The Essential Style Guide to Wearing a Black Suit

If fashion rules are to be followed, then a black suit seems like a natural, versatile choice for your wardrobe, right? Not exactly.

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For men’s suiting, dark colors like navy and charcoal are your default. They’re neutral, if not moderately staid, and fit the dress code for a range of settings and situations: looking polished for a job interview, attending a networking event or cocktail hour, or showing up as a wedding guest. 

Suit by Burton

From here, suiting colors have branched out. In recent years, brown has experienced a revival, shedding its ‘70s corduroy reputation, while forest green, royal purple, and burgundy aren’t too extreme. A solid blue suit – not navy but more cobalt – represents the next level up and transitions from your go-to staple shades into the realm of statement suits.

Black_Suit_Sandro_Paris
Suit by Sandro Paris

Where does a black suit fit? Unfortunately, the color by itself is too somber for most situations, often earning the reaction, “Did you just come from a funeral?” It’s also a shade or too saturated to be charcoal, appearing as overly intense. At the same time, it conjures up associations with tuxedos and black-tie dressing; however, a black suit by itself doesn’t qualify as true black tie. 

Yet, statement suiting – be it the new realm of wider-cut, easygoing tailoring seen at last year’s SS20 presentations or the bold, colorful party suits from the year prior – is reinvigorating this seemingly untouchable shade, through new textures and cuts. Here’s how to give it a try.

Black_Suit_Bonobos
Suit by Bonobos

When to Wear a Black Suit

If you’re thinking strictly in the traditional sense and not, say, a velvet or embroidered number, black suits are acceptable, if not ideal, for:

Beyond these set occasions, and specifically in the workplace, black projects too formal of an impression and comes off too dour and, dare we say it, serious. There’s a fine line – or should we say, a few shades – between appropriate and by-the-book overkill, and black suits step clearly into the latter. 

Black Suit by Black Lapel
Suit by Black Lapel

Because you will be faced with these occasions at some point or another, every man needs a well-cut black suit in his wardrobe. However, it shouldn’t be your go-to, all-purpose ensemble. Leave that to a navy or charcoal single-breasted number.

How to Shop for and Style a Black Suit

To be frank, black’s not the most flattering color, in spite of its versatile, do-it-all reputation in the fashion world. It clashes too much with fairer skin tones, sometimes having a harsh effect. As a workaround, textured fabrics that don’t have too much of a sheen soften the material, making it less saturated and contrast heavy.

Black_Suit_Hawes_and_Curtis
Suit by Hawes and Curtis

As another rule, seek out quality fabrics and fit. A wider-cut black suit will consume your form, making it appear as if a matte trash bag is covering you from the shoulders down. Or, to put it another way, think about the Goth kids wearing trench coats and wide-legged black jeans at your high school, and this garment has a similar effect. It’s not the type of impression you’re looking to project in formal or high-stakes situations. 

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Added to this, avoid polyester if you can. Now’s the time to seek out cotton or, better yet, a medium-weight wool with a fine texture and matte finish. Beyond these big-picture attributes:

Black_Suit_Tom_Ford
Suit by Tom Ford

Black Suit Jacket

The suit jacket marks the center of your ensemble. For the greatest degree of adaptability, aim for a classic silhouette: a structured and slim, but not too fitted, single-button jacket with defined shoulders and notched lapels. Anything outside of this realm heads into statement territory, and especially in a business or formal setting, could indicate you’re trying to one-up someone.

Yet, the revived tailoring trend from last year brought back the double-breasted suit jacket. For some variety, consider this silhouette as an alternative in its most classic form, or stand out with a more asymmetrical cut. 

Black Suit by Indochino
Suit by Indochino

Within these parameters:

  • Always have a black suit jacket tailored. Otherwise, the saturated color makes an oversized or wide-cut fit appear even more shapeless.
  • Seek out fully or semi-roped shoulders for an extra degree of crispness and definition. 
  • At the cuff, always make sure some of your dress shirt can be seen for a clear sense of contrast. 

Shirts that Match a Black Suit

Because solid black without texture comes off as intense, you shouldn’t pair it with a dress shirt that matches it head for head. Whether you’re going classic or opting for a French cuff, the rules are:

Black_Suit_Marks_and_Spencer
Suit by Marks and Spencer
  • Always wear a light-colored shirt with a black suit. White is often the default shade due to its familiarity, but in recent years, a range of pastels, be it pink, light blue, or even a pale yellow, add to the variety.
  • Avoid pairing bright, bold colors and patterns with a black suit. Instead, if you’re thinking about a print, seek out something smaller-sized and muted, be it microstripes, checks, or floral. The two garments shouldn’t be in competition with each other. 
  • What about a black suit with a black shirt? These days, monochrome dressing is back in. However, you still need to break up the silhouette. In this arrangement, create a subtle contrast through fabric textures or finishes: for instance, a velvet suit with a cotton dress shirt, or a wool suit with a glossy shirt underneath. 
Black_Suit_Suitsupply
Suit by Suitsupply

In all instances, you can’t go wrong with a medium-spread structured collar, whether with a tie or completely open. However, due to “dressing down” suits, you can make yours a bit more casual with a fine-knit sweater, mock-neck, or even a fitted T-shirt underneath.

Don’t Forget About the Accessories

Unless you’re strictly going for a black-on-black monochrome look, accessories infuse it with a degree of variation:

Black_Suit_Tommy_Hilfiger
Suit by Tommy Hilfiger
  • Ties: Never wear a solid black tie with a suit. You’ll end up looking like a waiter or catering staff at an event. Instead, find something with a light sheen in a deeper tone, like blue, grey, or purple. As with your shirt, patterns are passable, as long as they’re smaller in size.
  • Pocket Square: Should you decide to add this, match it to your tie, and follow the same rules regarding fabrics, colors, and patterns. 
  • Shoes: As a long-held rule, always match your shoes to your suit. In this vein, a black suit with brown shoes is completely off the table – too much contrast exists. Yet, in more recent years, the rules have started to loosen in varying degrees. Although brown is still frowned upon, an oxford or derby dress shoe in gray or navy doesn’t rock the boat too much. On the casual front, consider a pair of dress sneakers in place of your usual lace-ups. 

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