The Hunt: Charcoal Suits

The Best Charcoal Suits for Interviewing | CorporetteSure, we all know what basics professional women are supposed to have in their closets, but if you’re buying one for the first time or replacing one you’ve worn into the ground, it can be a pain to find exactly the right incarnation in stores. In “The Hunt,” we search the stores for a basic item that every woman should have.

Charcoal suits are one of the great basics for working women — particularly for interviewing. A nice dark charcoal in a seasonless wool can be worn with almost any color, but they look particularly great with white and pastel button-front blouses. Even though interview season is coming up, a lot of stores don’t have any gray suits available online as of this writing (e.g., Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, Reiss, Talbots), so perhaps check again in a few weeks if you’re on a personal hunt and none of the below fit the bill. Readers, how do you like to wear gray suits the best — with pastels? With jewel tones? Worn as separates?

Calvin Klein Stretch Blend Suit Separates CollectionI’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — the EDV line at Macy’s is a great place to start your hunt if you’re on a budget. This Clavin Klein blazer has a hint of stretch, as well as a matching belted sheath dress, pants, and pencil skirt, all priced between $54 and $90. Calvin Klein Stretch Blend Suit Separates Collection
Platinum One Button Blazer I’ve always liked the fit of Anne Klein for my curves, and this gray heather suit looks flattering and modern. There’s a matching skirt and pants, all priced between $79-$129. (Note that Macy’s does have a VERY similar suit in their EDV line in a tropical wool-blend with a matching sheath, pants, and skirt, all priced between $62-$102.) The pictured blazer is $129 at Platinum One Button Blazer

UPDATE for 2015: Try the Anne Klein shop on Amazon, or sister site Jones New York for similar styles.

Seasonless Wool Suit JacketReaders always sing the praises of Pendleton’s seasonless wool suiting.  I like that this suit is available in regular and petite sizes 2-18; and there are two matching skirts (Lana and Madison), matching trousers, and a one-button blazer as well. The pictured blazer is $228 (some colors as low as $113). Seasonless Wool Suit Jacket
1035 jacket in Super 120sAs mentioned, a lot of the usual suspects are missing from this Hunt because they’re not offering gray suits online right now — even Theory gray suiting is in short supply. J.Crew has this slightly lighter gray available right now, “heather flannel,” in their seasonless super 120s fabric — it’s available in sizes 00-16, priced at $230. 1035 jacket in Super 120s
 MAURO GRIFONI Women's suitYoox has a lot of great suits right now, for fairly reasonable prices (although they are sold as a set, so you can’t get different sizes on jacket/bottoms). I like this gray Mauro Grifoni suit in “lead;” note that it also comes in military green and black. It’s $559 at Yoox. MAURO GRIFONI Women’s suit

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  1. Is it just me, or does the J Crew suit look really strange in the crotch area? Or just poorly fit to the model?

    • Cornellian :

      it looks like if I lose weight and keep wearing the same fitted pants… if before they sat at my 27 inch natural waist, and now my natural waist was 26, they would drop down an inch to where my waist widened to 26 and give me baggy crotch syndrome.

      Hopefully it’s not a problem for women wearing the correct size of the pants.

      • Or maybe it’s just really unfortunate photoshopping? The behind photos look like the pants fit the model fine.

    • Small Town Atty :

      I think it’s just a bad picture. I have this suit, and I wear it ALL THE TIME. J Crew styles their suits terribly.

  2. Blonde Lawyer :

    In light of the UAE case, I’m curious if anyone that works for an international company or does international business that involves the UAE or any country with similar laws, has heard any rumblings about ceasing business with that (or similar) countries. Many women would (rightfully) be reluctant to travel there. Businesses wouldn’t want the risk of sending female employees there. What I’m afraid will happen, however, is the businesses will keep on as normal and send male employees instead. Then the male employees will be moving up in the business and the female employees will be lagging behind. It would be so nice if instead the businesses would say “until our female employees have rights in your country, we won’t be sending anyone there.” Better still would be for them to say “until ALL females have rights in your country, we won’t be sending anyone there.”

