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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. 

man wearing stylish black suit
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?

However, a black suit comes with a bunch of baggage. On one hand, we see the color as the default neutral. Everything goes with black, obviously. Yet, men’s style rules relegate black to a handful of occasions in specific configurations.

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Save for textures and ultra-skinny fits suited to a mid-aughts rock band, they’re brought out of funerals, suffice at weddings, and do their duty at a job interview.

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. Any man thinking about the suits he’ll own tends to realize he’ll need to have a few at his fingertips.

Navy, charcoal, and gray are your starter shades, followed by black for the occasions listed above. Something colorful or patterned then supplements this array.

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 a few black suits that will inspire you to give it a try.

Black_Suit_Bonobos
Suit by Bonobos

Black Suit Inspiration

JV Core Jacket

Ted Baker JV Core Jacket

Start classic to test the waters. This black suit jacket and matching trousers begin with a slimmer cut and wool construction, and throw in satin trim for a subtle contrast. 


Hugo Boss Patterned Slim Fit Suit

Hugo Boss Patterned Slim-Fit Suit in Responsible Virgin Wool

Dress to impress – on the job and at the bar later. Responsibly sourced virgin wool delivers a slimmer, more defined silhouette that gives you a greater degree of mileage. 


Brooks Brothers Madison Fit Stretch Wool Two-Button 1818 Suit

Brooks Brothers Madison Fit Stretch Wool Two-Button 1818 Suit

The timeless preppy brand doesn’t disappoint with a slightly wider cut, fully lined and constructed of wool.


Purple Label Gregory Wool Twill Suit

Purple Label Gregory Wool Twill Suit

Straight legs and more defined shoulders result in an angular silhouette that’s softened by the texture of twill. 


JCrew Slim Thompson suit jacket in worsted wool

J.Crew Slim Thompson Suit Jacket in Worsted Wool

A slimmer fit and the texture of worsted wool let this black suit jacket shift from more upscale affairs to your smart-casual office wardrobe. 


Express Classic Black Cotton-Blend Stretch Suit Jacket

Express Classic Black Cotton Blend Stretch Suit Jacket

The single-button design has you covered for a wider range of occasions, while stretch cotton construction creates a more comfortable fit. 


Indochino Harford Velvet Black Suit

Indochino Harford Velvet Black Suit

Dress up with a sense of mystery crossed with bohemian style, complete with half-canvas lining and shoulder pads for more structure. 


Perry Ellis SLIM FIT STRETCH KNIT SUIT JACKET

Perry Ellis Slim Fit Stretch Knit Suit Jacket

This lighter, more flexible interpretation of a classic uses a viscose/nylon blend and incorporates four-way stretch for more motion. 

When to Wear a Black Suit

Due to its more selective uses, black suits unfortunately tend to be grabbed off the rack, without much thought put into their design except for size. The result ends up seeming shapeless – plenty of politicians in the present embody this approach – that could be touched up with a bit of tailoring. 

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:

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.

black suit vintage look

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. 

Yet, you tend to reach for a suit regardless of color to make a strong impression. Still, black in the context of setting, dress codes, and intent, can feel off and misguided:

  • Black suits come on too strong and too somber for the workplace, save for more formal interviews.
  • Excluding funerals and weddings, they tend to be a more serviceable substitute for a tuxedo for occasions calling for a black-tie dress code. As such, many have a black suit on hand for weddings, galas, and other formal events.
  • Not all black suits are created equal. Once you veer away from classic wool, dabbling in textured materials like velvet moves the garment over into “party suit” territory. As such, you’re ready for any occasion calling for “cocktail” dress. This can range from a Christmas party to a more upscale networking event to weddings that are slightly more dressed down. 
Black Suit by Black Lapel
Suit by Black Lapel

How to Shop for and Style a Black Suit

As a 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. 

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

Red carpets illustrate an even greater array of possibilities. Starting with the tailoring 2.0 movement of 2019, suiting has shifted more toward wider cuts – think voluminous pants and a jacket to match. Some stick with a strictly angular appearance – think David Byrne, also back in the ‘80s. Even just opting for a double-breasted jacket goes in a more retro direction, and peak lapels – with more definition and a curve – command a sense of authority. Others strive for slouchy and almost intentionally ill fitting, with trousers bagging around the ankles. 

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.

man wearing stylish black suit

Generally, the construction of your black suit varies on where you intend to be wearing it the most frequently: 

  • Fit: This is for all the weddings and funerals. Simply put, you can’t go wrong – and will reliably align with the dress code – through a slimmer-fitting, single-breasted suit jacket paired with flat-front or creased trousers. Avoid anything overly trendy or gimmicky here, like pleats, a higher waist, or cropped jacket. Going into details, look for roped or semi-roped shoulders, a sleeve that lets part of your cuff pass through, and a hem that hits right at your shoe for a moderate break. 
  • Fabric: The most versatile, three-season combination for a black suit is medium-weight wool with no texture and a matte finish. Avoid cotton and polyester, as they come off cheap, and contrast stitching automatically breaks up its monochromatic edges.
  • Texture: As already mentioned, texture fully transforms the character of a black suit. This aspect makes it appear less somber and better flatters those with light and fair skin tones, reducing the harsher effect. Consider something worsted, velvet, or with a shark-skin sheen. 
  • Divide it into separates: Understand how black will work with the rest of the neutrals and prints you own. For suit separates, both the jacket and trousers tend to pair better with grays, white, and blues that aren’t navy. 

Should you want to get more creative and think about summer, linen or a lighter-weight, unlined cotton needs to be on your radar.

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Black_Suit_Tom_Ford
Suit by Tom Ford

Black Suit Jacket

Anyone diving into the world of suiting now has to contend with multiple silhouettes. 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

As with all items, make sure your black suit seamlessly integrates with the rest of your wardrobe. Consider pairing it with the following:

  • French cuffs: As black suits can signal a greater degree of formality, have that character run through the rest of your outfit. Ideally pair it with a white button-front shirt with French cuffs
  • Monochrome: Go head-to-tone black by matching your suit with a similarly colored or slightly lighter charcoal dress shirt. Avoid the traditional blue dress shirts here, as it creates too much of a contrast.
  • Light-colored shirt: 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.
  • 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. 
  • Go casual: Suiting has been moving in this direction, anyway. Deliver some Miami Vice meets Romeo + Juliet vibes by pairing your black suit with a colorful Cuban-collared shirt. 
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.

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. 

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
  • Be selective with accessories: Avoid the loud prints, in this case. Instead, pick pocket squares and ties with a finer weave or light sheen and darker hue, like emerald or bottle green or burgundy. 
  • 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. Although brown is still frowned upon, an oxford or derby dress shoe in gray or navy doesn’t rock the boat too much. You could also consider solid-black dress boots or oxfords, or head in a slightly more casual direction with a derby, monk straps, or a Chelsea silhouette.  On the casual front, consider a pair of dress sneakers in place of your usual lace-ups. 

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how to wear black suit with style
Writer

Ivan Yaskey is a Philly-born menswear fashion blogger and copywriter. When not writing about men's style he's also an EDM and synthpop enthusiast.