If what to do with black loafers is at the top of the list of contentious menswear issues, a few rungs below is surely the hot debate surrounding when, if ever, the splitting of a suit is appropriate. And as spring suggests itself as more than a vague concept, the debate is hotting up.
The premise—that the issue is binary—is the problem. I like instead to imagine a casual/formal spectrum, for which all matters of cloth, color, texture, details and historical precedent are accounted. The further to the left the suit in question falls, the more successful the divorce; the further to the right, the better most do paired for the duration.
For instance, a donegal tweed suit featuring a coat with patch pockets and mottled horn buttons will stray from its trousers without a second thought. The trousers, too, are easily worn odd. By contrast, a dark blue worsted suit with jetted pockets and navy buttons flounders if split, the jacket (because of its details) not quite a blazer, the trousers (because of the sobriety of the cloth) rather limited.
Life would be simple if all suits so easily revealed their character. But because several factors dictate formality most aren’t as obviously categorized as the above two examples. A dark gray worsted suit with flap pockets and black buttons remains bound to its trousers—a forsaken, non-garment without them, like a single sock. But I’m afraid the trousers aren’t quite as true, readily making themselves available to any number of outfits, from sweaters to navy blazers. That’s just the inherent personality of gray trousers. One-sided love is always this cruel.
And then there are suits where one suspects either party could stray, although it remains unclear how enthusiastically. The Glorious Twelfth book I highlighted several days ago is packed with cloths with wandering, albeit, unsure, tendencies. They are worsted cloths (more formal) made to look like tweeds (casual). Some have more surface interest (casual); some are almost solid (formal); others are boldly patterned (casual). With these types of cloths split-ability really boils down to styling, and the customer must be clear in his intentions from the outset, or risk being burdened by a suit that is neither here nor there.
Some clothes enthusiasts commission navy suits with gadgets like swappable buttons in brass and horn with the hopes that this may mollify any marital disharmony between top and bottom when worn apart. The idea may seem appealing, but I question whether all the fiddling that must go on behind the scenes doesn’t deflate any prospect of real progress.
My laxest suit is a three-piece in a lovely glen plaid flannel, purpose-built for maximum adaptability. My tailor, Chris Despos, and I discussed the configuration and the cloth extensively, before settling upon a fairly obvious formula. I kept the details straightforward—no sport-inspired patch pockets or swelled edges—relying entirely upon the cloth’s fuzzy nap and bold pattern to permit the components their individual freedom. The trousers work very well on their own beneath cashmere sweaters, or even as an alternative to plain flannels with a blazer. The vest too looks good worn odd, especially around the holidays. The jacket, with its usual suit configuration, is the most difficult separate, although it does compliment darker gray flannels. But if scandal is the goal—if I want little old ladies to faint in the street and strict traditionalists to waggle their canes in my direction—I wear it with a good pair of dark denim jeans.