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Basic Alterations 101. . .

A skilled tailor can work miracles with making the fit of your clothes more exact.

As many have pointed out elsewhere in the menswear and men's style blogosphere, 'fit' is the most important thing when it comes to kicking up your everyday style several notches.  And there are all kinds of things that a skilled tailor can do to make your off-the-rack, vintage, or thrift/charity store finds fit as if they were top of the line, custom (bespoke) garments.   I'll refer you to websites like Ask Andy About Clothes for a more complete discussion of the magic of which tailors (the good ones at least) are capableJust dig around the various fora there.  

In the meantime, here are four simple alterations that will help average guys look a million times better in their suits and blazer/sports jacket-odd pants combos.  If you are just such a guy, pay close attention.

Tailors hard at work somewhere along London's Saville Row in the mid-1940s.

1) The Jacket -- Sleeves
First of all, make sure a suit coat or sports jacket fits in the shoulders BEFORE you purchase it.  This is one area that cannot be altered successfully without spending lots of money, and even then the results might not look right.  

Once you have something that fits your shoulders and have bought it, get the sleeves shortened on your a suit coat, sports jacket, or blazer according to your arm length(s).  Be sure to wear a clean, pressed dress shirt with exact measurement (not Small, Medium, or Large) to your fitting, so that your tailor can ensure there will be 1/4 to 1/2, or even 3/4, of an inch "linen" (your shirt cuffs) showing when your arms hang relaxed at your sides.  

I prefer something between 1/2" to 3/4" of linen showing from the end of my jacket sleeves.  Whichever you prefer, make sure the sleeves of your jacket do not come all the way down to your knuckles.  You'll look like a rube.

2) The Jacket -- Waist
This is another fairly simple alteration that will make your suit coats and sports jackets look miles better.  Ask for slight 'waist suppression' when trying your jacket at your tailor's for a more tailored look.  Even those suits and jackets with the American "trad" sack cut will look better (less boxy) with some waist suppression, especially on trimmer guys.  

Ideally, you want to be able to slip a flat hand comfortably between your buttoned jacket and your tummy.  Your balled fist should make things feel a bit tighter.  But your torso should not be swimming  in miles of cloth.  In other words, your suit coat or sports jacket needs to fit more snugly than a trenchcoat or clergy vestments.  However, and despite current trends, neither should it fit so tightly that you have x-creases forming across the front when the jacket is buttoned.  

And yes, your suit coat, blazer, or sports jacket should be buttoned when you are standing.  Double-breasted jackets, on the other hand, should always remain buttoned even when you are seated.


Let's close with an amusing cartoon from the late 18th century.

3) The Pants -- Inseam
Stop wearing your dress pants too long, boys!  That means you need to have a correctly tailored inseam and keep the darn things pulled up where they belong.  Wear dress socks, dress shoes, and take a belt to the tailor's when you visit with dress pants in need of alteration, so his or her measurements are correct. Hitch your pants up to your natural waist (at or just below the belly button) before the tailor measures your inseam (Relax, Joey!).  

Depending on your preference, ask for either a full break, medium break (the safest option), or no break at all.  I prefer an inseam length long enough to give me something between a medium and a full break.  A true full break risks looking sloppy to my eyes, but ultimately, the choice is yours.  Listen to your tailor, who often can provide some real guidance and insight here, which should help you decide.

4) The Pants -- Waist
A decent pair of dress pants should enable a tailor to adjust the waist and seat by about one to two inches either way.  More than that risks throwing off the proportions of your pants with regard to things like distance between rear pockets and so forth.  In any case, make sure that the waist of your pants is tight enough for the pants to remain up around your waist by themselves without a belt, yet loose enough to permit motion and remain comfortable.  

By the way.  Your dress pants should not fit like loose, orange prison garb though, ok?  They should not bunch up and puddle around your ankles.  Pull 'em up, boys!  If belts drive your crazy, or if you are a heavier guy, a good solution is to have brace buttons sewn into the inside of your waistband by the tailor, obviating the need for a belt and constantly having to hitch up your pants all day.  

Moreover, a suit just looks smoother and more finished without a belt bisecting your body, so braces are the way to go here as far as I am concerned, and a tailor can easily remove the belt loops from your pants.

Ok.  There are all kinds of additional things a good tailor can do for the fit of your clothes, for instance jacket length, narrowing pants and removing pleats, and various other tricks to make your clothes look their absolute best on your particular body.  However, if that's more than you care to think about, just remember that these four basic  alterations will instantly make you and your garments look much, much better. 

Here's one final rule of thumb.  Don't wear anything without the necessary alterations to customize it to your body first.  The most expensive attire in the world won't look good on you if the fit is somehow off, or if it looks like you donned those clothes on right off the rack.  It's also best to select items that fit already your body pretty well to begin with, minimizing the number and kinds of alterations you'll need.  That not only makes your tailor's job easier and faster, but it also saves you money in the long run, which is a good thing since most of us aren't swimming in the mean, mean green.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


  1. This was a very good post. I always wanted a clearer understanding of how to go about proper fit and tailoring. Is it possible that you could post an example of an item you had tailored? Also, is there any DIY tailoring a person can do?

  2. Thank you, Jon! As soon as my wife returns from Germany, I put on a couple of better fitting garments that I've had altered slightly and ask her to take a few photos. DIY tailoring, I don't know and wouldn't undertake that myself. I'd suggest visiting websites like Ask Andy about Clothes and Style Forum where you could pose that question. Lots of knowledgeable people frequent both places who could advise you better than me on that particular point.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von B.


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All opinions are welcome here. Even those that differ from mine. But let's keep it clean and civil, please.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

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