This is part of a long-running series of articles known as the Guide to Suit Style, covering everything from the number of buttons on a suit to the difference between made-to-measure and bespoke. 
 
It will continue to be added to over the next few months. You can see the full contents, and browse between the articles, on the right of this post.

 

The perfect business navy: Not black


The right navy for business

For business or generally formal suits, colour is pretty simple – but there are still a few ways to make sure it’s just right.

The standard colours are navy and grey, and for good reason: no other colours can both look smart and flatter a man’s skin tone at the same time. Black is too harsh; brown isn’t smart enough; tan is downright casual.

The colour needs to be dark to be businesslike, but that doesn’t mean it should be almost black. Navy is the classic blue for business suits. Sometimes men buy suits that are too dark (closer to midnight blue, a tone often used for evening wear and which looks black until closely inspected), and that can make them look pale and pasty.

Brighter, wedding blue

But on the other hand, strong mid-blues (almost electric blue) have become popular in recent years, particularly at weddings. These are too strong in colour for most offices – particularly when combined with tan shoes, which seems to be the default.

In general, the paler and brighter a colour the more casual it is, so if you want to wear a colour like this, have it in something more casual, like a linen jacket.

Navy is serious, professional and yet interesting enough in terms of colour combinations. Midnight blue looks smart with a white shirt and black shoes, but that’s about it. Navy, on the other hand, also looks good with those accessories, but brings out chocolate-brown shoes as well.

And a blue shirt under a navy suit provides a great background for experimentation with colour in the tie or handkerchief – strong colours against black just look cheap.

Pick-and-pick grey suit

Building a professional wardrobe

Most of this applies to greys as well. Sometimes men wear grey that is very, very dark, almost black and with little texture.

Generally, there are really two good categories of grey that can be worn for business: charcoal and mid-grey. Charcoal is a sober and professional, and works particularly well in flannel, but (like navy) it cannot be mistaken for black.

Mid-grey, however, is kindest of all the suit colours on skin tones – it compliments a good tan, but it doesn’t wash out the pasty. It is for that reason that I would recommend creating a business wardrobe (or commissioning their your bespoke suits) in navy, charcoal and mid-grey.

Mid-grey might feel a little adventurous. It is a touch lighter than the grey suit you would instinctively buy for business.

Don’t be afraid – it will look perfectly serious with a blue shirt, dark tie and deep-brown Oxfords. But it will also work wonderfully in a casual summer setting, with a white shirt, mid-brown shoes and perhaps a white linen handkerchief.

Further reading

Reader question: Building a wardrobe

The basics of selecting cloth

An exercise in wardrobe building

A navy (double-breasted) jacket

Jackets and casual colours

The most useful jacket for business is likely to be a navy blazer, but how acceptable this is will vary considerably between offices. Nice options beyond that for jackets will largely be muted ones such as a pale oatmeal colour or greys.

Going beyond business attire – or for more casual offices – will take you into the areas of brown, green and various shades of tan. These can seem rather daring until you look at tweed – the casual attire of traditional English dress and most commonly in shades of green or brown.

Both can work in suits or jackets in any material, but remember that lighter colours and stronger colours are more casual. So in a suit, both brown and green should have a touch of the grey about them, and they should be dark enough to look designed for work, not play.

Further reading

My Neapolitan jackets

The guide to jacketings

Summer jacket cloths

Grey herringbone. A bit more than just texture

Should I pick a pattern?

If you’re commissioning your first suit, make it plain. There’s enough to worry about with fit, style and colour, without chucking pattern into the mix as well.

But, plain is rarely plain with worsted wool (the material most business suits are made of). There are nailhead and pick-and-pick, both of which most men would just describe as plain, and even some herringbone patterns go unnoticed.

In general, a little surface detail is a good thing. Unless the desired look is ultra-smooth and sleek, texture adds to the interest of a suit and contrasts nicely with the shine of a tie. So consider those little patterns to be nothing more than texture.

