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.