Business Suit vs. Lounge Suit vs. Cocktail Suit

The art of dressing for an occasion is something that makes for immensely enjoyable experimentation, and in my own personal opinion at least, it’s central to the structuring of an expressive and individualistic wardrobe. Anyone can buy a plain gabardine suit on a ‘one suit fits all’ basis, and use it for every conceivable formal occasion. Such strategies make for a dull option and a distinctly joyless wardrobe, so in this column, I thought that I might explore the long lost art of the categorisation of a suit.

Below you’ll find three outfits which I’ve constructed using three suits, all of which fulfil distinct functions. I hope that in observing the differences between each, you’ll see my point – that by thinking through your tailored wardrobe in terms of keeping specific garments to fulfill specific purposes, it can grow to something altogether more interesting and rewarding, than it otherwise might.

The Business Suit

We start with the dominant suit of the modern age; the business suit. Given that the majority of men tend to wear a suit for business, and then shy away from donning a full suit on any other occasion they possibly can, it is more or less the purpose of this column to convince the reader that there really ought to be more to tailoring than owning one dark grey pinstripe and flogging it do death at work, weddings and funerals alike. Having said that, there is an art to mastering appropriate business dress, and the dress code requires an obvious sense of professionalism, and a tasteful understated quality.

For this reason, classic suits in classic colours are the way to go. A plain charcoal flannel looks suitably timeless and sophisticated, and can take a range of coloured shirts and ties easily. The same would apply to either plain or subtly patterned navy, blue, soft grey, taupe and brown cloths. The cut of the suit is important, and again, should remain classic. Peaked lapels are becoming more common and make a nice statement on business suits, so long as they aren’t too large, but notched lapels remain a safer bet, as does two or three-button fastening on the jacket.

I’ve included a waistcoat because in many office environments they are a perfectly acceptable addition, but a waistcoat can easily overturn a simple aesthetic into a powerful statement which may not always be welcome. For this reason, (unless of course you make the rules in the office) I’d recommend that waistcoats are kept to single breasted closures, avoiding double-breasted cuts, and that the break of the waistcoat be kept relatively high for a formal appearance, as the lower the waistcoat break, the less formal it becomes. This single-breasted, waistcoat with simple, classic welt pockets, no lapels, a high-break and close set six-button fastening hits all the formal notes required of professional, yet reserved business dress.

The Lounge Suit

The lounge suit is an interesting, and rather more niche piece in today’s fashion world than the other two suits shown here. The business suit still has an obvious role in the gentleman’s wardrobe, and so does the ‘cocktail’ or party suit. The role of the lounge suit has changed over the last four or five decades however, and to an extent, requires some redefinition for the modern age.

Historically, the ubiquitous day suit or suit for everyday wear, the lounge suit made up the casual wardrobe of the tailored gentlemen for more or less the first half of the twentieth century, prior to the uptake of modern casual wear and the decline of everyday tailoring in the late 50s and 60s. In today’s world of course, the lounge suit’s status has changed, given that it’s a rare thing to find even the most dapper of dandies wearing a suit for casual wear during the day. In this sense then, the lounge suit has become quite a niche piece, and it possesses the flexibility to perform the role of smart-casual dress, or when worn casually during the day, can represent the suit in high-fashion; dressed-down for cool, casual every day wear, worn with a polo neck or unstructured chambray shirt and linen pocket square for a relaxed feel.

Lounge suits, are really the only suits (if any) that can be turned towards any occasion for this reason. The blue suit above works well when worn casually during the day, with its fun, showy lapels and statement pleated trousers. For the same reason, it also transfers well to more formal dress in the evenings and furthermore, worn as a two-piece with a formal shirt and tie, it makes for a passable business suit. Having said that, when placed against the cocktail suit, the relatively relaxed quality of the lounge suit becomes apparent, as does the possibility of really pushing the boat out with formal party or evening dress.

The Cocktail Suit

The cocktail suit is my personal favourite, because to all intents and purpose a cocktail suit is a ‘party suit’ – the suit at its most flamboyant; dressed to impress. It takes its name from its genesis in the 20s and 30s, when the notion of the suit as one’s Sunday Best was replaced with the suit for dressing-up and hitting the town in.

The cocktail suit shown above is very similar in style to the lounge suit (given my preference for Jazz-Age inspired dress) cut with statement peaked lapels, dressy details such as turn-back cuffs and one button closure and finished with high-waisted trousers and a typically 30s double-breasted waistcoat. Where it differs from the lounge suit is in its choice of cloth; a very glossy, delicate and intricately patterned super 160s virgin wool – a highly impractical choice for everyday wear, but the ideal suit to make a more exaggerated sartorial statement. A cloth like this couldn’t make a more different expression to the business suit pictured above, and it is appreciating this difference in style and expression that can open up exciting new possibilities for experimenting with tailored dress and fitting your cocktail attire to the occasion in question.

Underpinning all of this however, and not to be forgotten, is the central concern of gentleman’s dress. To dress well is to express one’s self, and the art of dressing is a profoundly personal thing. Some readers will have taken these recommendations on board, and will enjoy starting to think differently about the process of reserving certain garments for certain functions. Others will take pleasure in both ignoring and challenging my suggestions for organising your tailored wardrobe around a specified system. I hope however, that if nothing else, my theory that more pleasure can be gained from tailoring, by styling your attire around certain functions, will have captured your interest and as ever, offer you some fresh thinking on the world of fine tailoring.