The Many Merits of the Grey Suit

Close-up of a man wearing a light gray suit
Image credit: Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Earlier this week I wrote about buying my first suit as an adult just a few months ago. Starting to branch out into more formal clothing can be a tricky business — in fact, it’s hard to even know where to even begin sometimes.

Personally, I spent a long time figuring out what it was I was looking for. I was after the kind of thing that Jesse Thorn once called a ‘sincere suit’. One, in other words, that was cut out for any purpose, be that a wedding, a funeral, a job interview, an important meeting, or a fancy party. Something that could work equally well for a court date or a dinner date (the latter obviously being infinitely preferable).

It’s not an easy ask. A suit that works well in a business context might not go over as well at a cocktail party. Similarly, one that will get you ample likes on Instagram might not do at a christening or quinceañera. What I needed was something suited to pretty much any situation that called for a jacket and tie; or, perhaps more accurately, something that wouldn’t stand out in any such context.

That’s why — after the requisite dose of research, consultation, commiseration, and needless agonising that will be familiar to anyone bitten by the menswear bug — the suit I finally settled on was one in grey.

I say ‘settled’ in part because grey seems, inevitable, like the boring choice. It is, after all, the most Dickensian of shades, reminiscent of fog, smog, and gruel. It’s the colour of war and heavy industry, of Picasso’s Guernica and Lowry’s matchstick men. In the history of clothing, it reminds us of homespun, undyed wool, plain religious garments, and the uniforms of soldiers, prisoners, and janitors. For centuries it has connoted the labour of the anonymous and unglamorous proletariat, a situation not helped much by the sea of grey sweats that has proliferated in more recent decades. After all, Karl Largerfeld reckoned (the recent trendiness of heather-hued sweats notwithstanding) that wearing these were a sign of defeat, a way of signalling that you have lost control of your life.

At first glance, things don’t look much better in the realm of formal wear. In fact, our lexicon is littered with negative associations with grey suits. The so-called ‘men in grey suits’ are seen as a cabal of money men operating in business and politics, pulling at the strings of power while leaving the rest of us none the wiser. Then there’s ‘the man in the grey flannel suit’ (the italicised version of which was first a 1955 book by Sloan Wilson and then a film starring Gregory Peck the following year) which connotes the soulless nine-to-five drudgery of mid-century corporate America. And, lest anyone think the office drone associations have lessened over time, just pull up any episode of NBC’s The Office and the show’s costuming should put that theory to rest well before the opening credits begin to roll.

President JFK wearing a grey suit
President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, with the former wearing a classic grey suit
Image credit: Robert Sullivan / Public domain

With all of that being said, I’ll just come out and say it: I really like grey and I can’t think of a better choice for a first suit. There. 

Here’s why. Partly there’s the matter of restraint. While I would have loved to bust out a tweedy country ensemble, to cover myself head to toe in corduroy, or to find some summery seersucker affair on my first suited outing, these would only befit a small handful of occasions. Like I said, what I’m looking for is the Jack of all suits, which is why I opted for the Jack of all shades. 

Grey isn’t the only option for the all-purpose suit, of course. A lot of folks might be drawn to the canonical can of worms that is a black suit. We can largely dismiss that one at the outset, however, for being even more dour and poorly thought of than its smokier cousin (a subject I’ve covered in more depth elsewhere). A black suit also falls at the first hurdle in that it can certainly come in handy on very formal or sombre occasions, but fails to translate well across the board.

That leaves blue, which is arguably the more versatile choice since a jacket with the right appointments could more easily double as a blazer to be worn with separates than a grey jacket can.

For me, though, blue is a tough needle to thread. I live in a city where financial services represent one of the largest employers and economic drivers in this corner of the world, meaning that whenever I’m out walking around during lunch or commuting hours, it feels like all I ever see is an ocean of blue suits. Add to that the fact that seemingly no U.S. presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has worn much of anything besides navy anywhere within sight of a camera, and the blue suit rapidly begins to acquire very similar connotations to those carried by its grey counterpart. Which, incidentally, is not to say that there aren’t any good blue suits out there — there are many — or, indeed, that there’s anything especially wrong with the blue business variety. It was just never going to be the way I was headed right out of the gate.

This is why, largely by a process of elimination, I arrived at grey as my first choice. Lest it seem I’m being too hard on the colour under consideration, though, let us now turn to grey’s many sartorial merits.

Grey is, among other things, practical, hard-wearing, and versatile. It suits a range of skin tones and compliments just about any hue you can throw at it, perhaps more so than is the case with any other shade. It’s a natural sartorial canvas, partly because grey is itself a non-colour. ‘Its appeal is its ambiguity,’ as Kyle Chayka memorably put it:

‘As a color, gray is paradoxically defined by an absence thereof. Achromatic gray exists on a spectrum of pure white to black. The addition of a small proportion of another hue gives chromatic grays their tinge: the greenish gray of the sky just before a storm or the brownish gray of ceramic clay. Perhaps the most compelling thing about gray is that it’s not composed of absolutes — it exists between them. There might be a bluest blue and a reddest red and even a blackest black, but there is no one grayest gray.’

Moreover, for those seeking a degree of permanence in their wardrobes when faced with the inevitable churn of fashion trends, grey represents a sense of timelessness that is all but synonymous with solidity and longevity. If we look outside of the realm of clothing for a moment, it is a hue associated with such immutable materials as granite and gravel, slate and stone. The stuff of monuments, pillars, and ancient temples; the Stonehenges and Mount Rushmores of the world.

Cary Grant running in a grey suit in North by Northwest
Cary Grant’s legendary grey suit in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest
Image credit: Insomnia Cured Here / CC BY-SA 2.0

If architectural archetypes don’t convince you, though, why not consider cinematic canon instead. Great suits in every shade of grey litter the annals of movie and TV history. Think of Patrick Macnee in The Avengers, George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, and John Hamm in Mad Men. Then there is the aforementioned The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, just about every iteration of James Bond, and, maybe the single greatest suit in film history, Cary Grant in North By Northwest.

That same suit is all Grant wears for the duration of North By Northwest and I would argue that a suit in that shade or similar is all you really need too. It’s not to say that I won’t be branching out into different tones as I try to flesh out my own collection of formal wear in the future, but it is consoling to know that in the meantime my trusty grey ensemble has me covered in more ways than one.

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