Sports vs. Suits

Sports vs. Suits

Q. I hope you can answer my question. Is there a difference between a sports jacket and a suit coat? Can a suit coat be worn as a sports jacket with different trousers?

A. Even though the few differences between a sports coat and a suit coat are subtle, they can send major messages. They state whether the wearer is — or is not — knowledgeable about clothes. For those who recognize the suit jacket, the error will be as clear as it would be to a NASCAR fan if he saw a driver wearing a motorcycle helmet in a race car. You would seem not to know and understand the basics of what you are doing.

Besides not looking right, another reason not to split up a suit and wear the jacket as a sports coat is that the extra wear puts stress and soil on the jacket. Then having the jacket dry-cleaned more often than the trousers could result in two slightly different shades; that would completely spoil a matched suit. So, you should not wear a suit coat with different trousers.

Many men do not know how others would know. The differences are in the color, the fabric’s pattern, and the style or cut of the jacket.

Fabric color — Suit colors considered acceptable by the business world are generally limited to one of only three categories: blues, grays, and occasionally tans. To be more specific, they are most shades of blue (usually medium to dark), shades of gray (ranging from medium gray to black), and light browns (from tan to slightly darker khaki). In the business world, colors beyond this range are not thought of as professional for suits. Colors outside this threesome, such as green, teal, pink, sky blue, pearl gray, and dark brown, can all work as a blazer or sports jacket, but are not right for a suit.


Fabric pattern — This is perhaps the most critical difference between sports coats and suits. Solid fabrics work for both, but many patterned “suiting fabrics” are just that, only for suits and not for sports jackets. Among those that are ideal for suits, but that are all wrong as sports coats, are every form of striped suiting, ranging from the subtlest shadow stripes, through more noticeable colored stripes, to bold and eye-catching pinstripes. These are too dressy and too formal for sports coats. In fact, wearing a striped jacket with “odd trousers” (the clothing industry’s term for unmatched dress pants) is an immediate clue that a man has split up a matched suit and mistakenly worn the coat as a sports jacket. In addition to stripes, other noticeable patterns (any pattern that shows itself as a pattern from across the room, such as houndstooth checks, windowpane plaids, and bold tweeds) are fine as a sports coat, but too obvious as a suit. Subtle patterns such as herringbones, tick weaves, muted glen plaids, and mini-checks can work for both.

Cut — These style differences are in the small details that show up when closely observed and accent the difference when the suit jacket fits the “both” categories.
• Buttons — This tends to be one of the most apparent differences. Buttons on suits are almost always dark and plain, made of either genuine horn or plastic. Buttons on blazers and sports jackets can have a lot more personality and individuality. They can be made of metal (from shiny brass to pewter), dark horn or plastic, mother-of-pearl, leather, or, more rarely, colored enamel with initials or small designs.
• Pockets — Patch pockets are only found on less dressy blazers and sports coats, not on suits. Sleek besom pockets are only on suit jackets.
• Often, but not always, blazers and sports coats have a looser fit than suit coats.
• Sometimes, suit jackets are more precisely structured in the shoulders.

Although you may have a suit jacket that you think blurs enough of these lines to wear as a blazer, it is always best to avoid this variation (if nothing else, co-workers may recognize it from when you wore it as a suit). Oddly, a man can wear the same suit weekly for years without question, but matching it with other trousers will suddenly make others wonder if he just doesn’t know or is short on funds. On the other hand, you can always wear a sports coat with just about any pair of trousers in your closet, from the most elegant dress slacks, through informal chinos, to the most casual jeans.

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