Looking Like a Lawyer, Part 2a: Choosing, Tailoring and Wearing a Men’s Suit
Executive Board member Maria E. Harris recently posted on key points for female lawyers to keep in mind in cultivating a lawyerly image. This installment discusses the same topic with a focus on men. Part 2a deals with suits. Part 2b will deal with shirts, ties, shoes, and other accessories.
There is no one way to be an excellent lawyer—as legendary trial lawyer Bob Mongeluzzi counsels, you ultimately have to be yourself to achieve your lawyerly potential. The same goes for your visual presentation. You can never go wrong with a simple, neat, well-fitting, comfortable ensemble. If you look competent, you will enjoy a presumption of competence (albeit a rebuttable one). But, to the extent you individualize appearance, make sure it’s consistent with your personal style, your practice and your audience. Whether you’re cerebral and understated or bold and outspoken, dress the part. By and large, lawyers dress differently in the courtroom than in a document review room. No jacket or tie might be OK in Silicon Valley, dressy cowboy boots OK in Houston, seersucker OK in Atlanta and probably none of the above at a white-shoe firm in the Northeast. To this day, My Cousin Vinny is unrivaled in highlighting with comedic artistry the importance of tradition and context in lawyerly dress. As you work to find your style niche, try to find lawyers whom you respect and emulate them. Every lawyer needs to be able to dress formally, even if only occasionally, so the following guide will focus on making sure are able to do that with aplomb, starting with suits. Once you have formal attire handled, you can dress down from there.
1. Don’t be cheap—it will cost you in the long run.
—Quality materials and construction are important. Not only will skimping on suits cost you by looking cheap, but they’ll get shabby quicker. It’s better to own a small handful of quality suits than a deeper roster of iffy ones.
—But you don’t have to pony up for Brooks Brothers. You can generally find very serviceable suits from designers like Calvin Klein and Kenneth Cole in the $300 range at discounters like Nordstrom’s Rack, T.J. Maxx, and Marshall’s. While shopping for pocket squares at the Center City Macy’s the other day, I noticed that it had a number of respectable brands available at similarly deep discounts. I have come to highly favor Arnold Brandt, a Canadian designer who makes very nice suits but doesn’t have the brand cachet (or price tag) of comparable higher-end designers. Until you’re ready for a Hickey Freeman or Canali, take a look at some Arnold Brandt suits.
2. Picking a suit. Until you can afford custom-tailored suits, you’re going to have to know how to pick an off-the-rack suit. (Note: as I discuss below that doesn’t mean you don’t need a good tailor.)
—Picking a suit begins with knowing what a tailor can do for you. The shoulders of your jacket can’t be so tight that they bunch up, the tail of the jacket should cover your posterior, and the waistband of your pants should close comfortably at the waist. These are non-negotiable because a tailor can take away fabric to make something fit better, but if there isn’t enough fabric to begin with, nothing can be done.
—Go try some suits on and see what looks and feels good to you, regardless of whether there’s a store clerk helping you. Designers typically sell suits with a six-inch “drop” between jacket size (defined by chest circumference and usually offered in short, regular and long variations) and pants (defined by inseam), so suit jackets for a 42″ chest go along with pants for a 36″ waist. If your proportions do not conform to this system, look for brands that sell matching suit separates, a growing trend. (Although some lawyers occasionally pull off mismatched suits in limited circumstances, it’s non-traditional and a very high degree of difficulty , so not recommended.)
—There are a several style elements to consider in choosing a suit. Some are mostly a matter of taste. The only difference between two or three buttons on the jacket front is that three can have the a slight heightening effect visually while two can have a slight slimming effect. (If you’re interested in a further slimming effect, look for an English cut, with a higher pants waist and a “suppressed waist” jacket, which fits snugly around the mid-section; for further heightening, look for a jacket with a shorter cut, which reveals more of the legs, just don’t overdo it.) Jacket tails with a single vent have an unpretentious air and look good while standing, but double vents look more sophisticated, and are much better suited to sitting and to standing with your hands in your pockets. Other choices are a bit more consequential. Single-breasted suits are so dominant, particularly in the style-conservative legal profession, that double-breasted suits tend to stand out, usually not in a good way. Likewise, notched lapels should be standard. Peaked lapels, which are most common on tuxedoes, are more formal but have their place on suits (you can’t go wrong emulating Thurgood Marshall’s style at the U.S. Supreme Court). Shawl collars however, which are also most commonly associated with tuxedoes, look foppish and out of place on a regular suit. Experimentation with color and patterns should be kept to a minimum. Dark solid colors—gray and navy blue—are the bread and butter of a lawyer. A deep chocolate brown or dark olive can work, but make sure the color’s flattering. Black is best left to undertakers, metallic finish makes you look like a nightclubber, and ostentatious prints and bright colors have a clownish appearance. With pants, be careful about pleats. They can be good, especially if you wear your pants on your waist, not your hips; are carrying some extra weight (or just appreciate a little more room to maneuver); or have reason to prefer cuffed pants (see Rule 3 discussion below). But be aware that they tend to make the wearer look a little heavier and frumpier, so they aren’t nearly as amenable to wear without a jacket.
