Cotton, Linen And Wool Suits

Casual suits are a summer staple for the well turned out man and with summer just around the corner for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere, I thought I’d talk about why suits made out of cotton and linen are considered to be more casual. Specifically, I want to run through some of the difference between suits made from cotton, linen and wool.

However, before we jump into that, have a look at the comparison pic below of me wearing linen blend, wool and cotton suits.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that my face is blurred in the left picture and the second thing is probably that I have no head in the picture on the right. And while I might be trying to be funny I am trying to make a point: aside from that you’re probably not noticing all that much difference.

All three pictures were taken from between two to five metres away and I really do believe from that distance the average person walking past you on the street won’t notice anything other than the fact you’re wearing a suit.

I mean sure, the cotton suit is a bit stiffer and the linen suit a little less structured, but the first point I’d like to make is that a suit is a suit. Suits present a particular image in the minds of most people and, walking down the street, chances are those who aren’t fashion nerds like you and I will probably not notice the difference between your navy, cotton blazer and your navy, wool suit jacket.

What I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind is that all three of my suits are tailored in a ‘soft’ way: lightly structured with unpadded shoulders; they’re also all in shades of blue. Something I’ll come to at the end of this post.


Despite what I’ve talked about above there are differences between the three cloths and the first and most noticeable is the finish. When I say finish I mean the way the fabric looks.

Wool is sleeker and shinier than the other two fabrics and adds that classic sharpness you expect from your suit. It also means it looks more ‘formal’ or business-like.

Linen is ‘slubby’. It’s got all these little lines and imperfections running through it so that it looks the messiest of the bunch. Having said that, some would say linen has more character, which basically means it looks more worn-in straight out of the box.

Cotton is generally quite matte and heavy looking compared to the other cloths; I generally find cotton to be woven the most tightly. It’s also the only one that ages gracefully in my opinion; that slight fading along the edges lends cotton suits character the more you wear them.


All three suits drape differently; drape being how the suit hangs off your body.

Wool drapes nicely and shapes to the body due to its elasticity. It will also pull back into shape far more than the other two cloths. Basically it’s just right for making a garment like a suit, and hence why it is the main fabric used in suit making.

Linen has poor elasticity and therefore does not stretch in the way wool does. It also tends to wrinkle – due to the lack of elasticity. Most people know linen as a wrinkly fabric and this is something to take into account when purchasing a linen suit. It is, however, often woven quite loosely and therefore is quite light and comfortable to wear.

Cotton also has poor elasticity and is generally the most tightly woven fabric. The combination of those two means cotton probably drapes the poorest out of all three fabric types – it just tends to be a bit stiff. Some tailors recommend cutting a cotton suit slightly larger to give you a more comfortable range of motion. Cotton suits also tend to wrinkle over the course of the day.

Why drape and finish suggest casualness

Imagine a business suit. You’re probably thinking of a sharp navy number or maybe a sleek grey one. Maybe you’re even thinking of a boxy, silky-looking, charcoal, power suit worn by a politician. You’ve basically answered the original question in this post: why are linen and cotton suits considered to be more casual?

Neither of those cloths have the same slick finish a wool suit has. Moreover, both types drape a little differently to wool with some wrinkling and some stiffness involved. Together these aspects differentiate cotton and linen suits just enough.

Some might even say that suits made from linen or cotton are sloppier than suits made from wool. I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative; perhaps you’d prefer to think of it as wool suits being sharper than suits made from the former two cloths. Either way, you’d agree that we’re moving towards what we might define as casual – clothing that’s a bit more relaxed.

Cut and colour

I haven’t forgotten the two things I asked you to keep in the back of your mind: cut and colour.

Regardless of the cloth used, a suit can be cut more casually by having natural or unpadded shoulders and being built more ‘softly’ using a lighter canvas or no canvas at all. These aspects again take away from some of the sharp lines that define a business suit; softening up that silhouette lends to casualness.

It should also be noted that bold colours and lines are also more casual. In the first picture in this post both my cotton and linen suit are in a brighter tone of blue and that will lend them an air of casualness.

