This Classic Menswear Staple Is Making a Comeback

Chris Brooks

The three-piece suit makes a return—and this time it’s all about the waistcoat.

When Hollywood and Milan are on the same style page, pay attention. At the Avengers: Infinity War premiere this past spring, Thor, Star-Lord, Loki, and Dr. Strange all brought the same sartorial superpower to the red carpet—a three-piece suit.

Particularly notable was Tom Hiddleston (he being Loki) in navy Corneliani with a very formal cut of waistcoat known as a shawl. Not to be outdone, Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange) arrived ready to save the universe in a brown velvet trio from Giorgio Armani.

It was clear that the guys (or their stylists) had paid attention at the fall men’s shows in Milan. There, a different band of demigods— the designers responsible for Ermenegildo Zegna, Brunello Cucinelli, Isaia, and Pal Zileri—had shown fresh takes on the most Milanese, the most bulletproof of suits.

This season’s return of the three-piece is major news in menswear because the pendulum that historically swings back and forth from tailored-and-tidy to slouchy-and-street has been stuck on the latter for a number of years.

And for guys in the office, it’s particularly good news. The right three-piece suit sets a man apart while also shaping his silhouette. It keeps his shirt and tie neatly in harness. It is handy on business trips because it can be broken up into separates for an evening out, and it affords unadulterated peacocks a place to show off their pocket watches, key chains, and handkerchiefs.


Chris Brooks

“The three-piece gives a refined allure to the male figure,” says Rocco Iannone, a longtime Armani veteran who took over as creative director at Pal Zileri in the summer of 2017. The company offers a number of three-piece suits for fall, complete with double-breasted waistcoats.

Since the Edwardian era, the three-piece has gone in and out of favor, with politics or pop culture acting as the harbingers for its return. Winston Churchill was a fan, as was Steve McQueen’s character in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). In 2006, the charcoal-gray three-piece worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (and designed by Brioni) sparked a new generation to adopt it.

Among this fall’s batch of three-piece suits, the cut of the waistcoat has become one of the ways designers are making their marks. Waistcoats can be single or double-breasted in their cuts. Some have no lapels. Others have a traditional notch or shawl lapel. A notable one is from Zegna, where the brand’s artistic director, Alessandro Sartori, created a sleek three-piece suit in charcoal-gray cashmere with a waistcoat that is simply held together by fabric ties. The design, he says, is a way to get “contemporary function out of traditional craft.”


Chris Brooks

Isaia, known for its elegant fabrics and Neapolitan tailoring, also showed a number of boldly patterned three-piece suits, some with traditional and others with shawl-lapelled waistcoats. “We have the classic vest, for sure. But the shawl elevates the look to make it dressier,” explains CEO Gianluca Isaia, the third generation of his family to run the company. 

For those who don’t want to feel too cosseted, he suggests forgoing the necktie and leaving the top two buttons of the dress shirt undone. Unlike some of his countrymen, he is not a fan of breaking up a three-piece suit by swapping out the trousers for jeans. “I would think you spilled something on your pants and had to change,” he adds.

For Paul Feig, the dapper director of Bridesmaids and the upcoming A Simple Favor, the two-piece suit has always been a style for guys who have to wear a suit; while the three-piece suit is for guys who want to wear a suit. "The waistcoat allows you to keep your jacket open and still look cool. You can accessorize more," he says.

While designers disagree on whether or not to break up a suit, they all agree that the key to looking cool in a three-piece is fit—and attitude. You must wear the suit, rather than let the suit wear you. This is easy to do when you’re working out of a palazzo in Lombardy, Veneto, or Campania. But it is also worth the effort when you’re working late on a presentation or, perhaps, working to save the galaxy from a super-villain.