There are few items of men’s clothing more classic than a double-breasted suit. But men’s fashion moves (slowly) in cycles, and the “DB,” as it is called in tailors’ shorthand, has not been commonly worn in this century. Although it is currently enjoying a tempered resurgence among more fashion-forward types, it has not penetrated to the level of the average suit- or jacket-wearing man.
When done right, the DB looks great. With its roots in the military uniform, its pronounced V-shape, and generous peak lapels, it presents a rather heroic silhouette.
But the DB suit faces two basic problems. First, it is uncommon, and therefore draws attention – it can thus be considered flashy, which is one of the paramount attributes to be avoided in one’s dress. Second, its jacket is architecturally a much more complicated garment than its single-breasted cousin – there is more fabric, which wraps around the torso, and more (and larger) buttons. In this unforgiving era of relatively trim-fitting suits, where the fit must be more precise and flaws are more readily apparent, the DB is much more difficult to tailor than the SB (single-breasted) and therefore more likely to fit poorly, particularly if bought off-the-rack.
So the first thing you need to do if you want to wear a DB is to have a first-rate tailor ensure that you don’t leave until it fits perfectly. The basic rules of successful tailoring apply – no excess fabric, no pulling, no bunching, no wrinkles. “Clean” is the key concept, but it may be more of a challenge to get there than with a single-breasted jacket. Be especially wary of any pulling across the front when the jacket is buttoned or any gap where the collar meets the back of your neck – these are the twin downfalls of the DB. Fabric is always a matter of personal choice, but consider the virtues of solids, ideally navy or dark grey, in order to minimize the amount of attention the garment already inherently calls to itself.
In terms of the cut of the jacket, you will likely be the most comfortable with the classic “6×2” button stance, meaning there are six buttons across the front in two vertical rows of three, and the jacket buttons at the second button from the bottom. The proportions of the peak lapels are critical. They should extend roughly halfway to the shoulder. (This, by the way, is the right proportion on a single-breasted jacket as well.) If the lapels are too skinny or too wide, the overall balance will be thrown off and you will look either like a hipster or a clown.
Once you have the right fit, be sure that everything else you are wearing is appropriately restrained. The DB itself will already stand out so much that any other element of the ensemble that is less than discreet could put it completely over the top. Best shirt choices are usually solids, thin, subtle stripes or small box checks. The same goes for the tie – simple and restrained works best. No more than a white linen or cotton handkerchief in the breast pocket. Shoes should also be discreet; black or dark brown lace-ups are always appropriate.
Given that suits these days are generally worn in a business setting, and therefore should not be distracting, in many ways, the DB is a better choice as an odd jacket (i.e., a jacket worn without matching trousers). In a more casual setting, such as a cocktail party, the attention that the DB elicits is more likely to be of the “fun” variety than the mortifying. And it is in such a setting that you can get more creative with your choice of fabric, buttons, etc.
Either way, wherever you wear the DB and however well-executed, get ready for comments, some flattering, some envious, some merely curious, and, yes, some simply perplexed. If you’re not comfortable with that, stick with a single-breasted jacket and forget about what fashion magazines are telling you give a try.
Jeffrey Legault is a partner with Perricone Law and of counsel to Phillips Nizer