Walking into any decent menswear shop these days can be an overwhelming experience with the seemingly endless rows of suit racks. You’ve got your blues, browns, grays, blacks and everything in between in solids, pin stripes, checks, houndstooth and countless others. Where do you start? There is one suit colour, often overlooked, that has the right character to impart a debonair edge both day and night: charcoal.
It is easily considered one of the most versatile suiting options and it’s often touted as the prime choice for the first suit a man should invest in. Though when young and inexperienced, the common mistake is to invest in a black suit because it has a "formal" nuance attached to it, and one can wear it for "any occasion" whether it be for work, in the evening or for a special occasion. But in reality, it poses a big risk of looking like a funeral home director in the day light.
The challenge with charcoal is that the shade can vary a great deal, from just a notch darker than mid-grey to something close to black. The former is probably the easiest suit to wear with anything, whereas the latter is a bit trickier.
Now, to the less trained eye, charcoal and black may seem almost interchangeable on the surface, but depending on the light source they actually behave rather distinctly. Simply hold them up side by side in daylight and the difference will be immediately obvious. A near black charcoal in daylight, in a well-made cloth, possesses great depth and colour which serves as prime backdrop for delicate patterns, making it a suitable candidate when something sophisticated is called for. Black, on the other hand can actually appear a bit dull and one dimensional under daylight (note my previous comment).
One of the major advantages of a charcoal suit is how it can emirate a sleek silhouette, providing the tailoring is on point of course. Perhaps just as convenient, you don’t need to be concerned about most dress codes with charcoal; in many cases it will serve the same function as black for evening attire. However, if an invitation specifies black tie (semi-formal), then a suit is never an appropriate replacement for a tuxedo. That being said, assuming you know the crowd well, then a properly fitted dark suit will beat a cheap ill-fitting tux – and especially a rental – every time.
Charcoal is pretty much a no brainer for evening wear, but don’t overlook the daytime potential as well. Just make sure to avoid thinking a louder shit and tie is required to offset a dark suit. A darker tone tie can allows you to avoid a focal point that throws the outfit out of balance and darkens the suit further. Adjusting the shirt and tie can actually alter how bright the suit appears; a light shirt and tie enhances the contrast and vice versa. The charcoal suit shown in this article has a light check pattern overlay, which is highlighted with a micro-patterned blue shirt and a navy knit tie to bring out the accents in the cloth. Had I picked a bolder shirt, like solid grey chambre, it would bring out the pattern further. Don't be afraid to experiment with textures, such as a knit, silk or corduroy tie; a silk, linen or wool pocket square.
As for shoes, the closer a suit gets to black, the fewer appropriate options are left and it reaches a point where brown no longer works. Grey, burgundy and black are probably your best bet when it's on the darker side. So if you've been saving that dark grey suit for a special occasion, maybe it's time to take it out for a spin.