My point here is that cut and colour can be as important as fabric choice when going for a casual suit or jacket.

Summer Linen: The Stuff of Legend

Linen, a cloth which truly does have its own unique allure. My own personal love affair with the stuff started long before I became interested in sartorial menswear; I remember distinctly that I used to don some bizarre linen chinos in my early teens during the summer in an attempt to look edgy, matched with ghastly lumberjack checked shirts of the sort that appeals to confused and rebellious adolescents.

Today, with several years of engagement in sartorial style under my belt, I wear linen rather differently, but the underling appeal of linen cloths for summer has not changed. It is perhaps the quintessential summer cloth, at once debonair and dishevelled. There’s just something about a well-worn linen suit that conjures a highly romanticised view of tailored dress; a blend of Brideshead Revisited, the French Riviera, Expressionist painter and early twentieth century Bohemian, good quality linen tailoring creates an image of a man who offers the epitome of nonchalant, characterful and expressive summer style.

Although I have written previously on the benefits of cotton and linen blends (this being something that I entirely stand by), in the heat of July and August when the heat is at its most intense, there are only two adequate options for tailored clothing; the lightest wool frescos of seven woven to eight ounces in weight, or similarly lightweight, open-weave linens.

Linens have perhaps the greatest variation in quality of all commonly used tailoring fabrics, but in my experience, although more expensive and tightly woven linens press and launder better than cheaper variants, the tendency to crease incessantly during use remains the same regardless. That’s just how linen behaves. For this reason, linen tends not to make for durable business dress – it doesn’t remain crisp enough to provide a professional appearance suited to most business environments and quite obviously linen suits are not ideal for long-term commuting.

This tendency to crease, combined with its floatiness, is however what gives linen its irresistible rakish charm for casual summer dress. Cut in a two piece suit it makes for a highly chic and relaxed lounge suit for summer soirees, and should be your quintessential port of call for luxurious holidays and impromptu weekend getaways. Likewise, there should be no end to your collection of linen blazers tucked away in the wardrobe for balmy summer days.

Linen gives the opportunity to wear something which offers a great variety of colour and texture. Smooth linen and silk blended twill makes for luxurious suits, chunky linen herringbones or coarse basketweaves offer great mid-summer jacketing cloths and for the hottest climate, a pair of unlined plainweave linen trousers (such as those I’m wearing below) are the ultimate in convenient summer tailoring: light, airy and breathable. I wear such trousers all the time and they’re so comfortable in the heat they may as well be shorts.

Similarly, there’s a real argument for suggesting that casual linen shirting provides the ultimate in chic holiday or even slick weekend style, matched with chinos or even (as I prefer) the aforementioned unlined linen trousers. Although the crumpled structure of linen is not something that will appeal to everyone, there is something effortless in its delightful floatiness that lends movement and a sense of breeziness to linen garments. Loosely cut shirts work particularly well, this being something I only just discovered as of a few weeks ago – having only ever really worn lightweight cotton poplins and oxfords in spring and summer – a decision I now regret, given how effortlessly dapper my linen shirting is proving to be.

Indeed, wearing linen garments slightly more loosely than you might otherwise is the best way to channel this sense of suavity, given linen’s floaty structure. If you don’t give the cloth the room to drape and float a little, the effect is lost. Avoid narrow or close-cut linen trousers like the plague for this reason, ensure that the legs drape spaciously and wear with turn-ups to add a little weight to the trouser bottoms to aid their elegant ebb and flow around your ankles as your swagger down the seafront.

I’d likewise suggest that with the exception of formal morning dress waistcoats (which are often cut in linen to save on weight and density in the summer sun), don’t bother with investing in waistcoats cut from linen; the cloth simply rides up and creases terribly following the natural shape of the torso, because it has no room to flow or drape around the chest and waist. Opt for generously proportioned half-lined and lightly structured summer blazers and trousers for the most comfortable ensembles.

That’s all there is to it really. Linen is a real luxury to wear in the summer and its a luxury which is distinctly affordable. Throw a linen suit on in the morning with an open collar and swan around town all afternoon long. Its cool (in more ways than one), comfortable and supremely chic.


