In the world of menswear, one would be hard pressed to think of a more shining example of the Industrial Revolution’s success than off-the-rack clothes. For many years, good-quality tailored clothing was only available to men of means: wealthy businessmen or socialites who could afford to patronize the best tailors they could find and have clothing made specifically for them. It wasn’t until mass production became feasible when off-the-rack clothes became popular.
For convenience, off-the-rack clothes will be referred to as “RTW” (short for “ready-to-wear”) for the remainder of this article.
A Brief 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. Though 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.
In 1849, Brooks Brothers introduced their first line of RTW clothing. Ten years later, 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.
Why Buy an Off-The-Rack Suit?
Many of us buy RTW suits for many different reasons, some of which are:
- Cost: Though there are RTW suits that can get well into the $2K range, there are precisely zero MTM or custom suits that dip below $400. If you’re on a budget and need a new suit for your first job interview, RTW is the way to go.
- Time: Let’s say you have a wedding to attend in a week. Maybe your wife told you about it months ago and you failed to bother looking for a new suit until now. Maybe she didn’t and the pickle you’re in isn’t your fault. We’re not judging, but we are saying that the only chance you have of showing up to that wedding looking good is to buy a RTW suit and have it tailored with extreme speed and accuracy.
- Customization Isn’t Your Thing: Though many of the guys reading this blog do care, there are plenty of men who couldn’t care less about what shade of navy they’re buying, let alone whether or not the jacket has peaked lapels or a fancy lining. This is totally fine. For those “just give me a suit” guys, going RTW is a great way to minimize decision-making and take some of the time out of suit shopping.
- Designer Loyalty: Some guys love Zegna suits. Some guys love Hugo Boss. Some guys walk into J.Crew, put a suit on, and need barely any alterations. They have no need for anything but RTW with their favorite labels, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
How to Buy An Off-The-Rack Suit
Just because you’re buying a RTW suit doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to details. Materials and construction still matter and should be considered when making a purchase. Everything we previously mentioned about fabric and construction still holds true, though we should note that it’s unwise to pay $1K or more for a garment that isn’t at least half-canvassed. Many RTW suits use a fused canvas, which is described below:
Unlike higher end canvasses, fused canvas is made from synthetic, rather than natural, materials. It is also glued (or “fused”) to the inside of the garment as opposed to tacked. The upside to this is that it keeps costs low (props again to the Industrial Revolution). The downside is that glue breaks down over time. Heat and cleaning solvents help glue break down. Dry cleaners use both heat and cleaning solvents to clean your suits. When glue breaks down on a fused lapel, it can delaminate and a bubble or bubbles will form. This is the suiting equivalent of totaling a car. There is nothing you can do to fix this, you just have to get a new suit.
Half-canvassed and full-canvas suits won’t do this because there’s no glue in the lapel.
As we previously stated (link to fabric article), “Super” numbers for fabric increase with fineness, 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.
Refer to our alterations guide (link here) to see what can be done and what can’t. When shopping for a RTW suit, the most important thing is that the shoulders of the jacket sync up well with your own. If this is good, it’s very likely that you’ll be able to buy the suit with no problems from an alterations perspective.
The next most important thing to consider is how the pant waist fits, and this is where the concept of “drop” comes into play. Drop refers to the difference between a jacket’s chest measurement and a trouser’s waist measurement. Generally this is six inches, so if, for example, you wear a size 40 jacket, its matching trousers will be a 34. If you’re an athletic man whose body is shaped like a capital “V,” this arrangement will likely not work. You will need to shop in suit separates, which is where jackets are not sold together with default-sized pants. Many department stores and specialty stores offer suit separates, whereas selling suits in pre-matched jacket/trouser pairs tends to be the way more old-fashioned menswear retailers go.
Buying a RTW suit can be a quick, easy experience if you know what to look for and how to find it. Do your research online beforehand to save some time and you’ll likely find that the process is relatively painless.