The Degrees of Suit Formality

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Not all suits share the same level of formality. The formality of a suit is determined primarily by the suit’s cloth but also by the colour, the number of pieces, the cut and the amount of structure. This article breaks down the elements that do and do not affect the formality of a suit.

Pieces and Buttons, Single and Double-Breasted

A three-piece suit is more formal than a two-piece suit, but not by very much. There is never an occasion when a three piece suit would be appropriate when a two-piece would not. The same can be said about double-breasted suits. During the post-World War II era that James Bond has existed, three-piece and double-breasted suits have been more dandy alternatives to the standard single-breasted two-piece suit as opposed to more formal than the single-breasted two-piece suit. In the prewar era, the three-piece single-breasted suit was seen as slightly more formal than a two-piece double-breasted suit, which was slightly more formal or equal to the two-piece single-breasted suit. But today when the vast majority of suits are two-piece and single-breasted, a three-piece suit or double-breasted suit does not change the formality of a suit.

A sporty three-piece suit in Spectre

The number of buttons does not affect the formality of a suit. A button one suit may be seen as slightly more formal than a button two or button three suit since it more closely resembles a dinner jacket or a morning coat, but it is more of a dandy detail than a formal one. A three-button jacket with a lapel that rolls over the top button may often look more relaxed and less formal than jacket that have more functional buttons, but this style is most often employed on jackets with more relaxed cuts.

Peaked lapels (also called double-breasted lapels) are often said to make a suit more formal, but they are also more of a dandy touch than a more formal one. Some may find them to be more appropriate on more formal suits, but history and Tom Ford disagree with that.

The Cut

A suit with a structured, formal cut

The cut of a suit has an effect on a suit’s formality. A Savile Row military suit with it’s powerful straight shoulders and strong chest is one of the most formal suit cuts. Tom Ford’s standard highly structured cut and Brioni’s built-up Roman cut are based on this look and are also very formal. The softer English drape cut, such as the cut Anderson & Sheppard is known for, looks less formal, but in practice it is not treated less formally.

Even softer cuts that use little or no shoulder padding and softer structure, such as the cuts employed by Neapolitan tailors and Brunello Cucinelli, look even less formal and may look better as a linen suit than as a dinner suit. In practice these suits can be worn the same way as more structured suits but will look more relaxed. The American Ivy League sack suit also has a less formal look because of the natural-shaped shoulders and the straight, undarted front. Suits with these more relaxed cuts are often detailed with more casual points such as swelled edges, patch pockets and lapels that roll over the top button.

The Cloth

The cloth a suit is made of is the primary indicator of a suit’s formality. I’ve split suits into three categories from most to least formal.

1. The Most Formal Suits

These suits are best worn for formal business and board meetings, weddings, evening affairs and other important occasions.

A suit made of a dark mohair blend (mohair blended with wool, cashmere or silk) is one of the most formal suits one could possible wear. Daniel Craig’s midnight blue mohair-blend suit in Qunatum of Solace (pictured above) is one of the most formal suit of the series. Dark mohair-blend suits in navy, charcoal grey and black are all very dressy suits that are better worn for a fancy evening occasion than for business because the sheen of mohair may appear too flashy for most business occasions outside of the entertainment industry. This is the ideal suit for an occasion that does not have a black tie dress code but feels like it could. The sheen of this suit brings it to a level of formality above a fine worsted.

A dark, smooth silk and worsted wool blend is also close in formality to a suit in a mohair blend because they are similarly shiny.

A dark solid suit or dark solid suit with a simple pinstripe in worsted wool is also at the top of suit formality. These are also the most common suits, though such basics only make up a small number of James Bond’s suits. Such a suit may be in a plain weave, an even twill weave or a herringbone weave, like George Lazenby’s navy suit from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (pictured above). Navy and charcoal are the standard colours for such a suit and are the ordinary suits that most people will wear for formal business, interviews and just about any occasion that people need a suit for. A black suit is more somber, but not more formal. Dark brown is slightly less formal and much less conventional. Fancier stripes are slightly lower in formality.

Slightly less formal than the solid and striped worsteds are dark semi-solid worsteds, like birdseye, nailhead, pinhead, herringbone and pick-and-pick (sharkskin). Such suits are made up of two or more colours but still look dark overall. Pierce Brosnan’s navy birdseye suit from GoldenEye (pictured above) is an example of such a suit. From a distance, these suits look indistinguishable from a solid worsted and therefore are approximately the same level of formality.

2. Less Formal Business and Daytime Affairs

Some of the most creative suits fall into this second category, where suits have more texture and more patterns. Most of these can still be worn for business and for special occasions, just not for the most formal business and social occasions.

