Sometimes, the biggest fashion faux pas can also be the hardest for non-fashion experts to spot. To the amateur eye, a sport coat, blazer, and suit jacket might all look like the same thing. But show up to a job interview or a date wearing the wrong one, and you might have killed your chances of a second meeting.
Don’t worry: We’re here to help. Learning the difference between these three essential men’s fashion items is relatively easy, and well worth it. Here’s how to tell your jacket styles apart—and how to know when it’s okay to interchange them.
What’s a Sport Coat?
Sport coats are named for being the traditional attire of Victorian outdoor activities, namely hunting. Today, they’re the most casual of the three items on this list, since they were originally designed for rugged outdoor use.
Historically, sport coats were made of tweed, but today’s sport coats come in a wider array of materials. However, they are still designed to be more durable than blazers and suit jackets, and often feature casual patterns. They typically have a looser fit, so they’re ideal for layering over sweaters. Sport coats might also feature rugged details like elbow patches or flapped pockets.
What’s a Blazer?
Many people use the terms “sport coat” and “blazer” more or less interchangeably, which is pretty safe, as the differences between these two are small. However, they do still have differences that are worth learning about, if you want to dress like you know what you’re doing.
Sport coats originated as hunting attire, but blazers originated as boating attire. The traditional blazer was blue, with a pocket and gold or silver buttons. Today’s blazers come in many different colors and styles, although they still tend to be dressier than sport coats. Cotton and wool are two of the most common blazer materials.
What’s a Suit Jacket?
Finally, suit jackets are the fanciest of these three styles.
While fashion experts can easily tell a suit jacket apart from a blazer or sport coat, the easiest way for the rest of us to tell them apart is this: If it comes with matching pants, it’s a suit jacket. If it doesn’t, it’s either a blazer or a sport coat.
(Suit jackets can also be sold as “suit separates,” where the pants aren’t included, but you’re still meant to buy the matching pants to complete the set.)
Suit jackets are often made of wool, although summer styles might be made of linen or cotton. You can expect suit jackets to come in fancier fabrics and more conservative colors than most blazers and sport coats.
How to Wear Each Jacket Correctly
Even if these three jacket styles look the same to you at a glance, at any function you attend, you’re almost certain to run into someone who can tell them apart. Don’t be caught off guard by wearing the wrong one. Just follow these simple guidelines to wear each jacket at the right time.
Here’s the easy part: sport coats and blazers can be considered mostly interchangeable, although blazers are a little more formal. Both styles are designed to be worn with pants that don’t match—they aren’t part of a suit.
Of course, you’ll still want to make sure the color and fabric of your pants goes well with your blazer or sport coat, but you don’t need to seek out pants in the exact same color and material.
While sport coats work with more casual looks, blazers can easily be dressed down or up. For example, chinos with a blazer is an appropriate look for a laidback wedding, where a sport coat would be too casual.
However, the rules for suit jackets are more strict. You should absolutely never wear a suit jacket with any pants other than the suit pants you bought it with. Even if you can’t tell your suit jacket apart from your blazer, someone else can, and you’ll run the risk of appearing clueless. Lastly, it’s also important to get your suit jacket tailored, since these jackets are meant to fit closer to the body.
Many times, the best style advice is just to wear what you like. But for those times when you need to make a good impression—such as at a networking event or a classy party—keep this guide handy. Add a few of these jacket styles to your closet and prepare to make a winning impression at any event.