The formal cousin to the classic suit, the three-piece suit comes with its own set of style rules and expectations. In addition to a jacket and trousers, a three-piece suit includes a vest, which is sometimes referred to as a waistcoat and which is the distinguishing feature of this particular menswear ensemble. The vest is a source of consternation to some men, who may be fully comfortable with the familiar two-piece option yet are in the dark as to when it’s appropriate to add that extra garment. Armed with a little knowledge, though, figuring out how and when to wear a three-piece suit is a simple matter.
Haven’t I Seen This Before?
The three-piece suit originated in England in 1666 when Charles II, in a rebuke to the ostentatious French fashions found across the Channel in the court of Louis XIV, set aside the traditional doublet and hose in favor of a long wool vest paired with a knee-length coat and stockings. Over the ensuing centuries, the coat and vest became shorter and the stockings became trousers, until the outfit gradually evolved into today’s familiar and iconic three-piece suit.
When you don that vest, you’re inheriting a fashion tradition that has remained at the forefront of style, as respected and admired by today’s modern gentleman as it was by seventeenth-century royalty. The aesthetics of this look reflect that long and distinguished history: A three-piece suit communicates sophistication and confidence.
Rules for Wearing a Three-Piece Suit
Any outfit with a long history has, naturally enough, accumulated a cluster of specific rules governing how and where it should be worn. While there’s little glory to be found in remaining a slave to hard-and-fast fashion edicts, keep these guidelines in mind when styling your three-piece suit:
Choose a single-breasted jacket
It’s tricky—though, we hasten to note, far from impossible—to successfully pair a double-breasted jacket with a vest. When buttoned, the jacket is likely to cover up all or most of your vest, which will diminish the style impact. A skilled tailor or designer can, of course, create a double-breasted jacket that still manages to let a significant percentage of your vest peek out, but in general, a single-breasted jacket is a safer and smarter pick to pair with a vest.
Don’t skip the tie
An open collar paired with a vest can be a relaxed and stylish combination. However, much of the charm of three-piece suiting comes from the old-fashioned formality of this look. If your goal in wearing a three-piece suit is to embrace that formality, omitting a necktie will diminish the overall effect you’re trying to achieve.
Approach patterned shirts with caution
When you’re wearing a three-piece ensemble, the suit itself—and particularly your vest—should be the focus. A dress shirt covered with bold patterns, stripes, or checks will pull attention away from the cut, style, and fabric of your suit. Muted shirt patterns are fine, but aim to keep eyes on your suit, not your shirt.
Make sure your vest covers your waist
An exposed gap between the bottom of your vest and the waistband of your trousers will make your suit look sloppy and ill-fitting. Your vest should be long enough to fully cover your waist. Follow the example set by Idris Elba on the cover of GQ: Even while he’s seated, his vest falls to the perfect length.
Keep the last button undone
Notice, however, that Elba keeps the bottom button of his vest undone, allowing just a glimpse of his belt buckle. He knows what he’s doing: Take a page from his book and always leave that final vest button unbuttoned. This gives you a little extra room to sit, stand, and move while still maintaining the trim and fitted look of a well-tailored suit.
Your vest doesn’t have to match your jacket and trousers
In the most classic and refined version of this ensemble, your jacket, trousers, and vest will all be cut from the same piece of fabric for a continuous, coordinated look. Don’t feel bound by this, however: A vest in a color or pattern that contrasts with your jacket and pants can add a fashion-forward splash of interest.
Deciding When to Wear a Three-Piece Suit
While the waistcoat adds a layer of sophistication and formality to a regular two-piece suit, it also raises a question: When is it appropriate to wear a three-piece suit? Despite their similarities, two-piece suits and three-piece suits are not interchangeable; there will be some occasions at which you’d look fine in the former, but overdressed in the latter. A good rule of thumb: At any event where a tuxedo would be appropriate, a three-piece suit will fit right in. Above and beyond that, however, a three-piece suit is a good choice for any event or occasion where you will naturally be the center of attention, or where it would be appropriate and even desirable to draw extra attention to yourself. Below are some suggested scenarios for wearing a three-piece suit:
To a wedding
Whether you’re a guest, groomsman, or groom, weddings are the perfect occasion to break out your best three-piece suit. Common sense applies here, of course—if the wedding is taking place on a sandy beach in Antigua in late August, you’ll want to leave your three-piece suit hanging in your closet next to your tuxedo and opt for a breezy and comfortable linen suit instead. In general, however, three-piece suits are ideal wedding attire.
To the office
Once again, use common sense. You know the nature of your workplace better than anyone, so ultimately it’s up to you to read the vibe and decide whether a three-piece suit matches your company aesthetic. Generally speaking, formal dressing is a welcome sight at the office in many professional fields, such as law, finance, business, and government—particularly if you’re in a senior management position. However, in less conservative industries, or for entry-level positions, you might run the risk of looking overdressed. If your workplace is casual, you may want to reserve your three-piece suit for notable work-related occasions, such as giving an important presentation, receiving an award or special recognition, attending an upscale conference or professional networking event, or impressing a new client.
To a job interview
A three-piece suit would look wildly inappropriate at a business casual interview, and showing up to an interview for an entry-level position in one might come across like you’re trying too hard, but if you’re interviewing for a senior management role, or if you’re talking with the president of your company about a possible promotion to the C-suite, wearing a three-piece suit will help you convey authority, confidence, and respectability.
To the theater, symphony, or opera
It might be a little much to break out the three-piece suit for your niece’s middle-school production of Annie, but in general, the theater is an ideal place to flaunt your skill at formal dressing. Ask yourself this question: At the performance in question, are you likely to spend time at intermission in the lobby with a flute of champagne or a glass of Scotch in your hand? If the answer is yes, then by all means, wear your three-piece suit.
To a nice restaurant
It might be overkill, but there’s something inherently satisfying about the burst of confidence that comes from catching everyone’s eye as the waiter shows you to your table.
The Art of Wearing a Three-Piece Suit
Classic and versatile, the three-piece suit is has been a longstanding favorite of fashion-forward gentlemen for a reason. Don’t forget the most important element: the fit. When you wear a three-piece suit, the eyes of everyone around you will be drawn in particular to your vest, your tie, and your midsection. If your suit doesn’t fit properly—if the buttons of your vest gape, if the shoulders of your jacket are too tight—people will notice. When you visit a Knot Standard showroom to order a custom-made suit, your personal stylist will work with you to select exquisite fabrics and customized details, then will take multiple precise measurements to ensure the best fit of any garment in your wardrobe. Your custom-made three-piece suit will put you at the forefront of confidence, poise, and style.