    • My friend lived and worked in the UAE and also for a giant global consulting firm, based elsewhere but on a LT case in the UAE. The sad fact is that most “businessmen” in the UAE are just that–businessmen. The sexism was rampant before you even got toward any sort of justice issues. One small example: my friend was routinely told that she could not present in meetings lest it make the clients upset that a woman be “in charge” (even though she was going to be the most senior person from her firm attending); they’d have a junior male consultant present to the clients instead. She was often assumed to be a secretary. She built and ran super-complicated models, and clients were incredulous that _she_ could have done so, etc., etc.

      My friend deal with SO MUCH stuff that was crazy over there…and it was exactly why she was glad to leave when her husband’s company moved them back to the US.

    • My company has done work with clients in UAE which required travel and 1-2 month onsite stay by the US team (we are not a law firm).
      In fact I was asked to go for such a trip 2 years ago. But I tactfully got out of it by sending someone junior saying I was managing multiple projects and would prefer to oversee from here as I have higher priority projects in US. Luckily for us onsite work was more hands-on client support only and not high-flying bringing in clients/revenue part so it did not impact me negatively. But I don’t think any company would actually turn down UAE or even worse Arab countries just because of how they treat females there. This is just not practical, these clients pay big money, no one is turning them down. And I agree this would limit career prospect for US female employees if their male counterparts take all the traveling assignments. I guess women traveling there just need to be super safe, stay in international hotels, not venture out to local areas to keep safe and come back home. Even then the risk always exists. UAE and other countries like that are definitely not the place to go on touristic adventure learning about foreign culture as a lone woman, keep “eat/pray/love” discovering for more friendly nations. No political correctness, we just need to be safe and practical in places where women are still treated as second class citizens.

      • H3ll, I’m Muslim and I won’t stay in those countries for an extended period of time. There is no life worth living in some places in the Middle East for a non-Arab male.

    • SoCalAtty :

      This is exactly what is happening. We have several offices in the UAE, and we are issuing very serious travel warnings advising against our female employees visiting those offices. I wish we would just not do business there, but there is just so much revenue coming in from those sectors, it isn’t going to happen.

    • I work for an oil company and the plan was that within the next two years I would be moved to one of our Middle Eastern locations. My first choice is actually UAE since it’s comparatively better for a single woman than some of the other options. After I read about this case I asked my boss if our company had any protections in place for all the women (especially single women) we send over there — do we have contacts in country that we could call if we were raped? Do we have our own security and/or medical teams to protect us? Has the company looked at this as a risk factor? Sadly I got the answer I expected, which is that we don’t do anything and no one even knows who to contact in case something terrible like this happened.

      As for me, two years is a long time and who knows what the world (or my company) will look like then, so I’m not going to spend the next two years worrying about this. But if things are the same or worse by then, I might be rethinking my decision to go…

      • Anonymous :

        I imagine that your company already has a contract with a company that arranges emergency medical evacuations for international travelers. You could suggest that your HR department (or whoever is in charge of ex pat arrangements) start with that company to see what resources they can provide.

  3. There is a suit I am coveting in the NAS, but I’m almost 9 months pregnant now. Please tell me that buying a $600 suit at 9 months pregnant is extremely stupid regardless of the sale. There’s no good way to assess fit. The jacket, maybe; but the pants? No way. Save me from myself.

    • Don’t do it! I’m 7 months post-partum and my body is still in flux.

    • goldribbons :

      I hear Nordstrom has a fantastic return policy… so maybe if you keep the receipt in a safe place you can return it if it doesn’t fit in 6 months?