A dark solid or chalk stripe flannel suit, a favourite of the early Bonds, is a step down in formality from the dark solid worsteds. The fuzzy, soft texture of woollen flannel makes it less formal than a dark worsted. Chalk stripes have little effect on the formality versus a solid. A worsted flannel suit is a little more formal than a woollen flannel suit because it has less nap. Sean Connery’s dark grey flannel suit in Thunderball (pictured above) is less formal than a dark worsted, despite it being a three-piece suit. A lighter grey flannel, another Bond favourite, is slightly less formal than a dark grey.

A high-contrast semi-solid worsted like birdseye, nailhead, pinhead, herringbone or pick-and-pick (sharkskin) is less formal than a dark worsted. High contrast means something like black and white or dark grey and light grey. Typically these patterns are overall medium or light in colour, and the higher contrast gives them more texture. These traits lower the formality in comparison to a lower contrast fabric of the same pattern. Daniel Craig’s grey sharkskin suit in Skyfall is an example of a high-contrast semi-solid suit.

A dark suit in a low-contrast glen check, with or without an overlaid windowpane, in worsted wool or flannel is approximately the same formality as a high-contrast semi-solid suit. A larger pattern lowers the dressiness but the darker overall colour brings it back up, so it evens out. Daniel Craig’s glen check (or “Prince of Wales” check) suit in Skyfall (pictured above) is dark and the pattern has a low enough contrast that Bond looks appropriately dressed for the office.

A dark windowpane worsted wool suit falls in the same area of formality as the low-contrast glen check suit. A more subtle windowpane like in Pierce Brosnan’s charcoal worsted suit with a blue windowpane in GoldenEye (pictured above) is more formal than a suit with a bolder windowpane. A suit with a bold windowpane would likely be too sporty to wear to Q’s lab.

Dupioni silk is a luxurious and delicate fabric that makes for beautiful suits. The dupioni silk suit is rather difficult to place as far as formality goes, since in charcoal or navy it can be worn for fancy evening occasions while in light grey, brown and cream it looks rather sporty. This is one suit that becomes what you make of it. Sean Connery’s charcoal grey dupioni silk suit in From Russia with Love (pictured above) looks more like a dressy business suit (though it looks rather flashy for business), while Roger Moore’s light brown dupioni silk suit in The Spy Who Loved Me is decidedly sportier.

A fine high-contrast glen check like the suits that Sean Connery wears in Goldfinger (pictured above) and Diamonds Are Forever is slightly less formal than high-contrast semi-solids because of the larger overall pattern. But because this suit still looks like a semi-solid it is approximately the same level of formality as the other semi-solids.

OHMSS Prince of Wales Suit

A high-contrast Glen Urquhart check suit, with or without a windowpane, is a step down in formality from the finer more business-like glen check. With a bolder pattern, this version of the checked suit is sportier. George Lazenby’s black-and-white Glen Urquhart check suit with a blue overcheck in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (pictured above) is one of the best examples of the Glen Urquhart check suit in the Bond series.

A View to a Kill Tan Suit

The wool gabardine suit is a sporty suit often found in earth tones, but it is an appropriate business suit in warmer locales and for less formal business. Roger Moore wears a couple of these in his 1980s Bond films, including a tan suit in A View to a Kill (pictured above).

Cotton gabardine is a lighter and less formal variation on wool gabardine and may take its place in hotter weather. It does not look as sharp as its wool brother and thus is less formal. Roger Moore wears a tan cotton gabardine suit in India in Octopussy (pictured above) when he is dressing for the heat but still wants to look like a proper British businessman overseas.

3. Sports Suits

The sports suit is an informal daytime suit meant to either be hard-wearing, in the case of tweed, or relaxed and comfortable, as with linen and corduroy. This kind of suit is not meant for dressing up and today are most frequently worn in a soft construction to emphasise its casual use. These sports suits can be worn easily without a tie and instead with a rollneck jumper or an open-neck shirt. The jackets of these suits can all work well as odd jackets with contrasting trousers and are of the same level of formality as an odd jacket and trousers.

Fine tweeds like Donegal tweed make for elegant cool-weather country suits that have a more modern look. Roger Moore’s brown Donegal tweed suit in Moonraker (pictured above) is appropriate for fancier country activities. Fuzzier and chunkier tweeds are less formal by comparison and look more old-fashioned, though Bond has not worn such tweed suits.

Linen is a sportier suiting for warm weather. In grey and blue, linen has a modern and more formal look that is sometimes worn for business in hot climates. It can also work for fancier occasions in hot climates, but a fancy occasion in a tropical locale is rarely as formal as one in a temperate place. Daniel Craig’s light grey linen suit in Casino Royale (pictured above) gives him a sophisticated air while still looking casual.