Summer Dinner Suiting

Summer dinner suiting poses an interesting wealth of possibilities and given that I will be partaking in my final formal dinner as an Oxford undergraduate next week, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying exploring some potential ways to spice up my dinner suit for the occasion. With this in mind, this late 30s fashion plate is rather intriguing. Depicted, as you can see, are a pair of extremely dapper and technically correct yet nonetheless distinctive dinner suits, which present unusual possibilities for distinctive summer dinner suiting.

Let us deal with the suit on the right first, as its the more conventional of the two. Here we find a shawl collared, cream dinner jacket, cut with a relatively natural, but broad shoulder, a heavily expressed chest and slim sleeves; a very elegant combination. The jacket is cut as a four by four double-breasted (the top two buttons can be seen, but the bottom two are evidently obscured by the wearer’s stance with broad peaked lapels, faced in cream satin as is conventional. Conventional lightweight black trousers finish the ensemble. Cream dinner jackets for warmer climes seem to have fallen out of favour in recent years, but this illustration attests to the elegance of the look. Not only is cream a practical choice because it remains cooler than dark cloths in the heat, it is a distinguished choice and cream dinner jackets traditionally offer the opportunity to experiment with cloth choices. Linen or linen and mohair blends, tropical weight wools or even raw silks are all options for a cream dinner jacket; featherweight, breathable, luxurious and distinctly different to conventional black Barathea, they offer the opportunity to really stand out from the crowd.

So too does the possibility of wearing a double-breasted dinner jacket. Although you might initially think that this is an illogical choice for summer, but if cut in lightweight, breathable cloths then the issue of extra wrap and extra weight should be negated. A double-breasted dinner suit can be the perfect way to make a slightly different statement; the look was first popularised in the late 30s/early 40s providing the opportunity to channel some classical elegance if one so desires and it is just that little bit different to the relatively common and potentially hum-drum single breasted two-piece dinner suit.

The suit on the left, takes a more unusual low two by two double-breasted shape, cut in a French navy Barathea or possibly a tonic wool or wool and mohair blend. The lapels are cut with a low gorge, gentle belly and a very broad shape. They make a real statement, helped by the welcome addition of a red carnation. Evidently, the suit is intended to be a statement piece. Although it is common to see dinner suits cut in a very dark navy as opposed to a black, French blue is (in my experience) unheard of. In this respect, this suit could easily be considered incorrect or a dinner dress faux-pas. It is saved however, by a technically correct cut; with satin faced lapels, faced buttons and pocket bindings. I’d suggest that this suit presents a welcome innovation for summer. The colour remains dark, but is more summery in tone and a more practical choice than black, which will absorb more heat than blue.

Both gentlemen wear the full-cut, heavily draped trousers of the era, something which can easily be modernised with a slightly slimmer cut or more tapered leg. Note that it is not correct to wear turn-ups with dinner trousers. It is thought that the addition of a turn-up is too business like and spoils the clean line of the trouser for formal evening dress. A single strip of silk is worn down the side seam of the trousers for black tie, a pair of satin strips being reserved for dress trousers worn with a tailcoat.

Buttons are faced in satin, as are lapels. A dinner suit traditionally also has the pocket binding and outer side-seams of the trousers faced in satin too. Both dinner suits are cut with horizontal bound hip-pockets, rather than jetted pockets (pockets with flaps). This is technically the correct pocket formation for dinner suits and has its roots in the genesis of the dinner jacket as a form smoking jacket – the lack of flaps allows for the wearer to rest his pipe, tobacco or indeed his hands in the pockets with ease, allowing one to be as relaxed as possible in what was originally a relatively informal garment.

Both are wearing a deeply pointed spread collar on their dinner shirts, this being something which I’d recommend. Winged collars are best kept for wearing with evening tailcoats and heavily starched dress shirts. I personally feel that they can look a little antiquated with modern dinner suits and many modern off-the-peg winged collar dinner shirts lack the structure and starch to retain their proper rigid shape. The particularly deep collars on display in this illustration are of course of their era, but nonetheless look rather sharp, and the modern equivalent classic Windsor collar, with no cut-away shape is the best option for dinner dress today. It will close over your tie, and allow it to sit correctly, poking out from the centre of the collar on each side. Cut away collars show too much of the bow-tie as it sits around the neck. It is also worth noting that both these dinner shirts have their plackets covered, for a cleaner appearance.