    • You never know, and Nordstrom’s has a great return policy so why not? I’m kicking myself for returning the gorgeous Theory skirt suit I found on deep discount when I was 8 weeks pregnant. I lost all the weight (and then some) by nursing a ravenous baby and it would have fit beautifully. Sadly I haven’t found something nearly as nice (or as cheap!) since.

    • I’ll go ahead and enable this potentially poor decision. I’d be tempted to try it just because it is Nordstrom and you won’t be pregnant for much longer. If, once your body has settled, you don’t love the suit, you can still return it. However, this sale won’t be going post-baby body.

    • I wouldn’t do it – even if your weight is the same as your pre-preg weight, there’s a good chance your body shape will change. To sit on a suit for 7+ months on the hope it will fit seems like an abuse of the generous return policy, IMHO.

      • It’s really not abusing the policy. Abusing the policy is buying something to wear once and return, or to try on and then buy cheaper elsewhere – and even that second one is only a maybe.

        Nordstrom wouldn’t have the generous return policy if it didn’t benefit them.

      • Yeah, I am back to the same weight but almost none of my pre-baby pants still fit. My hips have permanently changed. I tried having one pair tailored, let out in the hip area. They technically fit now, but they just aren’t the same. There are going to be lots of awesome clothes for you to buy after you have the baby (and some of the NAS stuff will go on sale at the end of the season, about 6 months from now). I would wait.

        • I would like to second this comment. I too am back to my orig numerical size (yay me after tons of effort) but had to toss most of my pre-preg suits and pants. they just fit differently. i wear totally different lines/brands now than i did pre-babies. tight in the wrong places, etc.

    • Anne Shirley :

      By the time you settle into your post pregnancy body, there will be a new suit to love.

      • This is the real risk. When I was pregnant, though, I had a huge desire to buy “normal” clothing – possibly a fantasy of being a normal size, when it does not seem like one will ever be a normal size again. At the time not working, I bought plenty of items from Lands’ End and Eddie Bauer, which also had/have unlimited return policies, and I felt no guilt. Who knows? The suit may still be a keeper.

    • Don’t do it! I did what you’re about to do and really regretted it. It’s just setting yourself up to be sad a few months from now if it doesn’t fit right because your midsection is different. This coming from one of those that lost all the weight and went back to her pre-birth size and weight. Things are just different; I swear my waist is in a different place now. Save up and go for a deserved shopping spree after you’re back in shape. New-new clothes are more fun than old-new clothes, anyway!

    • Anonymous :

      I love the enabling! This is my third child, so I may be deluding myself that I kind of already know where my body is going after baby. But maybe I don’t lose the weight this time. Maybe I lose more. I have promised myself a new suit post-maternity leave–no price limit, just one that makes me feel fab. I think I should hold off, but it’s like $300-400 savings!

  4. Gail the Goldfish :

    I just completed my search for a grey tropical wool suit… I ended up going with the J.Crew heather flannel super 120s, with a petite jacket because I thought the regular size was too long. I tried the Macy’s Ann Klein tropical wool one that Kat links and rejected it for some reason that I now can’t recall–I think the fit was just a little off? It was surprisingly hard to find the right color grey in a tropical wool at a not-out of my budget price point, not helped by the fact Ann Taylor has decided to stop making tropical wool suits.

  5. How common is it for women to have a different shoe size for each foot? Do stores let you buy two different shoes?… Just wondering as I just received two shoes, one 38 and one 39…

    • Was it from Nordstroms? I think they do it – but are probably one of the few that does.

      And it does happen – I know that I have one foot that is bigger than the other, but not enough to have to size up. I just have to be sure to try on both shoes to be sure they both fit.

    • Cornellian :

      I don’t think shoes let you mix pairs, but I think lots of women do have slightly different sized feet. I think I have one foot that’s maybe 1/4 american size larger. I have had that shoe stretched more than its partner in a few nice pairs of shoes I own.

