For those in the know, the linen suit is to summer formal wear what the chore jacket is to workwear, or the cuban collar is to mid-century style. It’s a staple part of the foundations wardrobe bedrock around which everything is built.
However for those less clued up - the majority of us out there who simply need a nice linen suit for a summer wedding, say - it’s an oddity. After all, your mother wouldn’t send you off to school in something designed to look creased, no matter how effortlessly elegant said folds appeared.
Well, the linen suit is first and foremost a rule-breaker, and with good reason. For those yet to be converted, here’s the hows and whys behind this summer icon.
Back to the beginning
Let’s start where it all began - at the advent of the fabric itself.
From around 7000 BCE, the Babylonians were the first civilisation to start weaving flax, the plant from which linen is made and from which the health store favourite, flaxseed, is cultivated. This kicked off the early linen trade, which was later taken over by the Ancient Egyptians who wrapped up their deceased in layers upon layers of linen to aid the process of mummification.
With flax in plentiful supply, linen became one of the most used materials across the world, and was often woven into the inner layer of expensive garments, which is why it is still sometimes referred to as lining. This is until cotton production went into overdrive at the start of the Industrial Revolution, with trusty old linen pushed aside for the slightly warmer and more durable cotton. .
Today, linen has graduated from a lining garment to star of the show, and despite being made in relatively small quantities, linen is still a popular fabric, especially in suiting and summer (the reasons for which we will touch on later).
The modern linen suit has many cultural touchstones - from Daniel Craig as James Bond rollicking around rural Italy in a rugged light brown version to Robert Redford’s turn as Jay Gatsby in a pink linen three-piece.
Both men, and their respective iconic characters, understand that linen is for confident dressers. After all, the lack of natural stretch to the fabric will result in linen’s trademark wrinkling, which for years was thought unrefined.
Today we know different. After a few wears, a linen suit will look better than some wool versions - the wrinkles will come for both, but linen will wear them better and mature with age. It’s also a relatively long staple fibre which can help it stay in shape, especially in problem areas like around the elbows and knees.
If you are worried about creasing or just looking for something a little more refined, consider a blend of linen with wool, silk, or cotton, and play it clean and tidy with the rest of your outfit; no grubby marks or scuffed-up shoes allowed.
A fabric made for hot weather
Linen’s main weapon is its usefulness when battling the heat. Good quality linen isn’t necessarily lightweight, but its weave and the natural properties of flax make it extremely breathable, allowing air to flow through its fibres, while also being much stronger than its summer fabric rival, cotton.
Linen is also highly absorbent, helping to wick sweat away from the skin on those truly sweltering summer days, while boasting an innate ability to conduct heat, which has the benefit of conveying heat from your body through the fabric. Quite unbelievably, the heat conductivity of linen is estimated to be five times higher than that of wool.
Although a high-quality linen suit will feel rougher than a new cotton or wool suit it does get softer over time and is conveniently hypoallergenic, so it doesn’t have to be aired out after dry cleaning like a wool suit, ensuring your linen suits can be put away and ready to wear when the next summer season rolls around.
Some pointers on buying and styling
Ok, you’re sold, a linen suit is a summer wear must-have and you really must have one. Now you need to know what to look for when buying one, and how to dress it up with what you already have in your wardrobe.
Well, firstly a linen suit jacket should be unlined, or only partially lined, while your side patch pockets should be less bulky than with a traditional wool suit. Unstructured styles will also help you get rid of any unwanted bulk - a linen suit is best when it’s made light and simple.
A cotton-linen blend is also a worthy summer suit consideration, with the combination cancelling out the disadvantages some might label each of having. The soft cotton, for example, is handy at smoothing out the slight roughness of linen, while the stiffer linen gives the suit structure and elegance so that it sits just so on your frame.
Finally on the buying, and a point which takes us neatly onto the styling, let’s talk about colour.
Linen can take coloured dyes well, and you’ll often find it in bright, summer-appropriate hues. Pastel shades are fun but very casual and best to avoid in a business setting, while navy and stone are naturally smarter.
Linen suit rule number one: there are no real rules.
Avoid a linen shirt with your linen suit. Two elegantly crumpled pieces do not equal a right, and a crisp cotton shirt with its contrasting texture will look far more put together and calculated.
Shirts are far from compulsory though when it comes to styling your linen suit, and certainly, a more casual stripe tee or knitted polo can look just as sharp. You’re erring off-script slightly with a linen suit anyway, so why not push the rules that little bit further. Make sure they’re ironed and in a bright neutral to let your linen suit shine.
And finally, footwear. Don’t go with anything too heavy — a pair of minimalist white sneakers or slip-on loafers will play nicely into the louche summer look you are aiming for. Match the shade with your tee, tie or shirt to tie the look together seamlessly.
Linen suit rule number one: there are no real rules. These are mainly helpful pointers to take the pressure off the buying and styling so you can focus on ripping up the dancefloor at the post-wedding disco.