Herringbone is often a good option for a second or third suit; essentially a broken twill, it adds a touch of interest without sacrificing seriousness.

Chalk stripe. A little bold for most businesses

Simple, long stripes

If you do want a pattern, I’d also suggest starting conservative.

With stripes, most you see are pinstripe: a thin line of white or a similarly pale colour that contrasts with the background. It’s easy to see how to go wrong here – a stripe that is strong, wide or widely spaced will be tempting, but threaten to look unprofessional, verging on Wall Street caricature.

Equally, though, the stripe should not be so dense as to be nothing more than texture. It’s such a waste.

The nice thing about stripes is they give an impression of height and therefore flatter shorter men. Unless you are freakishly tall, though, they will not look bad on a big man. The lengthening effect is far greater than the slimming one.

Another popular option is chalk stripe. This is wider and usually used on flannel, creating a fuzziness to the line that is both classic and flattering. Try it on a blue suit and team it with sober accessories. Not rakish, but still full of personality.

Glen check (here in linen)

Types of check

The king of the check is the Glenurquhart plaid, often reduced to simply glen plaid. This is a check of several overlapping lines that was made famous by Edward VII, who created his own version when Prince of Wales (a glen check with an overcheck is often referred to as a Prince of Wales check). The Duke of Windsor popularized the pattern during his travels to the US.

At its faintest, this check is mere surface interest; at its strongest, it is old-fashioned sportswear and unsuitable for business. The difference is both in the size of the check and the tone of the grey (or occasionally blue) that it is set against. Start with a mid-grey and then experiment.

The real fun though, is the overchecks. This is a simple, single line that follows the undercheck but outlines it, adding a subtle touch of colour to the pattern. Blue is standard and safe, lime green is surprisingly popular, and pink also pops up now and again. But the king is a rusty orange. Try it on your fifth suit.

Last are windowpane checks. A simple pattern created by single lines, this plaid can again vary enormously in its effect from anonymity to recklessness. A good idea would be to start with a large but faint windowpane on a charcoal ground.

Further reading

The guide to weaves and designs

Camps de Luca pick-and-pick suit

The guide to worsted suitings

A glen-check suit (from Henry Poole)
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Anonymous

I was hoping this article would touch on a question I raised a few years ago that you said you’d address in a post… without going full blown black tie how do you differentiate between a business suit and something you’d wear for a fairly formal evening event?

Since raising this question last time I’ve added a dark navy (but def navy not midnight blue) twill suit to my small wardrobe which I hoped would fit the bill but it still feels to me that I’m the guy thats just come from the office.

Robert

It’s very much down to the suit too. In the UK at least, there is an accepted convention for formal events where the dress code stops short of morning dress or black tie. Think Remembrance Sunday, or any state function.

Odd jackets are out, as are chalk stripes or checks, and light colours. Essentially, it leaves just plain navy or charcoal grey. Shirts should be white or blue. A subtle stripe is acceptable, but bold patterns like Bengal stripe are not.

David

Doesn’t this depend entirely on the event in question ?
Over the years, I’ve ran the gambit of just about everything and there is no uniformity. It depends entirely on where you are going , why you are going there and who you are.

Joe

I also think the style of suit matters. Peak lapels vs notch, with the former being more formal. And accessories would lift it from an office look because they add layers to the over all outfit. Tie pin, boutonniere, lap pin, pocket square, cufflinks, etc.

Anonymous

But who would wear a SB with a peak lapel to the office…………….?

Anonymous

Your article “Peak Lapel Single Breated” dated 11 July 2012 suggests otherwise Simon.

JDV

@anonymous

Harvey Specter would 😉

Joe

Material can be a point of difference too, maybe flannel for the office and a wool/mohair mix for a more formal suit.

Anders

I am in the (mental) process of ordering a grey jacket for fall/winter, but I am struggling to choose between houndstooth, pow and herringbone. I am moving in the direction of a houndstooth, but I worry that this may be to informal and difficult to pair with other stuff. My office is business casual (I can wear more or less what I like, except navy suit), and I will wear this jacket once a week. I would be grateful to have your thoughts on this matter.