3. Getting your suit tailored.
—Again, don’t be cheap, if at all possible. On the front end, it means you start with inferior cut and construction, and on the back end you get inferior tailoring. In fact, if you have to pinch pennies, I’d advise doing it on your suit rather than on your tailoring. Baggy-fitting suits are common, but they’re not OK. Unless you’re lucky and have a body that mostly conforms to the your suit’s off-the-rack fit, you will have to work with a good tailor on a few different adjustments.
—Go in knowing what you want and communicate effectively. Many tailors are used to seeing clients without well-defined preferences, so they’ll often happily follow their own preferences unless you specify.
—For your jacket, you will have to make sure your sleeves come to your wrist but do not creep to your hand. Most people prefer to have a half-inch to an inch of their shirt cuffs peek out from the bottom of the sleeve when standing with their arms at their side. A similar amount of shirt should peek out from your jacket collar. Unless you buy a slim cut suit or have a bit of belly, you will also need your jacket taken in. I usually need a lot of taking in because I have big shoulder but lack a barrel chest. The taking-in also helps avoid the unfortunate boxiness that is so common among suits, particularly among American brands.
—For your pants, you will need hems on the legs and, if the waist is a little loose, a little taking-in at the waist. (If the pants are more than a little loose, go for the matched separates mentioned above.) Although hemming sounds simple, it’s not. First, you will have to decide whether to go for cuffs. Customarily, cuffs go with pleated pants but not plain-front pants, and I’d advise sticking to that rule of thumb, but it’s not inviolable law. Height of cuffs can vary depending on the whether you want a sleeker or more traditional appearance. Finally, you’ll have to decide whether you want your hem to have a full or “deep” break, a half or “slight” break, or no break at all. A “break” describes how far the hem goes down the back of the shoe, thereby causing fabric of the front of the pant leg to “break” on the top of the shoe. All three can look good while standing. No break, which is a currently trendy look that tends to show the socks, gives a high-water looks that’s fine for prepsters, hipsters, pripsters, and others who favor severely tapered, slim-cut suit pants, but not great for the style-conservative legal profession. The full break, a foppish look that tends to induce swishing of the extra fabric and billowing in the pant leg, doesn’t look as clean, especially during walking. That leaves a slight break, which serves as the Brooks Brothers-approved a happy medium. As an added bonus, a slight break can extend the leg line, making one look a little taller, but give a little more fullness to the pant leg.
4. Wear your suit like a pro. Once you have your well-chosen, well-tailored suit ready to go, make sure that you wear it like you’ve been wearing suits since childhood like a regular Alex P. Keaton.
—Remove all tags. This might seem obvious, but every so often I see an inexperienced suit wearer with the cloth sleeve tag still attached. Don’t do it.
—Open your pockets and vents. This mistake, sadly, is fairly common, though I’m not sure how often it’s due to ignorance as opposed to simple oversight. The bottom line is that to keep suit jackets looking good on the rack, manufacturers loosely stitch closed the vents on the jacket tail and the side pockets. The vents and the pockets are functional, so unstitch them and use them. Just be careful not to put anything too bulky in your side pockets—a bulge in your jacket just doesn’t look good.
—Leave your jacket’s bottom button unfastened. For two-button jackets, always fasten only the top button when standing. (You can leave the jacket open while sitting.) For three-button jackets, always fasten the middle button—the top button can be fastened if you prefer a nattier look or unfastened if you prefer a slightly more relaxed look. Buttoning for the waistcoat of a three-piece suit follows the same rule, generally. Double-breasted jackets and waistcoats are an exception. They are always buttoned up completely, whether sitting or standing, with the exception of the bottom jacket button.
The next installment in this series will tackle other components of formal dress, including shirts, ties, and shoes.
—“A Young Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Dress,” The Legal Intelligencer (July 27, 2011).
—“Look Like a Lawyer: Dress to Impress,” Lawyerist (Jan. 7, 2011).