I’m in the showroom of Nicholas Joseph Custom Tailors, staring at a dozen or so different dress-shirt collars mounted in a glass display case, but they all look the same to me. Each one is the same light blue color, each one is roughly the same roundish shape, and each one is, well, a shirt collar. Button one up, wrap a tie around it, and you’re good to go. Right?
Not quite. There are subtle differences from one to the next, and these differences, small as they may be, play a huge part in what shop owner and founder Nicholas Hansen calls “proportion.” Proportion, simply put, is about achieving visual balance by adding small modifications—to a collar, a jacket lapel, a pant pleat—to soften or embellish your physique.
I gave Nicholas some examples of common characteristics men might feel self-conscious about and asked him how he would modify a suit to account for them. Nicholas emphasized that these are general techniques and that just as every client is different—with different skin tones, hair and eye colors, lifestyles, and stylistic preferences—so too is his approach from one client to the next. Still, these are tricks of the trade, ways that Nicholas uses proportion to make sure a man’s suit doesn’t simply conform to his body but actually defines it.
What if I’m portly or I have a beer gut?
To begin with, Nicholas advises portly men to avoid wearing loud patterns or suits with thin pinstripes, both which can draw more attention to their build. And though skinny ties may be in style, he recommends avoiding excessively thin neckties.
For men with a larger belly, Nicholas suggests raising the positioning of the notch on the jacket lapel, which is that triangular indentation on the lapel somewhere between the chest and neck. “[A higher notch] broadens the chest,” he says. “It draws the eyes upward, bringing the focus more to the upper part of their body.” He also suggests pants with a single pleat that falls in line with the crease, thereby allowing for more room in the legs without appearing too wide.
What if I’m skinny or lanky and I want to look more built?
One way to compensate for a skinny frame is to design a more structured shoulder by adding more padding. This creates the appearance of not only a fuller build but also a well-defined chest. He also says slender men should avoid wide pinstripes on their suits, which would only emphasize their thin frames.
What if I want to look taller? What if I really am tall?
“What we can do is change the length of a jacket,” Nicholas says. “For a man with shorter legs, a shorter jacket will make his legs appear longer.” Conversely, he recommends a three-button jacket for clients who are very tall—starting at about 6’6”. This won’t necessarily make the man look shorter, but it will help align his height with the rest of the suit.
What if I have a round face? Or a narrow face?
You can’t change the shape of your face, but you can alter what’s around it—the shirt collar. There are three customizable features in a shirt collar: collar height, point length, and spread distance. Collar height is pretty self-explanatory. The “points,” meanwhile, are what angle out on either side of the neck break. Thus the point length and spread distance are how long the points are and how much space there is between them, respectively.
“If someone has a longer, narrow face, we’ll recommend a collar with a slight spread and moderate point length,” he says. For a wider, rounder face, he suggests avoiding a wide cutaway collar. Something with a moderate spread and point length would help to proportion the appearance of a round face.
How can I dress well on a budget?
People who need to cut a few corners should concentrate on fit. “Cut is the most important [part of a suit],” Nicholas says, adding that the shoulders are the most important part of the cut. “If you’re going to shop off rack,” he says, “find something that fits in the shoulders, [and] you can go from there.”
He says another good way to save money is by purchasing accessories such as ties, pocket squares, and belts at less expensive stores, since they’re less essential to your appearance than the suit itself.
If you can only purchase one suit, Nicholas suggests a charcoal color, since it “is more appropriate for just about everything.” I ask him what shirt colors are essential for every man’s closet, even if they could only afford to buy a few. “Eighty percent of most guys’ shirts are white or blue,” he says, reasoning that they’re easy to match and moderately conservative for work or other events. If you do only have one suit, Nicholas says it’s OK to wear the same one over and over—just play around with ties, pocket squares, and other accessories to create some stylistic variation.