going for. When I wear suit jackets I want them to show off my curves (the little that I have). So I make sure they are tailored within an inch of my life. However, if that is not your thing then I would say get the suit fitted and tailored while wearing a binder. Just thoughts, I’m no expert.

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    Greetings dashing daps!

    We pride ourselves on providing a platform to allow for open discussion and exchange of ideas. However, dapperQ also respects and supports our community’s right to identify using whatever terms are empowering.

    As for breasts, we do have to say that your best bet is tailoring (more on that this week). We recently stumbled upon a post on GQ where SNL comedian Horatio Sanz said that he has a hard time getting his neck size to match his body size. Fit challenges vary depending on body type, but by and large, the overall consensus is that a great many of folx share similar issues and that tailoring is key.

    • Thumb up 0

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      I read all the comments and I can’t see anything that requires a response like this:

      “We pride ourselves on providing a platform to allow for open discussion and exchange of ideas. However, dapperQ also respects and supports our community’s right to identify using whatever terms are empowering.”

      Tell me I’m wrong, but I have a hunch you are referring to my comment. I’m not discussing rights, I’m discussing philosophy and language. I am invoking basic feminism. And furthermore, I’m linking to an article that I wrote, but you published. Why would you need to issue a disclaimer?

      Forgive me if you were making an oblique reference to another comment.

      cheers…Liza

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        Hi Liza! This isn’t a disclaimer so much as dapperq expressing their opinion. I also feel that the words we use ourselves totally merit discussion, but I’m hesitant to make blanket statement about words that I don’t like when it comes to identity. I know what words I like and don’t like for me, but I have no idea how other people feel so I don’t think it’s my place to step in.

  5. Thumb up 2

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    We all know that historically I’ve had difficulties finding fashionable suits. Finally, help has arrived! Thank you dapperQ and other contributors for advice on this very big challenge of mine. Expect Hillz to be showing off some new styles on CNN as soon as I’m doing tailoring my new suits!

  6. Thumb up 1

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    This is relevant to my interests.
    I need to buy a quality suit within the next few months for formal on-campus interviews.

    I would love to buy a nice gun metal gray suit with a subtle pattern, a nice blouse, and match it with a skinny or bow tie. Alas, I think even this would be too quirky for the formal business I’ll be entering into.

    Maybe I’ll rock a darker textured 3 piece suit and a pocket watch…so many good ideas, dapperQ.

  7. Thumb up 11

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    Honestly THANK YOU for this post. I was just at the post office and the attendants said “Isn’t it too early for Halloween?” in acknowledgement of my dapper as fuck buttondown and dresspants. So like, it’s nice to be validated here, is what I’m saying and, like, be in a space where others move through two different worlds where their dapper-ness/masculine presentation is received as either super hot/brave/dyke-nod-worthy or ridiculed and cast off as a phase before embracing dresses and “beauty.” PLEASE EXCUSE MY FEELINGS PARADE I JUST REALLY LOVE BEING SLAPPED IN THE FACE WITH IGNORANCE AND THEN READING ABOUT SUITS

  8. Thumb up 0

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    Don’t want to be a douche, but I think the person wearing a suit on the front page (linked to article) is actually a guy. Just a kind of slightly feminine guy. Maybe this is what you were going for? I saw this picture wrongly posted on tumblr a couple of weeks ago and someone was angry at the misgendering as they saw it as culturally unsubtle.

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          Wendy,

          You are not stupid. Check mate on the crediting. My bad. I forgot to include that in the photo’s title when I was delivering the content to Autostraddle. Tip of the top hat to the Style Blogger.

          I do often times use male models for inspiration because (1) not all of our readers identify as women and (2) many of our readers draw inspiration from “menswear” blogs and cis-male style icons. Our readers often say that stars like Darren Criss and Andre 3000 are just as much a style inspiration as Maddow and Ian Harvie.

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      that’s not douchey, jamie. thanks for letting me know! i found the image on dapper and dandy, which has moc fashion from people all over the masculine end of the gender spectrum(s), but maybe i should change it since i have no idea if this person would appreciate being the feature image for an article on a queer website.

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        You’re welcome! In its own right, that image is incredibly stylish. I fully support taking style inspiration from any gender. However, I agree with your point about the unknown identity of the model. I run a blog on transmasculine style and occasionally our pics are reblogged by female fashion sites (made up example: “Women in Vests”). It’s sort of a compliment, but also a bit thoughtless.

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    I bought my first business suit recently – this one (http://gmltm563.www-cdn.s.mel.secureinf.net/cue_images/2012-10-08_13_29_46__C4886_S12_C4886-780-578_2000X2375PXNEW.jpg) but I wound up getting it with a skirt because I had such trouble getting pants to fit. And I have this difficulty EVERY time I go suit shopping.

    I’m petite (about 5’3) and I’m curvy… I have a small waist and generous hips and thighs. Suit pants either sit well around the waist and then skin tight around my thighs or they are ok around the thighs but pretty much fall off my waist and hips. Is tailoring the answer?? I was thinking about getting pants but it’s honestly hard to see whether the finished product would look ok because so much tailoring would have to be done.

    I am femme & do not mind a skirt suit, but I would also like to rock pants and wingtips at the office too :)

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      I think tailoring is definitely the answer. It sounds like you and I are very similar in size/body type. I have trouble with pants being too big in the waist, too – not quite as much as you do, but trouble nonetheless. I can usually get away with a belt, but I’ve had to take waistbands in before. Tailoring all the way!

  10. Thumb up 4

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    AS and DapperQ im madly in love with all of you, big thanks for this series – lookin forward to the rest. ive got a savings jar marked “feelin’ fly” from which either a plane ticket or a suit will soon be born… scrolling through photos like these got me leanin towards the later.
    keep up the great work

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