How Outerwear & Layers Should Fit – The Principles of Fit

Your outerwear keeps you warm, and comfortable, if it fits correctly.

Outerwear and layering garments vary in fit more than any other type of clothing. The acceptable range for these garments may be short to long, and tight to loose. Many aspects of a coat will vary greatly from coat to coat, even for the same type of coat. Some coats will have a collar that is high enough that it hides your shirt collar, others will not. Some coats should have waist suppression, others should not. Before going coat shopping, decide the type of fit and placement that works for your body and style.


The fit of outerwear is of great importance because, as the outermost garment, it emphasizes the shape of your body and in many way defines your outfit. A coat that is too large in the shoulders with zero waist suppression will make you appear boxier and heavier than you are. A coat should in many ways silhouette the overall shape of your body. This can also be applied to unnecessarily loose sweaters and cardigans if they are being used as outerwear.

However, even if a sweater or jacket is used to layer under a coat, its fit is crucial so as to make a seamless transition from your shirt and pants to your coat. If you are wearing a well-fitting coat, with well-fitting pants and a well-fitting shirt, then a boxy sweater may look very out of place.



There should not be a significant gap between your coat and your suit or shirt collar. The lapels or top of a coat should lay close to the neck. If a collar can be turned up and fastened about the neck, such as in the case of peacoats, make sure that it is comfortable when fastened.

A man wearing a pea coat


The body should be slim but not tight. It should have room for whatever you plan to wear underneath, but not much more room than that. Coats and jackets vary greatly in length; cropped jackets (such as trucker jackets or double-rider jackets) end anywhere from above the belt to just below the belt, regular jackets and short coats (“mid length”) end just below the buttocks, three-quarter length coats end at mid-thigh, and full length coats end anywhere below the knee.

A man wearing a trucker jacket


The front of a coat should lay comfortably against the chest with little room in between. When buttoning a coat, first try to button the button just above the navel, and if the coat is still loose try the next button above that. Buttons below the navel are frequently left unfastened, especially if the coat is not cropped.

Cropped jackets can be buttoned completely down. When buttoning a coat, it is important to prevent any restriction in motion. Also be aware of the ‘v’ shape that the coat creates when it is not completely fastened. During cold weather, it is fine to button a coat as much as is necessary. If there is stress on any of the buttons, then the coat is too tight.

A man wearing a trench coat


Shoulders should be measured by the same rule used for a shirt or suit jacket – that being, the seam should lie at the corner of the shoulder. However,  instead of measuring the corner of your naked shoulder, it is best to measure the point of the shoulder on top of whatever else you may wear under a coat or jacket (sweater, suit jacket, etc.). Armholes should be high enough that you can move your arms without the coat moving about your torso.


Sleeves should be long enough that they cover your jacket, sweater, and shirt sleeves. Heavy outerwear can have a sleeve that covers up to an inch of your palm. For lighter coats and jackets the sleeves should not go past the base of your palm.


Just like coats, there are many different types of sweaters. The fit of a sweater can vary greatly from one design to another.


Sweater necks come in a variety of types, and the neck in many ways defines the sweater. You can get crew necks, v-necks, shawl collars, turtlenecks, roll necks—the list goes on.

Crew necks should have ample room for the neck and for any collared shirt on which the crewneck may be layered. V-necks vary from shallow v’s to deep v’s. The neck-hole should be no deeper than the center of your sternum, but it is preferable for deep v’s to be a couple inches above that point.

A person wearing a turtleneck

Turtlenecks should wrap around the neck, but they should not be tight—there should be a couple fingers’ worth of room for ventilation. Shawl necks should follow the same rule as v-necks, that being you do not want an unnecessarily deep collar. Roll necks will fit somewhere between turtlenecks and crew necks, depending on the individual sweater.


Whether the sweater is thin, thick or chunky, you will want it to fit relatively slim (though not tight). It is more acceptable for chunkier sweaters or sweatshirts to be a bit loose, while thinner sweaters can be quite slim, and maybe even tight. However it is important that your sweater is never tighter than your shirt, otherwise you may get uncomfortable bunching. The shortest that you will want most sweaters is somewhere between the bottom of your belt, and the center of your zipper. Chunkier sweaters and cardigans can be on the long side, while you may want thinner sweaters to be closer to the belt.

A person wearing a shawl collar cardigan


In addition to the style of the neck, we also find some great variety down the front of your sweater. Fleece sweaters may come with zippers, while cardigans have buttons, and many sweaters have a plain front. A full-zip sweater has many options. You can zip it all the way up, pull it down to the top, middle, or bottom of your sternum, or not zip at all.

Cardigans vary greatly in their number of buttons, from 3 to 6 and more. When buttoning cardigans, keep in mind whether you want to show an amount similar to a shallow v-neck, a deep-vneck or a suit jacket. Button accordingly. The best way to button a cardigan varies greatly from cardigan to cardigan, so experiment a little to see what you like best. The bottom button of a cardigan should usually be unfastened.


For most sweaters, you want the shoulder sleeve to be at the corner of the shoulder. However, a sweater is the sole article where it is occasionally acceptable for the shoulder-seam to be a bit past the shoulder. Some sweaters, most of which are wool knits, have seams significantly beyond the shoulder, due to their knitting construction. Some knits don’t even have a discernable shoulder seam. In these cases, just make sure that the garment fits the armhole properly.

However, sweater armholes are also atypical, in that they may be much lower and looser than you expect from a shirt or a coat. In the case where the sweater is reasonably slim, make sure that the armholes are comfortably high.


Just as in the body, you do not want your sweater sleeves to be slimmer than your shirt sleeves, otherwise the result is odd uncomfortable bunching and twisting. You do not want unnecessarily loose sleeves, although looser sleeves are more acceptable for thick sweaters and cardigans. Thin sweaters should stop at your palm, although they should be slim enough that they stay put when you pull them back half an inch to show some shirt cuff. Thicker sweaters can be a touch longer—especially thick cardigans, which can be worn like a jacket.

Ending Notes

Coats, jackets and sweaters vary greatly across the board. Use these rules as loose guidelines, and keep slimness, comfort and placement in mind when shopping for these articles. Experiment a little with different sizes to find what fits you best. Feel free to break the mold when it comes to fit, but always use prudence.

Read the rest of our series on fit, where we examine the tenets of proper fit for jackets, pants, shirts, and accessories!

Nicholas Taverna

Nicholas Taverna is a style enthusiast, a writer, and a Financial Planner with Royal Alliance Associates. He works out of his office in Port Jefferson, New York and Brooklyn, New York. In his spare time, he also dabbles in tennis and gourmet cooking.