(Note - these opinions are essentially focused at gentlemen; ladies - amongst all the other superior qualities bestowed upon them - tend to be adept in this department. Opening jars, map-reading and the production of sperm are the three remaining functions of men in the 21st century).
The Suit (Jacket)
Undoubtedly the thorniest area of professional-men's dress, having the wrong suit which is ill-fitting is a depressing sight. The sign of a really good suit is that you hardly notice it: it fits and looks as though it was meant to be there.
The first issue is, therefore, one of fit. A perfect fit can be achieved through a bespoke suit or an almost-perfect fit via a 'made-to-measure' suit - both these suits are more expensive that your average off-the-peg suit due to the number of hours that will be devoted to creating the suit for you. This is not to say that you cannot get an ok-fitting suit off-the-peg - but you will be lucky if this is the case. A good example is TM Lewin - they have some cracking offers on at the moment but the way they cut their jackets simply doesn't work on my upper-body.
The second issue is one of fabric. Good suits are made entirely of wool of some description - this does not mean they are necessarily going to be sweltering in summer because the weave and weight of the fabric also plays a role. The more interesting aspect of the fabric is the colour and/or pattern.
Good colours are dark blues (navy) and dark grey (charcoal). I'm iffy about completely black suits - they can often look a bit cheap and naff. QCs are obliged to wear black with morning-trousers - but they will be expensively tailored, whereas a would-be barrister is unlikely to be in the same financial position...
Good patterns are plain and pinstripe. It is crucial that the pinstripe is subtle, thin, close together and not brash. TM Lewin do a line of pinstripes where the lines are too thick and obvious - not so good.
The third issue is 'features'. Good suit-jackets have working buttons on the cuff, pocket-flaps which do not puff-out from the main body, a working button-hole with a stitch behind the lapel to keep flowers in place, two vents at the back and ample internal pocket-space. More contentious are: ticket-pockets and whether you have a two or three button jacket. Ticket-pockets are a little extra pocket just above one of the 'main' exterior pocket of the jacket. I used to think they were quite natty since they used to be a symbol of tailor-made jackets - but, of late, the humble ticket pocket is seen on every other newly-bought suit. Now it looks common and untidy on most jackets. My advice: avoid them. The lesson: shun novelty in your suit. Conformity is (almost) all.
- As to two vs three button jackets, it depends on your frame. I would advise against a three-button jacket if you are smaller since they can look a bit like a sack on slighter people, whilst the two button is more complementary. Some say that two-button jackets look a bit dated. Exactly - that's precisely the look we're going for (although, use 'classic' instead). Do not get a jacket with more than three buttons.
- The Trousers
Again, fit is all important. Three issues: pleats, turn-ups and belt-loops. Single pleats are acceptable, but double-pleats are over the top. I prefer no pleats at all. I'm also a bit anti-turn-ups - they look a bit fussy at the bottom of the leg. The professional alternative to wearing a belt is braces - the sort that button into the trouser. Belts on a suit are a bit Carphone Warehouse. Also, a button-fly is a good thing since it is less likely to break than its zip-cousin.
- The Waistcoat (Two or three piece...?)
The Waistcoat is traditionally meant to keep office-workers warm during the colder months. Accordingly, it's a bit OTT to wear one during the summer months.
It was also considered improper during the hyper-prudish Victorian era to reveal one's torso. That isn't a problem now but the easy solution is to simply button your jacket.
Also, I have often thought that it's a little wannabe for would-be barristers to wear a full three-piece into an interview - much like the irritating person at school who always had all the kit whether he was good at cricket or not. For me, this is the line - would-be barristers, no to waistcoats; actual barristers, yes to waistcoats.
If you are investing in a suit, I'd get the three-piece if you can and save the waistcoat for first months of pupillage.
Keep shirts simple. Especially at first. White, blue, light pink are acceptable colours. No stripes, no gingham etc. Get a collar that suits your neck - don't make the error of getting a button-down collar (too American). The shirt should have double-cuffs - i.e. it accepts cuff-links. Practicing barristers have 'court tunics' - shirts with detachable collars - it's probably jumping the gun to get loads of those. A decently-woven cotton is desirable - it's just more attractive.
With cuff-links the principle is: no tat. This means, no novelty designs. They look irredeemably wally. Say no to the following: Disney characters of any description, flags, taps ('hot' and 'cold'), balls (i.e. golf balls, footballs, rugby balls etc) or any cuff-links that try to do something - i.e. those which contain compasses, small watches or lights. Cuff-links need to be cuff-links rather than cuff-links pretending to be corkscrews.
Old-style cufflinks are made with a small chain-link between them - they are the preferable sort. Allegedly, they are the main reason nature gave us wives or girlfriend (they are impossible to put on by oneself). The more modern bar-link cufflinks are acceptable too - just don't fiddle with them.
No would-be barrister should wear a tie with the following: any cartoon characters (including Wallace & Gromit), a piano-keyboard, a scene of a plucky-golfer getting a hole-in-one etc - the same cuff-link principle applies. I would also be wary of paisley-patterned ties - they look, for the most part, dreadful.
The three acceptable type of ties are: plain coloured ties (i.e. just red, blue etc - not black); neatly-patterned ties (i.e. small dots); and 'club ties' (diagonal stripes - can give a nice sense of identity). The common theme is simplicity and taste.
As to fabric, avoid polyester. Primarily, go for silk - and decent silk. There are plenty of flimsy-silk ties out there which look and feel like school-ties. All-wool ties have made a bit of a come-back in recent years and they can look quite nice - not too showy - but they look best in plain colours.
The safest bet has always been - and will remain - the humble but magnificent Oxford. It is a simple and confident style that indicates you know what you're doing. Avoid shoes with pointy-toes - in 'fashion' and therefore deeply unstylish - and slip-ons (too casual).
Full-brogues are perhaps a little much although the half-brogue is an elegant alternative.
Whatever your choice, it is absolutely crucial to look after your shoes - polish them regularly, even it doesn't look like they need it. In the long run, the leather will age beautifully rather than cracking. A good pair of shoes, taken care of, will last a lifetime.
The principles to be drawn are these:
1. Keep it simple. Being well-dressed is a matter of wearing good-quality, uncomplicated garments that enable you to shine. Clothes should not compete for an interviewer's attention. We hardly notice those who are well-dressed in comparison to those who are poorly-dressed. Do not be the one wearing a suit with huge pinstripes, a tie with the West Ham crest on it, cuff-links with 'HOT' and 'SEX' written on them and scuffed shoes from River Island that smell like cheap cocktails. You will look like a moron (even if you aren't).
2. Quality first. One good suit will beat ten horrible suits. Buy slowly, invest in the best you can.
3. Look after your stuff. Dry-cleaning suits/ties or polishing shoes will extend the life your kit indefinitely.
4. Recognise the sphere of conformity. At the bar, one is pretty constricted as to what one can wear and be deemed to be well-dressed. It is important to remember that barristers are not bankers, who are typically more ostentatious and, therefore, crass. However, within our small sphere we can choose several things - the colour of our tie, which suit we wear, the particular cuff-links etc. The point is we should rejoice in our (limited) freedom.
5. Finally, be natural. It is important that when you get all your would-be barrister garb on it looks like you're meant to be wearing it. To be at ease in your suit is the very essence of good style. So, discount everything I've said: it's not just what you wear - it's how you wear it too.