Nick Inkster

I think that to work well on a single breasted coat, a peak lapel has to be quite strong. This, for me, is why it sits better on a dinner jacket, which calls for a bit of drama, than does on a lounge suit.

Anders

Thanks, Simon. Much appreciated.

Lorenzo

I have found that, If you have to go straight from office to party, changing your “work” tie with a bowtie gives you a “festive” look quite different from the office one.

Anonymous

Excellent article Simon! One dilemma I constantly deal with is the issue of model, two or three button. For a while I’ve been primarily a three button man, but now am considering going back to the two button model. Do you have a preference and if so, why?

Anonymous

Forgive my slightly un PC comment, but how can this be a dilemma with which you are struggling?

Asking for advice on two or three button fastening is a bit like asking if you should favour sauvignon blanc over pinot grigio.

Are you 6′ 3″ and 16 stone, or 5′ 10″ and 10 stone? An accountant or architect? 25 years old or 60? Living in a big city or the countryside?

Do you wear a 60 year old Timex or a Swatch?

Simon, try and give a helpful answer to a helpless question.

Jay

I have a Crispaire navy suit and a Fresco III 14/15ozs 430g navy suit. Which navy cloth do you recommend next? I was thinking of trying a VBC high-twist if it’s substantial enough.
It’s a wardrobe of uniforms — single breasted navy suits.
Weather concerns: I live in New York.
Secondly, what do you think of discreet action backs on otherwise formal suits? With a fitted garment, I don’t get a full range of motion like a t-shirt. On the other hand, the Fresco III does give me a full range of motion but is unflatteringly boxy. Or does a formal fitted jacket always restrict some motion? I get my suits from Whitcomb, if that helps.

David

Simon,
I can’t go with your descriptor of blue chalk stripe flannel as ‘not rakish’.
The aforementioned teamed with a blue, washed out and slightly frayed open necked vintage denim shirt together with dark brown suede boots is the epitome of louche rakishness and represents, in the ‘ right hands’ , sartorial black belt excellence.
My traveling companion and ‘Permanent Style’ sensei, Jason King, is a leading proponent of this look.
Of course, it’s way to sophisticated for the ‘Pitti’ me gang.
Salutations,
David

Robert

Jason King wouldn’t be seen dead in denim.

James

Although I confess to often disagreeing, I will confess that at least part of my checking of PS.com has become a quick scan for any new developments from a David and his friend and sartorial guru &c… good stuff

N Farage

In the video work you’ve done for PS, have you noticed any issues with moiré on pattern suit materials? Whenever I have done video material for work, the advice given has always been to avoid finely-spaced patterns because of the distracting “moving” effect they can cause on playback.

For striped suits this isn’t an issue as the spacing is suitably wide (unlike a pinstriped shirt, for example). But I would have thought that the glen check or herringbone pictured here, beautiful as they are, would be likely to cause problems. I am curious to know whether that has proved to be the case or not?

N Farage

Perhaps I didn’t express myself very clearly, I meant the effect described below, not the material after which it is named.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moiré_pattern#Television_screens_and_photographs

Burnham Banks

The moire effect on video can be an issue although modern cameras seem to be able to resolve this. I do a lot of Bloomberg and CNBC video interviews and their cameras are able to resolve most fine patterns. Herringbone tends to be sufficiently fine that the moire effect doesn’t happen. Unless the herringbone is too coarse. The same can be said of glenchecks where the check is subtle enough. I think where it can arise is if you’re wearing a coarse and heavy twill.
For TV I just play it safe and wear plains or stripes.

Alan

Hi Simon, do you think grey trousers would look good in cavalry twill (as an alternative to flannel)?

Anonymous

I completely agree with your comment regarding black. It always looks cheap. Think bouncer, driver, hired help. I made the mistake of buying a black silk suit from Richard James some years ago and wore it once.

When Trunk Clothiers first opened I remember one of the staff commenting that the owner Mats would not stock black suits, jackets or trousers.