The gentleman on the left is wearing a slim, rectangular batwing bow-tie, whereas the gentleman on the right is wearing the more conventional hourglass shape. There is no right or wrong here, just a couple of different possibilities. The batwing bow tie is certainly more retro and produces a more angular shape which will compliment some silhouettes better than others, so I’d suggest simply experimenting with one if you’re intrigued.

Investing Wisely II: Summer Staples

I often think that summer tailoring gets a poor deal, simply because our summers go in one of two ways. Either, they’re so uncomfortably hot that for many men, dressing in tailoring is not an enticing prospect, or alternatively the sun is conspicuous by its absence for so much of the season that the linen and summer weight wool sits wasting away in the wardrobe and seldom sees the light of day. The other problem of course is that for most relatively northern climates the summer can be an all too brief couple of months, making investing in good, but inevitably expensive summer pieces a low priority.

Nevertheless, this season in particular, I have found myself realising that the content of my summer wardrobe is woefully lacking in a few staple pieces that I know I would be wearing time and again if they were in my possession. I would hate for readers to suffer the same problematical fate, so I thought some recommendations for those staple pieces I am currently both missing and craving might be in order.

A small selection of perhaps three or four affordable pastel linen or lightweight cotton pieces – perhaps a casual linen and cotton blended suit or a blazer and a couple of pairs of trousers make for the ideal foundation for any summer capsule wardrobe, and really don’t have to break the bank. Pure cotton doesn’t always breath terribly well, but its nonetheless extremely versatile – being easy to wear in both spring and on moderate summer days – and if you can find lighter-weight cotton drill trousers they can feel surprisingly soft and airy.

Likewise, there is something undeniably chic and effortless about linen suits in soft pastel colours. Being brave and embracing some relatively unconventional pastel colours for summer casual and occasion wear is something I’ve written about at length before, but I’d highly recommend exploring soft blue, pink, gentle blue-grey or sandy tones to find easily interchangeable pieces (dusty pink and light blue really is a match made in heaven for summer) which speak of one’s confidence as a dresser and which will go anywhere and do anything.

I’ve also recently emphasised the benefits of trying to find some summer pieces cut in a blend of linen and cotton, which is always something to bear in mind – see my previous column here.

Summer jackets should be very lightly structured wherever possible and half-lined. Lightly structured tailoring will still hold its shape, but with a fraction of the density and weight of autumnal and winter garments. Likewise, do not be tempted to ever buy a summer suit destined to be worn in warm weather if it’s fully lined, try to find unlined trousers too. Not only does the lining itself add more weight than you might expect, but it also is more likely than not a synthetic viscose or polyester material which can actively prevent your jacket from breathing and stop air circulating through the garment to keep you cool.

Talking of allowing the garment to breath, for durable summer business dress or formal tailoring, there really is only one cloth to turn to; fresco. Fresco is a summer-weight pure wool (although dressier pieces may be blended with silk or mohair both of which are prized for their lightness and breathability) woven in a fine plainweave, which has an open structure, with miniscule gaps between yarns in the cloth – as can be seen when a fresco is held up to the light. This open structure is simply ideal for allowing the garment to breath, and the open nature of the weave produces a cloth which is less dense than most worsteds – the loss of body means that it has less weight and can be woven very finely to some eight or nine ounces in weight.

Wool also wicks more moisture than either linen or cotton and believe it or not, breathes around fifteen percent more efficiently than even the airiest linen fabrics. It’s the ultimate in comfort suiting, and although a lightweight wool will never be as durable as heavier worsteds worn in autumn and winter, it is by far your most durable option for summer tailoring – making it ideal to weather a few months of commuting and business meetings for a couple of months of the year.

I bought my first fresco jacket only a couple of months ago, and I’ve grown to really love it – it’s very elegant and it feels supremely light and breezy on. I’d highly recommend either formal jackets or business suiting in 8-9oz frescos for the summer months – it’s the best thing there is for hot weather.

