A Starter’s Guide to Double Breasted Suits

You’re not a mobster in the 40s nor any guy wearing an oversized suit in the 80s, so why did you get dragged into reading about double breasted suits here? Nobody sports this outdated style anymore, right?

Au contraire, it’s actually more likely you’ve recently noticed a gent or two wearing a slick DB around town. And for a style that supposedly “went out of style” long ago, seeing men that can pull off a double breasted suit with a touch of panache has obviously intrigued you.

But the double breasted jacket is definitely a more complex garment than your run-of-the-mill two-button, which means wearing one requires intention, knowing the style dos and don’ts, and understanding the proper fit you’ll need to achieve with your tailor. So how can you bring back this classic style and make it look good on you?

What’s the History of the Double-breasted Suit?

The DB is certainly not the most common look at parties, weddings, the office, men's fashion magazines, or even on red carpets today. In fact, it is certainly an older-appearing style, harkening back to the fashion of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that's likely what's creating the notion it’s a more “formal” suit.

This impression probably comes from the fact that double-breasted suits as we know them haven’t changed much in their history, so wearing one is, in many ways, a throwback to traditional fashion. It’s certainly an elegant look but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a formal one. To the contrary, the DB’s story began as a casual piece.  Derived from what we now simply know as the naval peacoat, the DB became prominent as an activewear piece worn by British aristocracy. This made it an informal garment that was often considered too casual to be allowed in many work environments. That perception started to change in the first half of the 20th century, and our modern association of the double breasted suit today seems to still be stuck on those old-time mobsters and baggy-fitted businessmen of the 80s. And truth be told, miss a couple of basic styling points with a DB and you may end up looking like one of those two caricatures.   

What Are the Different Styles of Double Breasted Suits?

The distinguishing or defining characteristic of a double breasted suit is that its jacket features two rows of buttons. Within that, there are still multiple variations of the DB, each with its own unique look, structure, and even preferred body type that is most flattered by it.

Each variation of the jacket is simply labeled by its button configuration, with the first number signifying how many visible buttons are on the jacket and the second marking how many of them fasten.

The 6-by-2

This button configuration is possibly the most flattering for most men and therefore the one that’s going to be easiest for you to find. The two buttons that fasten are the ones in the middle row, and when positioned right on the body, they close the coat around the midsection in a way that typically creates the most accentuated V-shape look. Because the bottom buttons are left open, the coat drapes in a way that magnifies this appearance even more.

The 6-by-1

The 6-by-1 is unique because it’s the rare instance in which closing the bottom button isn’t considered a fashion faux pas. This, of course, is because the bottom button is the only one that will fasten on this coat. It brings the closure lower on the torso of this already shorter-than-usual jacket. 

The 4-by-1 and 4-by-2

You may not look your best in this suit if you already have something extra in the midsection, as the 4-by-1 specifically tends to accentuate the belly of a rounder, shorter man. The 4-by-2, however, can give you more versatility in fit and looks

The 2-by-1

If the mental picture of a single row of buttons sounds a tad odd, that’s because it’s a pretty rare coat. You probably haven’t seen many of these with you own two eyes and you may never even see one off-the-rack. This is a truly bespoke option, with much attention to detail needed to pull it off well.

The Importance of Button Positioning and Body Types

As mentioned, the double breasted suit is more complex than a single breasted suit, requiring more attention to the proper fit and tailoring needed to make it work for you. While most of the basic fit and styling rules apply to both the single and double breasted suits, it’s the placement of the buttons on your DB that will radically change its entire look. If anything, at least understanding how different placements create different visual appearances will give you the strongest foundation for understanding this very specific and reborn fashion statement.

As a general rule, it’s said that the double-breasted suit is meant for the taller, slimmer man. Some believe he’s the only man that should don a DB, steering the shorter, not-so-slim gentleman away from the double-breasted suit altogether. This isn’t necessarily true. While the structure of a DB does naturally create much-needed breadth for an exceptionally slim and longer man and therefore, obviously, unwanted breadth for the wider man, all this can be manipulated with some button placement know-how.

Before focusing solely on button placement though, give your attention to the peak lapel — the often wider, higher, pointed lapels on double-breasted coats. Naturally, those peak lapels point out toward the shoulder at the top, which is actually a major feature in creating that tapered V-look we all desire. Recognizing this is important because it, of course, leads down toward those buttons which finish off the look. Four buttons will create a box appearance while the more popular six-button coat will create slightly more length, but the overall visual draw is the box created on the front of your coat. The two rows across your coat fill out the appearance of breadth, with a wider placement drawing the eyes in to see more breadth. It’s almost an illusion, which is exactly why and how you can manipulate this look to suit you best.