    • My husband used to manage a shoe store, and he said that this was common problem (not particular to men or women). It was a less upscale store (where you just grab the shoes in your size and try them on yourself, not where an associate gets them for you), and he said they had to be very careful to always check and make sure that the sizes matched at checkout, because people would try to switch out one shoe of the pair a lot. You probably somehow got a box where someone did that, and it wasn’t caught. (I don’t know of any stores that let you just purchase that way, but it sounds like a common enough problem that there probably are a few.)

    • anon prof :

      My feet are 1/2 size different. God bless Nordstrom–they let me buy a pair of boots in the different sizes. I first bought a pair online, and then called in to request the second pair in the bigger size after realizing one side was perfect and the other was too tight. They said to just mail back the mixed sizes that didn’t fit after I got the second pair and to keep the mixed sizes that worked, no problem. The boots were about $200.
      I wonder if they allow this at every price point and how often–anyone done it more than once? I’m coveting some Ferragamo shoes from there but don’t know if they’ll allow it at that price point.

  6. Diana Barry :

    Ladies, has anyone seen the following BOSS Black silver/grey suit in the NAS? I ordered it and love it, but am worried that it is too silvery IRL to look good. Am I overthinking?

    • I have not seen it in real life, but the pictures are reminding me of Billy Crystal as consigliere in Analyze This. I’d pass.

    • I haven’t seen it in person but it definitely looks too shiny on my screen.

  7. SoCalAtty :

    Best question from a Wells Fargo underwriter so far:
    “Why has your credit score gone down 30 points in the last 4 months?”

    “Becuse you do a hard pull every 30 days, and it hits me 10 points every time!!”

    Stop pulling my credit every 5 seconds, and maybe the score will stop changing.

    • Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – You can not both observe and measure the phenomenon at the same time.

      Also applies to altering clothing.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      That’s so frustrating! It’s like they don’t even know how the system works.

    • SoCalAtty :

      Every day is a new day at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage!! It’s like we’ve never done a mortgage before!!

      Not only do they have 2 years of taxes and W-2s, they have all of my checking / savings account statements since October 2012, when we started this process. Last week they asked for 4 months worth of credit card statments for every. single. credit line I have.

      After fronting almost $10k to an engineer, architect, and HUD consultant to get this loan in process (it is a renovation loan), now they want to know why my cash reserves are low…

      Really guys? (I’ve been paying down debt instead of keeping a big cash reserve, and they can see that on my credit report). Geez.

      My other favorite from the underwriter: “Please provide a letter of explanation explaining the source of all cash deposits on your checking account statement.” So every penny put in one checking from my husband’s checking in cash (if he was splitting a bill with me, or whatever) and every time I was paid back for concert tickets by friends had to be explained. One big one was cash from 6 concert tickets I had purchased, and I put in around $300 in cash. They made me get copies of the concert tickets to prove face value!

      It is getting a little crazy. This is no stated income loan – based on my + husband’s W-2 payroll!

      • We recently went through something similar with a big name bank. I got annoyed and figured that if they wanted our business they wouldn’t make it so difficult so we ended up using a credit union and got it done in less than two weeks. I highly recommend shopping around.

        • SoCalAtty :

          I’m shopping around, but the number of banks that do construction / renovation loans is pretty slim. The good news is that our house appraised WAY higher than we antitipated, so we may be able to go the equity line route to do the improvments if this doesn’t go through.

          Of course, my rate lock is under 4% from last October, so no chance I’m getting that rate now if I had to start over :(

      • In house lobbyist :

        We got a new mortgage last year and I don’t know if I will ever do it again. My husband spent hours everyday answering thr same questions. My favorite was when we had to send a signed statement saying we didn’t have childcare expenses because my husband stayed home. They said this was such a large part of people’s budgets, they couldn’t believe it wasn’t in our bank statements.

  8. Ugh I have the worst case of static cling today! (between dress and nylons) I’m in the office so too late for dryer sheets, anyone know of anything else that could work?

