What Is An Off-The-Rack Suit?
A child of the Industrial Revolution, an “OTR” suit is a pre-finished suit that the customer purchases for immediate wear. It offers little -often nothing- in the way of customization and requires alterations 99% of the time.
However, as the most ubiquitous style of suit on the market, they’re easy to buy and available in a very wide range of price points.
Off-the-rack suits are made from block patterns, and their relatively low price point is a result of the less expensive construction techniques used.
They’re often made from fused canvasses where they’re glued together instead of sewn and made entirely by machinery and computers.
This approach maximizes savings during the production process, which are then passed on to the customer.
Additionally, ready to wear suits are always sold as one of two types: sets or separates.
What Are Sets & Seperates?
Sets are pre-matched jackets and trousers that cannot be purchased separately. This is a more old-school way to sell an RTW suit.
The garments are mated based on their chest and pant waist sizes, typically with a six-inch difference between them (referred to as a “drop”). For example, if you buy a suit with a 42″ jacket, it will automatically come with trousers in a 36″ waist.
Therefore, if you’re an athletic man whose body is shaped like a capital “V,” this arrangement will likely not work.
Separates are jackets and trousers of matching fabric that are sold separately. If you wanted just a jacket or just trousers, you could buy them a la carte. Buying separates is a better option for most men as it offers greater leeway to get accurate sizing.
Many department stores and speciality stores offer suit separates, whereas selling suits in pre-matched jacket/trouser pairs tends to be the way more old-fashioned menswear retailers go.
As a result, it’s helpful for athletic men who often have chests much larger than their waists or those with irregular body types.
What Is A Fused Canvas?
As mentioned above, ready-to-wear suits are generally made using a fused canvas.
Unlike higher-end canvasses, fused canvas is made from synthetic, rather than natural, materials. These are glued or “fused” to the inside of the garment as opposed to tacked. The upside is that it keeps costs low, which is another consequence of the Industrial Revolution.
Meanwhile, the downside is that glue breaks down over time with wear, heat, and cleaning solvents. For instance, dry cleaners use both heat and cleaning solvents to clean your suits.
When glue breaks down on a fused lapel, it can delaminate and bubbles will form. This is the suiting equivalent of totalling a car. There is nothing you can do to fix the problem except buy a new one.
Half-canvassed and full-canvas suits won’t do this because there’s no glue in the lapel. Therefore, be mindful of the cost of an off-the-rack suit and make sure that its price reflects the construction.
Off-The-Rack Suit Fabrics
As we previously you’ll learn in our dedicated fabric guides, their “Super” numbers increase with fineness and not quality. Don’t let a salesperson try to get more of your money by selling you a Super 180’s wool.
For RTW suits, the very first thing to check is that the fabric of the suit itself is completely made of natural materials. Usually, this is 100% wool, but it could theoretically be a blend of wool, cotton, linen, or even silk and still make the grade.
Synthetic materials like polyester or viscose are for linings only, as these materials when used for fabric will result in a less-than-stellar presentation.
Quick Off-The-Rack Suit History
The first-ever RTW garments were actually military uniforms. Given that much of what we in the Western world wear is military-inspired, this isn’t at all surprising.
The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States was when we saw the first mass production of military uniforms, again as a result of the technological advances made by the Industrial Revolution.
Although this translated into RTW clothes shortly thereafter, mass-produced tailored clothing wasn’t really popularized until 37 years later, at least in the United States.
Brooks Brothers & Mass Suit Production
Brooks Brothers is widely credited with introducing the mass-produced RTW suit to America in 1849, coinciding with the American Gold Rush.
Ten years after launching its garments, the company was described as “The first to embark on what is now a leading commercial pursuit” by Carroll’s New York City Directory.
Since then RTW has been adopted all over the world, as mass production means cheaper production, which translates into lower prices for the consumer.
In 1901, Brooks Brothers released its No. 1 Sack Suit. It was a three-button, center-vented, dartless, plain-front number. Its loose, boxy fit truly epitomized the ready-to-wear mindset as it was a suit that was, by virtue of how it fit, made for everyone.
The Sack Suit later saw huge popularity in the 1950s among the Ivy League set, and it continues to be a staple of America’s East Coast elite.
Why Buy An Off-The-Rack Suit
We’re big fans of customization and perfect fit, so why would we want to talk about buying an OTR suit? There are actually some very good reasons to do so:
- You have an easy body type to fit. If you’re an average guy, chances are you can fit into most off-the-rack suits with few alterations. If you find a brand whose cut and aesthetic you like, there’s no reason to not make your life easy and just buy their suits.
- You’re price point-driven. The reality for many of us is that we simply can’t afford to buy expensive suits. RTW suits give us the product we need at a price that won’t break the bank. Another way to get around price issues is to shop second-hand or vintage.