Scott

I’m sure that Mr. Tom Ford, a big proponent of black, would disagree strongly with you in this regard. Are you suggesting that men wearing black tuxedos look like bouncers or drivers?

Scott

Black is a very polarizing color it seems, people either love it or hate it. Would you recommend midnight blue for a tuxedo rather than black? If a man has a black suit and/or a black blazer in his wardrobe should they be purged in favor of grey or navy?

Scott

Grey or olive shirt to tone down the contrast?

Jurgen

Thank you for this interesting article.
What’s your opinion of slanted pockets or a ticket pocket on a formal/business suit?

Nick Inkster

A ticket pocket would have been a standard feature on a very classic DB, or SB three piece in the 60’s-late 80’s, but a bit anachronistic nowadays, only really only to be found on a sports/hacking jacket.

Slanted pockets can actually elongate but the flaps have to be out otherwise they look a bit odd, unlike a straight flap which can be tucked in for a bit of difference.

Roger

If grey trousers looks good with a navy jacket, why not wear navy trousers with a light grey jacket? Seems to me that if one works, the other should work as well.

By the way, I’m flirting with getting a MTM cashmere jacket from here: https://www.articlesofstyle.com/shop/product/pure-cashmere-herringbone/jacket/heather?id=1944

It’s light grey herringbone, and I quite like the look. Is the fact that it’s relatively light weight at 8.5 oz a red flag? Would such a lightweight cashmere still drape fine in the back, and do you think it would be wrinkle resistant at all (one thing I like about good quality worsted wool is that it’s naturally fairly wrinkle resistant).

Finally, do you think this would be pretty versatile? I’m an attorney and I would describe my work environment as relatively informal–we still wear traditional suit and tie when meeting clients, but otherwise separates with or without tie. Since I do like wearing suits, my solution has been to “dress down” my suits with by pairing them with more casual ties, or to wear suits that are inherently less formal (like hopsack or wool/linen blend in the summer). But I’m on the lookout for a versatile sports jacket besides a navy blazer that I already own, and a greenish tweed that’s better suited for weekend attire.

Roger

Thanks so much for your reply. What weight range would you recommend for cashmere? What would be your minimum? Bottom line seems to be that cashmere is not a realistic proposition for lighter jackets but is very nice for winter or fall.

What do you think of this material as an alternative? https://luxire.com/products/wool_herringbone_grey_white-lux_78370#/. It’s also on the lighter side but made of wool. Obviously the feel would be quite different. Probably suitable for jackets but not suits?

Finally, on a different note, I’ve read that for lighter unstructured jackets, it’s better to go half canvassed rather than full canvassed. Would you agree? But in the real world, does a fully canvassed jacket really feel “hotter” than half canvassed? And would there be any other reason why half canvassed might be preferable in some circumstances?

Chancellor

My understanding is also that a half-canvased jacket still has some light fusable so that there’s some structure to the lower part of the jacket, so a half-canvas jacket is probably less breathable at the top given the fusable (in addition to the canvas). And the bottom with fusable will probably also be less breathable than a full canvas where more breathable canvas is at the bottom. I agree with Simon that full canvas is the way to go.

There may be benefit to going half-lined or quarter-lined if you want to lighten the jacket and have fewer layers in the bottom half. Not sure how well that works with full canvas as I’ve never had a jacket with that combination.

Roger

Thanks for the clarification. So if I understand you correctly, when someone says a jacket is “unstructured,” they’re primarily referring to the use of padding or roping at the shoulders, or perhaps to the amount of lining, but not to canvassing.

By the way, I thought the canvassing is done between the wool and the lining. So how is it possible to have a half lined fully canvassed jacket? Wouldn’t the absence of lining in part of the jacket expose the canvassing?

Roger

Thanks for all your replies. How is canvassing done on a good top coat or trench? Should that go all the way down to the bottom?

George

Would you define an anthracite grey, prince of wales blazer versatile?
The pattern would be a good change for my wardrobe, but I wonder how well you can dress it down (jeans? chinos?) ?

