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As anyone who has ever sweltered through a hot July day in a suffocating jacket and tie knows, wearing a suit in the summertime is pure unadulterated madness. When the mercury boils, commonsense dictates that we shed as much clothing as decency, dress codes, and fear of melanoma allow.
It is masochism—or a mania of sorts—that keeps men buttoned up when the pavement fries. And, yes, while it's true that between Memorial and Labor Days many companies mercifully offer their employees the option to dress casually—although not too casually—inevitably many men still struggle through the dog days sporting a suit.
Why, you ask? In many cases, it is because most of these poor sweating chumps have no choice. They are condemned to seek the safety of air-conditioning like Bedouins in search of an oasis. But for some men, it is because, despite the heat, summer suits just look terrific.
The reason is twofold: First, most summer suits are not only made of lighter fabrics such as silk, tropical wool, linen, or poplin, but also they are lighter in hue, making the wearer look like a character out of a Richard Harding Davis novel. (For those readers who miss this allusion, Davis was a hugely successful author of popular fiction in the late 19th century whose leading men were typically square-jawed soldiers of fortune, usually involved in overthrowing tin-pot dictatorships in the tropics.)
WHITE? NOT SO FAST. Second, besides imparting a general air of romance, the right summer suit also connotes a degree of self-possession and personal style, not to mention financial success. It says, "Look at me! I have the discipline, good taste, and money to be able to laugh at the heat and look pretty damn good doing it, too."
But before you rush off to your local men's shop to load up on light-colored linens, it is important to know a few things first. Unlike, say, white tie and tails—which can make even the most unprepossessing fellows seem dashing—summer suits require a bit more study.
The most important rule is to not look like you work in an ice cream truck or, worse, are auditioning for a part in a remake of Saturday Night Fever. For the most part, white suits should be avoided. They tend to be impractical—because they get dirty so easily—and foppish, and send the signal that you are as lightweight as the material. Unless it is a beautifully tailored suit made of the finest linen or cotton, and you are a Southern trial lawyer, like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, or a 19th century British colonial administrator, they should be strenuously avoided.
SEASON'S SAVINGS. Almost as important is where to buy a summer suit. As with all men's clothes, it is always preferable to have suits made by a bespoke tailor, someone who will take all your measurements and allow you to choose your own fabric. The advantage is that such a suit will fit you perfectly. The downside, however, is that most well-made bespoke suits easily cost twice as much, or more, as an off-the-rack suit.
The curious thing about most summer suits, however, is that, depending on the fabric, they usually cost considerably less than a winter or three-season suit. For example, a poplin three-button suit at BrooksBrothers.com costs only $246 (down from $328), whereas a two-button Super 110s wool suit costs on sale $498 (down from $798). At that kind of price, considering that most men only wear a summer suit three months of the year, it doesn't always make sense to spend the extra having a suit hand-tailored.
That said, summer suits can easily notch north of three figures. Paul Stuart, one of New York's leading men's stores—it also has branches in Chicago and Tokyo—has a very handsome summer suit in a linen and silk weave for $1,484. Jos. A. Bank (JOSB), the moderately priced men's retailer that has more than 300 stores in 40 states, is offering on sale a double-breasted seersucker suit for a ridiculously low $179.
CRUCIAL FEATURES. So what should you look for? Fit is key, obviously, but it depends on your body type. Some middle-aged men appreciate the kinder cut of the typical, less body-hugging American sack suit. Younger or more athletic men may opt for a narrower waist from designers such as Kenneth Cole or Gucci.
Proper stitching is also important in a suit. Avoid basted suits whenever possible. And the material should be light enough to feel cool but not too flimsy.
But for the most, summer suits should be worn with a certain amount of panache. Hey, if you've got the willingness to wear a summer suit, you deserve to look good wearing it.
Click here to see a slide show of summer suits