The sole other piece that I do happen to have (but which is on its last legs) is the ubiquitous white summer two-piece. Mine is in a very fine 8-9oz linen from Moss Bros – its cheap and cheerful and I changed the buttons to cream horn from white plastic to give the illusion of its being an expensive suit (always worth doing with a high-street suit).

Often I find that linen suiting and trousers are one area of the man’s wardrobe which are really worth economising with, simply because even the most expensive linens can only be worn occasionally and inevitably don’t last more than a couple of summer seasons – so wearing a cheap and floaty plainweave linen and embracing its inevitable tendency to produce a creased, shabby-chic look is perhaps the best way to approach linen suiting. However, if you’ve already got your linen pieces sorted, white or pale-striped seersucker is perhaps the ideal alternative. The Bengal striped pattern that comprises seersucker produces a lovely duality of colour and texture in jackets and suiting and of course makes for a lightweight and breathable cloth – ideal for the transition from spring to summer. It also creases less than a pure linen.

White suiting is one of those things which is often considered a bit of a seventies cliché, but this is easily avoided through opting for a slim, modern cut and keeping lapels a contemporary shape – don’t have them too broad and never wear a black shirt with it. Keep shirting pale and soft under white to help keep the suit looking soft too.

If white isn’t to your taste, avoid a yellowy cream colour because it tends to look dated, and instead try to find a very pale whitish ivory – its a subtle distinction I know but I find it makes the difference between something which looks uninspired and something which has all the versatility and sophistication of a sharp white suit, but which is a little less obvious in colour.

A selection of the above will make for the ideal spring-to-summer capsule wardrobe, and will most likely be all you need for the vast majority of the late-spring and summer months, for those days when the temperature does actually rise.

I’d recommend one other piece however, splash out on a cream or white dinner jacket for dinner dress. I’ve never owned one, but having worn my winter dinner suit to a couple of functions recently, I’ve been seriously hot. I’d kill for a lovely raw silk or white linen dinner jacket. I admit that this piece won’t be an essential for most gentlemen, but it’s nice to treat yourself to something extravagant every now and then. Gieves & Hawkes have got a fabulous ivory raw silk dinner jacket this season and I’d kill for it.

Those are my core suggestions. As I wrote in the previous post, keep shirting simple and if you’re in the mood for expanding your shirting collection, hunt out some linen shirts or soft cotton Oxfords for the warmest days. Loafers, loafers and more loafers are the way to go with shoes; experiment with suede and tassels to mix it up a little.

Investing Wisely I: Constructing a Staple Wardrobe

Finally, after a lengthy break to deal with my Finals my regular column can get back to normal, and for my return to the realm of menswear I thought that it would be nice to address a reader’s question. I was asked recently on my own blog what my recommendations would be for the individual looking to either develop or reconstruct their wardrobe around a number of well-constructed, good quality classic tailored staples. Beneath are my recommendations for just those items.

A dark blue suit will go anywhere and do anything. Aim to find or commission a suit in a mid-weight cloth (I find that ten to eleven ounces works well – possibly twelve) which feels comfortable and reasonably light when worn. Possibly get it half-lined to help keep it airy when worn. This will maximise its use through autumn, winter and into spring and stop you overheating. Mid to light-weight suits are also a blessing on public transport in the warmer months when it starts to get a bit humid. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve optimistically suffered in full-bodied 14oz jackets on the Tube.

A subtle check or stripe may enhance the suit’s interest, but I’d recommend keeping any patterns minimal. If you’re looking to invest in just a couple of staple suits, rather than suits which serve specific functions don’t blow your budget on a garment which is too dressy, nor too business-like. In other words, use your discretion and stay away from turn-back cuffs, shawl collars, shiny cloths and statement chalk-stripes or windowpane checks.

I would recommend adding a waistcoat though if possible, and potentially trying to find something with peaked lapels. The waistcoat can add another dimension cheaply for formal occasions, and a peaked lapel is the perfect way to add some elegance to your business two-piece, without being inappropriately showy at the office.