Stanley

I just went to wwchan to start my first bespoke business suit this afternoon , I pick Holland and sherry crispaire collection with charcoal plain weave worsted wool, it that a safe choice? Or shouldn’t be plain worsted wool?

Stanley

Thanks Simon, the reason I ask because it is either not pick and pick or nailhead, I hope the final result not being old man suit. Btw I useing their house cut, little shoulder pad, 2 button, notched lapel, open collar, double vent. And I requested unlined too, I will share you the final outcome in wwchan if you don’t mind

James

Simon, I am a devotee of Anderson and Sheppard, but they are an infrequent treat due to my limited budget. Can you recommend or offer any suggestions regarding UK made-to-measure tailors that have a similar style?

James

Thanks Simon. I did read your Whitcomb & Shaftesbury post, I confess at the time it didn’t seem to register with me. Re-reading it now, it makes a lot of sense and I will follow this up, thank you. Incidentally and further to one of your articles, I tried Brian Smith who made me an excellent suit. I pick a third commission up from him tomorrow. Perhaps W&S will be next.

Anonymous

I would like to know your opinion on a „steel blue“ suit similar to that of prince harry. Also for example Vincent Bollore seems to wear a similar color frequently. I like that color tone a lot but I am unsure if it is really business appropriate because people in such positions as they are actually can wear whatever suit color they want. What do you think of that color?

Also would you say that the royal blue of your A&S flannel suit is a business color?

Anonymous

And if one wears such a brighter suit when just having an office day (without any client contact/important meetings etc.) and on such days no one wears a tie in the office?

Anonymous

A navy mini-birdseye woven with dark and lighter blue yarns should be very similar to a navy sharkskin suit?

Can a navy birdseye have the same iridescent look of a navy sharkskin suit?Depending on lighting, the suit can look anywhere from dark navy to medium blue.

Do all sharkskin suits have this shiny look? I don’t mean it in a negative way, I find this quite appealing.

Anonymous

Interesting topic. What about a light grey suit for business?

Anonymous

Is there a rule of thumb how one can see if a charcoal grey is too dark (almost black as you described it above)?

Anonymous

What is your opinion on brighter blue sport coats for leisure time instead of the standard navy one? I have something in mind like your A&S royal blue. Seems for me like a nice alternative which is still very versatile.

Sam

Dear Simon, I disagree with your point of a brown suit not being smart. While a brown suit isn’t necessarily as attractive (as grey suit or blue/navy suit), I do think it can work in many ways. As lets say you go to the country side where its more green and natural. A brown suit would go good in that situation, also the color brown gives a feeling of trust and comfort. And the right pattern with a brown suit would work, like checks, houndstooth, and herringbone.

Thomas

Would a green suit work with a outfit?

Anonymous

I like blues that are a shade lighter than navy, more than grey in summer. Would you consider colours like “blue contrast nailhead” (H&S Crispaire 337041), “french blue nailhead” (H&S Crispaire 337040) or “blue contrast solid” (H&S Crispaire 337056) business appropriate? They are quite similar to the blue tone of your W&S suit (H&S Classic Worsted).

Gohan

Hi Simon

I am having my engagement in a week, there will be approx 20 participants, close family members. The location of the engagement will be at a historical Palace.

In order to be safe side, I commissioned 2 peak lapel single button bespoke suits one with navy pinstripe (Loro Piana N713022 ) and Ash blue ( Loro Piana N713044)

I was looking to get a different look rather than a navy suit.

On the other hand, currently having a difficulty to pick the right one. May I ask your opinion which one would be more appropriate for this kind of event.

Any recommendation for tie aswell.

Many thanks in advance!
All the best

Joseph

Hi Simon, just to say I really appreciate this series – I find myself come back to it again and again.

I also had a question on your comment below, ‘Mid-grey, however, is kindest of all the suit colours on skin tones – it compliments a good tan, but it doesn’t wash out the pasty.’

Is the implication that a navy might wash out paler skin?