    • Run out to the drugstore and get static cling? I have a can in my bottom desk drawer just for these very occasions.

    • Take a very small dollop of hand moisturizer (Lubriderm, Curel, anything), rub it between your palms and then rub your palms on your stockings. Repeat if it doesn’t entirely solve the problem. Learned this from my mom.

  9. For some reason, I really hate my charcoal gray suit. It just always feels so boring and I find it so hard to find good color tops to wear with it. White works but is often dull. Black, same. My usual go to in the winter is a gray cashmere sweater with gray tights but that feels boring after a while, too. I have tried pastels (pale pink and pale beige) and they do work, but I am not a pastel person at all so I always feel very stepford-y when I wear them. I tried wearing the suit as separates but then I feel like a security guard if I do gray skirt & navy blazer or vice versa. I guess I don’t really have a point, other than to say I want a new navy suit.

    • goldribbons :

      I love wearing a grey suit with rich colors – dark red, emerald green, etc.

    • I find this with a suit I have when the gray isn’t quite the right color for my skin tone. I’ve compensated by wearing a brightly colored/patterned blouse under it which helps. I find pattern is better because it doesn’t come off quite so harsh. Then if I’m feeling bold, I’ll add a pair of colored pumps that are a bit more ‘fun.’

      • Something like this…

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I default to jewel tones with my charcoal suit. I don’t really wear pastels either. I like charcoal with black, white, and light gray as well. I tend to wear charcoal more than black these days.

    • Diana Barry :

      I have 3 grey suits because the black ones often look too harsh. I basically wear them with everything. I don’t wear pastels (warm coloring) except for pink, so I wear them with a lot of bright colors, prints, you name it, and then also a contrasting colored shoe like L mentions above.

    • I used to have a charcoal pinstripe suit, and I always wore it with patterned button-front shirts to combat the boringness. For very conservative occasions, a black and white pattern, and otherwise floral or some other design. (It helps that I own a million such shirts.) You can also potentially do non-neutral or patterned shoes if the occasion allows…

      • Fooey, just realized L said exactly this already! Aren’t I just so helpful today.

        • Actually, very helpful because I just bought a black & white silk blouse and I hadn’t thought to try it with my hated suit. It’s a black half moon pattern on an off white top so it seems like a no brainer for my black workclothes, but I will try it with the gray tonight. Thanks!

          And thanks to everyone else, too! I think L is right about the shade not being quite right for my coloring. I love lighter shades of gray but darker shades just wash me out I suspect. I will try some other bright colors as suggested. I last wore it with a bright coral top and it was okay but not 100%. I just wish it wasn’t such hard work because the whole thing about suits is that it shouldn’t require too much thought in the morning. I think I will try to upgrade to a more suitable shade soon.

          • I was googling charcoal suits and came across this thread, and your questions… even though it’s well over a year since all of this discussion, I wanted to share this link, which I have gone back to several times over the years as a reminder (I tend to remember the teal and eggplant as universally flattering, not so much the red).

    • Midwest Transplant :

      Agreed. I go with bright blues, fusha and dark purple to liven it up.

    • On the other hand, grey suit + white top = great backdrop for dramatic jewelry. I have some vintage beads (big multi-strand tribal affairs) which go with nothing else.

  10. Moonstone :

    I have a never-worn gray skirt suit that I would like to pass along to some other short woman. It’s wasn’t expensive (AGB from Macy’s) but I would feel better if I knew it was going to a fellow ‘rette. Take a look at the links (I will put them below) and post an e-mail address so I can contact you and you can let me know where to mail it. I think both pieces are 6 Petite (jacket may be size 4 Petite — I will check tonight).

  11. Beach picture help :

    We will be having extended-family pictures at the beach this year. Usually this has just been the grandchildren (always adorable, and easy to put the girls into something with white eyelet and the boys in polo shirts). Now, it includes my husband’s family and even in-laws (me!).