With this staple in your wardrobe, many individuals would recommend a charcoal or plain grey flannel suit be your next addition. Whilst I quite agree with this, I would also like to make a case that once your blue suit is sorted, there is potential to choose either a grey suit, or indeed a chocolate suit. I have written at length before of the suitability of chocolate as a staple colour for men’s tailoring; its elegant, rich and makes for a very useful addition. As colours palettes go its slightly more distinctive than the usual charcoal, whilst also being completely conventional and versatile in its use.

I would likewise advise you compliment your suiting with the addition of a couple of pairs of good light and mid-grey flannel trousers, to use as tailored separates. Trousers are perhaps the most accessible way to really expand one’s tailored wardrobe and to add some real style to an outfit with a distinguished cut (see my series on getting trousers right from earlier this year).

Grey flannels will go beautifully with your navy suit jacket, should you choose to use it as a blazer, but they’ll also look great with mid-brown brogues or Oxfords (which I’d suggest be your staple shoe of choice – they will go with more than black believe me; any shade of grey, blue or brown is covered) and a lovely knitted jumper of polo neck for the weekends.

Once your wardrobe becomes a little more established, you can play about with different colours (cream flannels are another classic that can work really well with fun coloured knitwear), and a classic mid-weight Prince of Wales check trouser also looks great with either charcoals or navies – or even brown tones, as can be seen here.

Shirting wise, if you’re wearing good tailoring, or even a nice jumper and jeans on the weekends, good quality shirts are really not difficult to find and make a huge difference. Hawes & Curtis and Charles Tyrwhitt offer really excellent, elegant British shirts with a mixture of modern and classic patterns. I’d aim to invest in double-cuffs for business dress and formal wear, and four to five good classic shirts during the sales for the weekends. For both business and pleasure, classic British colours and stripes are timeless and elegant, and will help to create a capsule wardrobe.

Bengal and block stripes, poplins and herringbones should be the order of the day in sky blues, navy and white stripes, pale pinks, lilacs (possibly purple) and I’d also look for a couple of top-quality white shirts in plain poplins. A crisp white shirt looks a treat both with jeans or a full three piece and a plain poplin cloth is light and airy and just as wearable in the heat of summer as it is under a blazer or suit in mid-winter.

Essentially, the message with all of these things is to build up your collection of clothes gradually and give some thought to which staple options are going to make for wise investments and will go with the majority of things in your existing wardrobe. Most importantly of all, keep everything understated and classic until you can afford to splash out on some more eccentric statement pieces. Get the foundations of your wardrobe laid first; two timeless suits, some flannel separates, a good pair of brown shoes, some simple silk ties and some crisp white shirts.

As always, I would recommend following the mantra of really taking the time to shop thoroughly, cleverly and to just buy the best that you can afford when investing in staples. For many people it is simply not possible to spend large amounts on high-end or bespoke suits – but there are a lot of handsome reasonably priced pieces out there by brands like Hackett and Jaeger which can be great investments.

Try to challenge the typical male mentality of disliking shopping, because taking a day to hunt up and down your local high-street or shopping district and doing your research is the way to find those pieces which will serve you the most, for the best price. Being patient and striking on the first few days of the sale season often holds real rewards too, as does shopping in outlet stores. I found a number of Hackett and Gieves & Hawkes suits for around £400.00 in an outlet centre just the other day and £400.00 is about the cheapest you’ll find for a truly good suit nowadays.

Equally, if full-bespoke is not an option, made-to-measure services can be an excellent solution and some firms are offering very reasonably priced services at the moment. Take a look at Cad & the Dandy’s machine made offering, or Ede & Ravenscroft’s personal tailoring service for possibilities. Also see Mr. Chesterfield’s column for a number of recommendations for good made-to-measure options. Having interesting pleated or high-waisted trousers with turn-ups and interesting pocket designs made to measure can cost less than fully priced off the peg trousers, and can lift the quality of your wardrobe magnificently.

Next week, I’m going to continue with this theme, but turn my attention to creating a spring/summer capsule wardrobe on a budget, this is something that has been vexing me recently, so it should make for an interesting discussion.