Get smart! When a suit works, there’s nothing quite like it

If you don’t have to go broke to go bespoke, it’s also true that you don’t have to go bespoke to go smart

Made to measure: a semi-decent outfit conveys a chap serenely into the day. Photograph: E+/Getty

Made to measure: a semi-decent outfit conveys a chap serenely into the day. Photograph: E+/Getty


My phone rang. I was deep in conversation with a man I half knew, and my instinct was to ignore it. But I recognised the number and couldn’t stop myself. “Apologies,” I said afterwards. “That was my tailor on the line.”

What else could a fellow say? This was a good many years ago. Soon to marry, I was being fitted for a suit, and sating curiosity about the mysteries of made-to-measure land.

When the big day came I felt like a prince. The thing was inch-perfect. Smooth but crisp and neither a fold nor a line out of place. This was a one-off treat.

If you don’t have to go broke to go bespoke, it’s also true that you don’t have to go bespoke to go smart.

I winced a little the other day when I read my colleague Harry McGee’s fine article about the tyranny of suits. To the scandalous charge that the garment is unfit for purpose I simply say no. Pointless pockets? Ah, come on. Ridiculously impractical? Please. On all counts the opposite is the case.

I don’t mind suits at all. I’m not saying I’d blithely don a jacket and tie of a Saturday morning. That’s not style. Still, I’ve no problem buttoning up whenever the time comes.

A semi-decent outfit conveys a chap serenely into the day. If there’s work to be done, dress for it. You may not feel full of pep, but you might as well look it – which, when you think of it, is just as important. Whether there is action or inaction, you are ready.

In the event of adversity, at least you’re in good guise. Trust me. A T-shirt is no match for a throng of foes.

Befuddled from 1914

I’m struck still by the resilience and effectiveness of basic suit design, which seems to have been around forever. An iPad might well befuddle a man from 1914, but he would be certain to know what to do with a suit. Vents, lapels, weaves and stitching are prone to the whims of fashion. Yet the overall package remains more or less the same. The reason for this is that it works.

Who needs a briefcase? Not the man with proper pockets. On the working day I carry with me a phone, Dictaphone, earphones, pen, paper, diary, wallet and cord to charge the phone.

All of this can be carried discreetly, with no need for unseemly rummaging in a man bag. There’s room for a passport, too.

I generally try to keep a few suits on the go, most of them for everyday hacking, with one held in reserve. The best of them fit well, and wear well, and you’d go straight for the same again if you could find it.

There is a flip side, however. A bad suit can put an ungainly complexion on the day. At an event some years ago I ran into a good pal, a jolly fellow usually who seemed that day to be more than mildly crestfallen. “How are tricks?” I asked.

“Splendid overall. But this suit is catastrophic. I look like a geography teacher.”

With apologies to geography teachers, the offending threads were, tragically, a rather brownish shade of cool.

Mistakes are inevitable. Concede them early and frankly. If the suit doesn’t really work from the outset, there may be no point in persevering.

On holidays once, in Portugal, I bought what somehow seemed like an urbane corduroy number. Wrong. I do not know whether it was the blazing Lisbon sun or something else, but the terrible truth was not revealed until I got back to Dublin. The jacket was fine but the trousers pitiful, more shriek than suave. Worn once, never forgotten.

When a good suit works there’s nothing quite like it. I wouldn’t be for sprinting in one, but I wouldn’t be for sprinting anyway and that’s not what a suit is for. The same goes for mountaineering, wrestling and violent contact sports more generally.

Yet an open mind is still de rigueur. Even if the going is exceedingly rough your rags will not let you down. Do not hang around if the only way out of a tricky situation is by waterski. Your suit will be splashed, perhaps even ruined, but an escape route is an escape route.

Ask yourself this: what would James Bond do? If the great man can parachute with confidence in a tuxedo, then anything is possible. No helmet? No problem. Just be sure to fasten the jacket. Irregular wear should not cost you your wallet.

A kindly warning on quotidian use is also apt. A tux may go unworn for many months, so there are hazards. These pertain to bodily contours, which tend more to widen than to tighten. If you’re off to a snazzy dinner and haven’t gone black-tie in a year, don’t wait until teatime to check the fit. Should disaster strike it will be far too late.

If orderly comportment is at the heart of it all, the possibilities are endless. Tartan and other forms of extravagant check wouldn’t be for me, but I can see how others might make the leap. I feel the same about velvet and moleskin.

Although I do not smoke I find the notion of a smoking jacket to be appealing. Still, that’s hardly a reason to take up tobacco.

I will confess also to a penchant for light canvas, unbeatable if it’s hot outside. The more crumpled the better. You might very well have done nothing all morning but read the papers, but those creases suggest action of sorts, in a vague kind of a way.

If you’re going white or near it, don’t take any nonsense from anyone. Hoary barbs about the Man from Del Monte have been around since the Man from Del Monte said yes. They should be rejected outright. If that old one is fired in your direction you could always say you are not a yes man.

If you are indeed a yes man you could say you’re not an Orangeman, assuming you are not.

There is probably no defence if you are a yes man and an Orangeman and wear a white suit.

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