    I wasn’t thinking of this and now the stores are getting in fall clothes. What is an adult woman to wear for family beach photos? My family doesn’t do this and I only have a mind for what looks good on children.

    I am thinking pastels, no obvious patterns (do not know what others are wearing and there will be one big group shot in addition to individual family shots; my husband will wear a solid polo).

    Help (and links) please! Mommy only has a short window for ordering and/or visiting mall stores.

    • What is your size? If you can get a casual white dress (and feel like it looks flattering with your skin tone), I think it would be wonderful. And there are lots of beautiful eyelet sheaths right now on sale.

      This style at Zappos had a great review and looks like it would be flattering.

      • Really cute, too:

    • Clearly avoiding work like the plague…

      What about a ‘flare’ A line type dress? Example:

      Or a wrap dress:

    • In moderation, but also if you have size/budget restrictions that is helpful for vicarious shopping

      • Beach picture help :

        Thanks! I’m a Halogen / Talbots 6 (and have a love for bright / dark colors and patterns), but I can wear white. Budget? Say $250 (cost of new Lilly dress, but can probably find on sale @ Belk’s). Worth it if it looks good :)

    • it seems like all the beach photos I see everyone is wearing a white top and khaki pants/shorts (or white dresses for the women)

    • Pastels would be fine. I think the whole white/khaki picture trend washes out those with light complexions and I like to see some color in photos regardless. Pastels seem to flatter a wider variety of folks.

    • Why not something white eyelet and beachy for yourself? This dress from Anthro could be cute & is on sale:

      • I also like this one if you want something a bit different and brighter:

    • lawyer mom of 4 :

      Just a heads up that the last time this happened in my family–actually my in-laws’ family–it turned out that they had told my husband about that photos and about the plan that everyone would wear denim and white. But he had not remembered to tell me. Of course everyone else had denim and white, including all the kids. But not me. I had to do emergency shopping. So perhaps worth at least a gentle confirmation that there is no overall plan

    • Lots of families do white and khaki for beach photos. Mine also recentlydid navy and white (mom and I wore navy sheath dresses and the boys wore navy shorts with white polos or collared shirts). It turned out really cute how the navy stood out vs the sand and water. MAybe with a larger group you could introduce a third color, like pink or yellow.

    • My skin tone (very pale) means that wearing a white dress for beach pictures would probably leave people wondering who that ghostly woman in the background is… so I would look for a casual navy dress – goes well even if the color scheme is mostly white / khaki (which seems to be the standard for beach pics).

  12. I like the Macy’s CK EDV suiting. I have long arms and can wear the jacket in my regular size, rather than having to size up and get it tailored. The dress, unfortunately, has darts that looked very weird on me. Definitely hard to beat the price.

    I recently got a charcoal pantsuit from BR outlet that I am happy with. I’ve realized that I think black pantsuits look too harsh on me, so I like how the charcoal is a little softer.

    • Baconpancakes :

      Mind if I ask your general body type? I was planning on buying a grey suit set this fall, and I’d love to spend $250 less than I’d begrudgingly planned.

      • I am generally a 6 on top, 6-8 on the bottom. 34B, long torso and arms 5’8”. Not terribly curvy, but definitely conscious when things are clingy. I wear a 6 in the jacket (I have the two button, I think they also have a 1 button) and an 8 in the pencil skirt.

  13. Charcoal blazer and white/ivory simple sheath dress with black belt. The other way around is fine too. Finished with mid-heeled pointed pumps and light jewelry such as 7-8mm pearl necklace or Van Cleef & Arpels- style necklace but shorter to prevent dangling.

  14. TO Lawyer :

    I was talking to a sales associate at the Bay recently and they said that Theory is discontinuing their current line of suits (including a really gorgeous charcoal) and are issuing a new line in the fall so that is likely why Theory is suit-less at this point.

    If you want a grey charcoal suit, maybe shop for it in a couple months when there are more fall lines out?

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