How I Spent Most of My Adult Life Without Owning a Suit and Why You Probably Shouldn’t Do the Same

Man wearing a dark grey suit
Image credit: Shamim Nakhaei on Unsplash

I have kind of an odd confession to make: Despite plying my trade as a menswear writer, until very recently, I didn’t own a suit. 

Or, not one that actually fit me, anyhow. For ages, the only suit I had was one that my parents got me in my final years of high school. It was a grey birdseye affair that I was very chuffed with at the time but that has since started showing its age quite a bit — the lapels are conspicuously narrow, the rise on the trousers seems absurdly low…and then there’s the small matter of it no longer fitting on my rapidly ageing body. 

Nevertheless, for many years, this sophomore suit got me through everything from school dances to weddings and funerals. But by the time I had left university and entered the job market in earnest, it became all too clear that this once trusty workhorse would no longer do. Luckily, my vicenarian career fumbles rarely called for anything approaching formalwear. A motley assortment of jobs in the arts, academia, and retail never even required so much as business casual, let alone anything higher up the sartorial ladder, meaning I could scrape by for years without serious incident.

Still, the lack of a good suit really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve always liked formal wear. I was the eight-year-old nagging their parents to get them a suit to wear to Sunday school. I was sadly unsuccessful in that campaign, although when I did manage to convince them of the absolute necessity of me having a suit as a teen, I relished the opportunity to go shopping for formal wear when I wasn’t the one footing the bill.

I should add that for a long time I had a reputation among friends and family for being perpetually overdressed (and to the extent that I still do, it now usefully reads more as an occupational hazard). I would inevitably wear a collar when everyone else was in T-shirts, or I’d show up to dinner in a tie when my table mates had barely changed their shorts.

Although I now shudder to admit it, I was also that student who wore sports coats on campus and owned more tweeds than trainers. I remember once at a party a classmate telling me that I looked like someone who owned a lot of ascots. Sadly, he wasn’t wrong. Needless to say, it wasn’t a good look, though mercifully I’ve since aged into these dressing habits a bit more.

All told, then, it made no sense that I didn’t own a suit. In fact, on the rare occasion that I would admit as much to a trusted confidant, they were always surprised. I didn’t seem the type, they’d inevitably say. If anything, what with the Bertie Wooster cosplay all throughout my early twenties, it seemed more likely that I‘d have a closet stuffed to the rafters with worsteds and gabardine.

So why the long dry spell? It was a combination of factors, really, mostly involving me being broke for a long time. I was also mostly living in far-flung places that didn’t have ready access to the kind of thing I would want to buy even if I had the money, whether in-person or online. By that same token, vintage and second-hand options were similarly hard to come by. Then there’s the fact that I rarely find formal wear that fits properly, so I was reluctant to buy anything unless I could try it on in person, even with the promise of a rock-solid return policy. For some reason, I also had an aversion to my first adult outing into the world of suiting starting with a sad trip to the tailor, bearing some ill-begotten eBay purchase. The list of excuses goes on and on. 

The point is, for many years, I simply got by with separates — sport coats, blazers, and a selection of smart trousers. Luckily, the overwhelmingly casual circles I moved in never seemed to notice. If anything, I continued to look like the most formally dressed member of my friend group by a wide margin. 

Even so, on any given day I’d have killed to put on a suit and, as I got more comfortable with the idea of forking out for one that felt worth the price tag, I started looking in earnest. The process was made all the more pressing by the fact of having taken up work in the world of menswear (albeit mostly from the recesses of my flat, where the dress code, while erratic at times, rarely calls for a jacket and tie). So, when pandemic restrictions eventually allowed it, I finally bought one in person on a recent trip down to London. 

Man wearing a grey suit, blue shirt and knit tie
A close-up of my first grown-up suit
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Without getting too far into the woods of things, I settled on a mid-weight woollen number in grey with notched lapels, jetted pockets, and a three-roll-two closure. After going so long without functional formal wear, I wanted to get something that would work in as many different contexts as possible and this combo fit the bill. Grey goes with everything and doesn’t seem quite as businessy to me as blue (which was the other obvious option) sometimes does. Ditto the more casual lapels combined with dressier pockets seemed to split the difference nicely formality-wise. And then that barely hidden third buttonhole definitely appealed to the menswear nerd in me.

I have, naturally, worn it every chance I’ve gotten since, finally putting an ever-growing assembly of neckties and pocket squares to their intended use while venting many years worth of pent up suit discontent. 

What it has really given me, though, is peace of mind. I always liked formalwear and can all too easily picture spending all my savings in pursuit of it (It will surprise no suit fan reading this that I have already earmarked about half a dozen styles, fabrics, and colours that I’ll be looking into next). But, for all of my fantasies of being a suit guy, the anxiety I felt in the absence of actually owning one really spoke to a fear of being ill-prepared.

A suit isn’t something you want to buy in a hurry. It’s expensive, it can be fiddly getting the right fit, and, despite a seemingly infinite number of options, actually finding one you like can feel damn near impossible at times. It was like that for me, anyhow. In that sense, owning a suit, especially if you don’t regularly wear one, is a bit like having an insurance policy: It can be a pain in the neck and you don’t want to go looking for it on the fly, but on the day that you do need it, you’ll be more than relieved to know that it’s there waiting for you.

Moreover, a good suit can have properties bordering on the magical. It’s unlikely to surprise anyone reading these words that the things we wear can have great power, and there is perhaps no single item of clothing that holds more power than the suit does. It can confer on its wearer untapped reserves of confidence, hide just about any physical imperfection, and — especially welcome in recent times — give you a sense of excitement in stepping out of your front door.

Having waited far too long to get one myself, I plan to step out again at the earliest opportunity in search of more of the same.