- Turnaround time. You don’t have to wait for an RTW suit to be specially made for you. The most you should wait is about a week for any alterations to get taken care of. That’s it.
- You rarely wear suits. If you only wear a suit to the occasional job interview or family function, it doesn’t make sense to spend a ton of money on a bespoke (or even high-end OTR) suit. Minimize your expense but don’t skimp on the alterations!
- Jump-starting your suit wardrobe. Those of us just graduating from college or business school don’t have enough professional clothing to get us through a workweek. In this case, quantity has more value than quality, and it makes sense to buy three or four inexpensive OTR suits than one higher-end MTM one.
Reasons Not To Buy An Ready-To-Wear Suit
Now that we’ve outlined the reasons that you would buy an RTW suit, let’s quickly counterpoint each one for the sake of argument.
Firstly, few men have an easy body type to fit. Although you probably feel about right when you look in the mirror, virtually everybody has his own irregularities. Needless to say, off-the-rack suits don’t take this factor into account. Very rarely will an off-the-rack suit fit a man as well as something made for him.
With regards to pricing, the made-to-measure industry has become unbelievably competitive. Although these services sound expensive, brands like Indochino and Black Lapel now offer prices that can match and even beat ready-to-wear suits.
Indeed, the turnaround time for ready-to-wear suits is inevitably quicker than made-to-measure. However, if you’re getting alterations, it won’t be by as much as you think. While you will need to plan further ahead for made-to-measure suits, the difference can be marginal unless you have a very efficient tailor.
Even if you rarely wear suits, you’ll need at least one that fits well and is versatile enough for a variety of occasions. If you’ll just be buying one suit, we suggest maximising your investment with one that is made for you.
Finally, if you’re just getting started in building a wardrobe and, for instance, need several to kick start it on a budget, off-the-rack may be a better choice. Indeed, you can buy one or two cheap off-the-rack suits to tide you over.
However, unless you have unwavering loyalty to a brand, we suggest investing in made-to-measure suits as soon as your budget allows it. To get started, check out our guide to the best online made-to-measure suit brands.
Average Cost For Ready-To-Wear Suits
Because construction techniques and materials used vary widely, an OTR suit can cost as little as $150 and go north of $2000! While it’s true that a $2000 off-the-rack suit is certainly going to be a beautiful addition to your wardrobe, we don’t recommend spending more than about $600 on an off-the-rack suit unless you’re under such a time crunch that you have to.
MTM Versus OTR: Closing The Price Gap
As mentioned above, the suiting industry nowadays is such that made-to-measure (MTM) suits have seen a reduction in the average price that often brings them in line with many off-the-rack options.
This definitely hurts the case for buying RTW clothing. If you can have something made specifically for you at a similar price to something made for everyone, why not do it?
The only reason we can think of is turnaround time. Sometimes you just run out of time before an event and you need a suit right now. Speed is the one untouchable value add of buying OTR, but if that’s not terribly important to you, we advise buying MTM.
What To Expect When Buying A Ready-To-Wear Suit
The process is much less intensive than buying an MTM or bespoke suit. Broken down into steps, it is:
- Walk into a store
- Select and purchase a suit
- Make use of the store’s in-house tailor, or bring the suit to your own tailor for alterations
- Wear the suit
Point three above is bolded due to its importance. Just because a suit is already made and is your size doesn’t mean that it fits you as it should. It’s extremely important that you invest the time and additional expense in tailoring an RTW suit.
Alterations For Off-The-Rack Suits
A well-altered $200 suit will look much better than a poorly-fitted $2,000 one! Your best approach will be to start by taking your measurements to see how well they line up with what you’ll find in stores.
If you have a drop that will match a set, then you’ll have much more freedom. However, if it’s not the standard 6″ difference, you’re better off shopping separates.
Once you have a suit that fits as closely as possible, take note of where you’ll need alterations. Our guide to men’s tailoring breaks down a variety of different alterations to explain their difficulty and cost. You can then decide whether it’s going to match your budget or simply cost too much.
As a general rule, unless the alteration is extremely small, it’s better to buy something that’s too big. If it’s too small, there may not be enough excess material in the suit to take it out. However, off-the-rack suits tend to be a little more generous with fabric than custom-made garments for this very reason.
Top 10 Off-The-Rack Suit Brands
Now that you have learned everything that you need to know about off-the-rack suits, we’ll present you with some of our favourite brands. We already may have mentioned a few of these brands above but we think it’s worth covering them again here in detail.
Currently, we recommend the following ready-to-wear suit brands:
- Brooks Brothers
- Charles Tyrwhitt
- Hawes & Curtis
- Turnbull & Asser
- Ted Baker
- Kenneth Cole
- Hugo Boss
- Stacy Adams
- JC Penney
Feel free to use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to discover them all!