In earth tones, linen is even more casual. Pierce Brosnan’s cream linen suit in The World Is Not Enough (pictured above) has patch pockets to emphasise a very informal look. It is a suit to wear for leisure rather than for dressing up. It is a suit for a man who truly wants to wear a suit, since a man in this suit will likely be surrounded by other men in t-shirts and shorts. Such a suit may also be worn to social events when others might be slightly wearing dressier suits.

There are cold-weather suits that may also be worn for leisure, like cotton corduroy and moleskin. James Bond has not worn casual cool-weather cotton suits.

Others may have different opinions as to what determines suit formality. What I wrote above is based on my experience, observations and research, though there are no rules about what might make one suit more formal than another.

28 COMMENTS

    • A blue blazer with grey flannel trousers falls into the second category of suits, but towards the bottom. With gabardine trousers the formality is slightly less. Most others fall into the third category with sports suits. With odd jackets and trousers the formality is generally less than the formality with suits, and because the outfits are more variable and are less formal it is difficult to place them on a scale. It would be more arbitrary than anything else if I put such a list together.

  1. I have a lot of suits from categories 2 and 3, but very few from 1. It’s a problem which I have where I feel that anything dark and formal might be seen as too boring, so I have a habit of buying patterned and light coloured suits.

  2. A very interesting and well-written article, I got to learn a lot more about the degrees of formalities with suits thanks to this.

    I have a question I wish to know your opinion Matt, even if a sport coat/blazer combination is decidedly less formal than a suit, based on the colors, what is the level of formality between a navy blazer, grey trousers combo (like Sean Connery’s blazers) and brown sport coat, medium-dark grey trousers when compared to medium grey (black and light grey) pick-and-pick suit assuming that the blazer/sport coat combination is dressed with white/ light blue shirt, black shoes and navy tie?

    • A blue blazer with grey trousers would fall around the same formality as a Glen Urquhart check suit or slightly less formal, so it’s less formal than a grey pick-and-pick suit. A tweed sports coat would be around the same formality as a tweed suit.

  3. Where would you put low-contrast semisolids on that list? For example, I had a suit in a sapphire and black pick and pick that came out as a warm toned navy blue at a distance. Would that be in the same formality as level 1 or 2?

  4. I’m interested on your take on tab collar shirts in terms of formality! I would also like to hear what kind of jacket it would go best with (i.e. sport jackets, suit jackets, etc.)

      • Thank you! I received a tab collar shirt from Kamakura Shirts made of light blue chambray from a friend as a present… do you have any ideas on how to wear this?

      • As it’s chambray, I’d recommend wearing it with a linen suit or a summery sports coat in linen or cotton. Like with suits, fabric with shirts determines the formality of the garment more than anything else.

  5. Great article and topic. If I may suggest one addendum: include how vent type and pocket type impact formality.

    Thank you!

    • Vents and pockets (set-in pockets, that is) do not impact formality to any meaningful extent. Patch pockets only properly belong on suits in Category 3, though you will now find them on formal suits. The pockets don’t really lower the formality, they just look out of place. Nothing is more important than the cloth when it comes to formality.

      • Thank you.

        It does seem to me in terms of formality, if we are being technical, patch are the least formal where jetted are the most formal (flap is in the middle). In term of vents, no vent is the most formal. I suppose a single vent is in the middle and double vent is the least formal (most sporty).

      • Single vents are sportier than double vents. That’s why English tailors put double vents on their dinner jackets but never single vents. But when it comes to suits, none of the vent styles affect the overall formality of the suit.

  6. The way formality has gone in recent years a blue blazer and grey trousers is seen as pretty much a suit. Even a checked odd jacket and contrasting trousers is virtually a suit in many people’s eyes. I’ve gotten away with an odd jacket or a blue blazer in business the last few years. Even lighter coloured suits are seen by many as formal. Unfortunately that’s just changing attitudes for the worse.

    • This is a good point, and I agree that it’s an unfortunate trend. That said, it does afford the opportunity to be creative for that ever-shrinking group of us that is required to dress as a professional to go to work.

  7. Great article Matt. Would you include a navy tonal or tone on tone suit in the Birdseye category or slightly more formal?

  8. I am still convinced that the most formal lounge suit would be a 3-piece, peaked lapel suit, with a ventless back, and straight jetted hip pockets. Not so sure about the number of button : 3 or 1, I guess. I still think a 3-button jacket is more formal than a 2-button one, 3-roll-2 being an exception.
    But great article anyway of course, so very detailed !
    Matt, a question. Where would you put the grey sharkskin suits from FRWL and TWINE ? Category 1 or 2 ? Thank you.

    • While the style can make a small difference in formality in cloths within the same category, a suit in category 2 with the formal style you mentioned will still be less formal than almost any suit in category 1. Number of buttons has effectively no effect on formality.

      The grey sharkskin is between the dark sharkskin and the high-contrast sharkskin, probably at the bottom of Category 1 since the suits are still fairly dark.

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