The most important buttons in this equation are the ones (or one) that fasten. Your entire coat will be pulled into a closed position at this point (or these points), known as your waist buttons. Moving the waist buttons down lengthens the lapel and creates more overall length for the wearer while moving those same buttons up has the opposite effect. When you visit your tailor it will be important to consider all these different placements based on your own body type, also giving note to the coats drape when closed.

The Written (and Unwritten) Rules of Wearing a Double Breasted Suit

1.Closed vs. open buttons:

Perhaps the simplest of all mens suit rules but also most frequently overlooked concerns the bottom button. Also known as the “always, sometimes, never,” basic suit-wearing etiquette is to always close a top button on a jacket, sometimes fasten the middle button, and never fasten a bottom button. Many men simply aren’t aware of this rule when wearing two-button single-breasted suits, and even fewer know these rules also apply to the double-breasted suit.

The 6-by-1 and 4-by-2/4-by-1 suits all typically close with a bottom button, so they’re of course excluded from this rule by virtue of their design. Other than that, you always want to leave that bottom button unfastened so the jacket can drape as its meant to drape.

2. Open vs. closed coat:

As for when to fasten/close your coat versus leave it open, the DB does not follow the same rules as a single breasted suit. A traditional single-breasted suit, of course, is always meant to be opened when sitting and closed when standing. Meanwhile, the double breasted suit should always be closed, whether sitting or standing. Since the extra material in a double-breasted coat folds across the torso, leaving it open creates a shape and look that throws the entire outfit off. 

 3. Who should wear a double breasted suit (and when)?

As mentioned, the prevailing philosophy is that the tall, slim man is meant for the double breasted suit and the shorter man is not. But think about how the suit’s dominant features work together. If lower buttons create a longer, sweeping lapel and more apparent length, couldn’t a shorter man in a 4-by-1 double breasted suit theoretically create the same appearance and style as a 6-by-2 on a taller man? If you’re not so sure, consider this: Humphrey Bogart wore double breasted suits frequently and well. He was and his legacy still is that of one of the coolest, most stylish men ever. He was 5’8”. So if you want to try out a DB, regardless of your body type, go for it.

The Double Breasted Suit A-List

So we’ve been over some DB basics, now how do you style one? Moreover, who wears them and wears them well? Every issue of GQ and any quick internet search will turn up plenty of options and double breasted inspiration. If I could point out just one gent though, I’d say a study of actor Michael B. Jordan’s Instagram or red carpet photo galleries can give you plenty of ideas for how you can wear a DB:

With a t-shirt: 

By virtue of its rarity these days, the double breasted jacket is its own statement piece. There's no real need for flashy patterns or loud pocket squares that stand out because the coat is going to do that on its own. This means even black on black on black with a solid tee shirt, of all things, still stands out. 

With a Turtleneck: 

Because the lapels of a double breasted suit meet at a higher point than a traditional two-button jacket, turtlenecks pair well with DBs. The contrasting solid colors here make the distinct look of the turtleneck stand out but also give it all a more regal —not necessarily more formal — look. 

Something Trendy: 

Some men like to be loud in their suits and some prefer the traditional solid color approach with small accents that stand out. This look is obviously not the latter. The color scheme is clearly not formal but notice how Jordan doesn't go overboard with it; not only does he stick to a black shirt and tie to let the suit's colors grab all the attention, the tailored fit is on point. Essentially, the only thing that isn't traditional about this suit is the bright red, all thanks to his attention to the other modest details of his outfit. 

Formal: 

You can't get more formal than a tux. Notice how different the 4-by-2 looks here compared to the 6-by-2 jackets he's sporting in other photos. There's a noticeable difference in how this DB fits and looks versus the others on the same exact physique. In this case, it's a more modest look that would likely be more appropriate for a formal event. 

So When Should I (or When Can I) Wear a DB? 

Maybe it's a changeup from your regular selection of two-button jackets or maybe you feel like making the DB your "thing" will be the look that helps you stand out. But as far as occasions go — weddings, a night on the town, business meetings, or the red carpet — the double breasted jacket can and should be treated like every other suit coat in your closet, worn whenever you're so inclined to pull it off the hanger. It's a more versatile option, from casual to uber-formal, that can be dressed up or down as you wish. The best part is now you're equipped with some of the basic the dos and don'ts of this classic look. 

 


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