Sport Coat vs. Blazer vs. Suit Jacket

What’s the difference between
men’s formal coats and jackets?

Written by RJ Firchau

To truly dress well, a man
must pay attention to the details. You have an understanding of the foundation
behind layering clothes, you take interest in the variety of available suits
out there and know which seasons demand certain fabrics, you endeavor to own
(if you don’t already) a bespoke suit and know the fundamental difference
between bespoke and made-to-measure. However, some aspects of men’s fashion are
more obscure than others. Tailored, well-fitting jackets are one of those
Now, as far as the topic of
jackets goes, it seems that both we and retailers alike fall into using the
terms “sports jacket,” “blazer,” and “suit jacket” interchangeably more often
than not. Reasonably so, these jackets are very similar in many ways. However,
there are some noteworthy distinguishing details that should be learned. Why
you might ask? For starters, knowing the difference between these three classic
menswear staples will save you from embarrassing wardrobe mishaps. You’ll know
not to show up to a formal event in a sports jacket, and you’ll know not to try
to layer a thick sweater under a fitted suit jacket, for example. Equally as
important in understanding the differences between these pieces, you will also
come to learn a little bit about each piece’s history and place in menswear,
which, come on, is just downright cool. Read on to learn about each jacket’s
origins, key distinguishing characteristics, function, and styling potential.

The Sports Jacket

Starting with the least formal
of the three, a sports jacket (a.k.a. “sportcoat”) is typically a less
structured, more casual piece. Decades ago, a sports jacket served a function
precisely as its nomenclature implies–that is, it was what men wore
specifically when they were participating in sporting activities such as
hunting. Sports jackets were also what a man would wear in the mornings or when
the season or occasion did not warrant something as formal as a suit. Back in
the day, sports jackets were considered a luxury item, as many men could only
afford a traditional suit without any alternative options. Over time, as
clothing became more abundant and affordable, the sports jacket lost its association
with outdoor activities and grew instead to be a staple of casual yet
sophisticated style.
Distinguishing Characteristics

  • Offered in a wide variety of
    colors and patterns
  • Are less structured and
    fitted, providing the ability to layer as well as a wider range of movement
  • Sometimes (though not always
    anymore) feature elbow patches, slits, ticket pockets, and/or pleats
Key Fabrics

  • Flannel
  • Tweed
  • Houndstooth
  • Herringbone
Styling Tips

Being the least formal of the
three jacket varieties, the sports jacket should be your go-to when you want to
elevate a pair of denim pants. Conversely, virtually any pair of trousers that
isn’t identical in color or texture to your sports jacket will pair well. Since
a sports jacket is typically your most loose-fitting option, these pieces do
well when layered over sweaters, turtlenecks, and other thick garments (but
they will also look sharp with any standard tee or button-up).
The Blazer

Dressier than sports jackets
but not as formal as a suit, the blazer serves as a nice middle ground piece
that elevates outfits nicely without going overboard. The blazer that we
recognize today has origins in the early 1800’s, during which the captain of
the warship HMS Blazer commissioned short, double-breasted navy jackets with
brass buttons for his crew in an attempt to appear presentable for Queen
Victoria, who visited the ship in 1837. To his surprise, the queen liked them
so much that their popularity surged and they became a standard uniform piece
shortly thereafter. The blazer grew in popularity throughout Europe for both
work and leisure purposes, and traveled over to the US’s fashion scene in the
early 20th century.
Distinguishing Characteristics

  • Highly versatile–dress one up
    or down with ease
  • Traditionally navy blue, but
    today come in a wide variety of colors (it should be noted, though, that if you
    only own one blazer, make it a navy one)
  • Come in 2-button
    single-breasted, 3-button single-breasted, and 6-button double-breasted
  • Offer a bit more shoulder
    structure and are more tailored than a sports jacket
  • Feature buttons that are
    traditionally gold, silver, or mother of pearl (though both casual and formal
    button varieties can be found today)
Key Fabrics

  • Worsted wool
  • Serge
  • Cashmere
  • Flannel
  • Fresco
Styling Tips

To dress a blazer down, feel
free to pair yours with denim, colorful chinos, or khakis. For a more formal
take, flannel trousers and tailored slacks look superb with blazers as well.
Though a blazer will look nice with anything from a t-shirt to a thin
turtleneck, blazers look most classic with a crisp button-up shirt and a tie
(or bow tie). As far as shoes go, the versatility of blazers lend themselves to
a wide variety of shoe pairings. Based on the formality of the pants you are
wearing, choose shoes accordingly. Flannel trousers will demand something like
a double monk strap or oxford. Chinos and jeans, on the other hand, will pair
nicely with loafers or any other dressy casual shoe.
The Suit Jacket


Last but not least, the
dressiest of the three jacket types is the suit jacket. This piece has been
around the longest and is without a doubt the most traditional and popular. The
single most distinguishing factor of a suit jacket is that it has a matching
pair of trousers that was made from the exact same swatch of fabric. The suits
that we know and associate with business wear today have origins in the 18th
and early 19th centuries, during which morning suits (suits with ‘tailcoats’
that feature a split in the back to accommodate equestrian activities, which
were strictly done in the morning–thus the name) were introduced to European
fashion. Tuxedos followed shortly thereafter, being used exclusively by
upper-classmen for formal evening affairs in the 1800s. The suit we know and
wear today first appeared in the wardrobes of elite in the mid to late 19th
century, and while its exact origins are hazy, its design is thanks in part to
the work of Savile Row tailors, who increasingly introduced elements of
military and eveningwear into daywear throughout the 19th and early 20th
century. Today, the suit jacket and matching trousers are both a business- and
evening wear staple in menswear, second to nothing other than the
aforementioned tailcoat and the tuxedo in terms of formality.
Distinguishing Characteristics

  • Should come with a matching
    pair of trousers and/or a vest that is made of the same weave and fabric
  • Are typically the most minimal
    of the three jacket styles in terms of color and embellishments. Suits will
    most often only come in neutral colors and simple patterns (pinstripe,
    houndstooth, windowpane, solid, etc.) unless they are bespoke
  • Feature notch and peak lapels,
    which distinguish them from many tuxedo jackets, which feature shawl lapels
  • Are the most fitted of the
    three pieces, and are therefore not technically meant to be layered
Key Fabrics

  • Cashmere
  • Worsted wool
  • Linen
  • Seersucker
  • Cotton
  • Silk
Styling Tips

Suit jackets are technically
supposed to be worn exclusively with their matching trousers and vests. You may
match your suit jacket with nice denim or slacks in certain occasions, but
never for formal events. In terms of shirts, since suit jackets aren’t meant to
be layered, it is best to stick with dress shirts and thin sweater vests at
most. Formal shoes, naturally, are the best bet for pairing with a suit jacket.
You can’t go wrong with dark oxfords, brogues, or dress boots.
We hope that this helps to
clear things up for you a little. Though these pieces can be worn
interchangeably in most occasions, it is important to note the key differences.
For example, if you plan to wear a turtleneck or multiple layers underneath,
your best bet would be a sports jacket. If you’ve been invited to a company
networking event, you might want to reach for your full 2- or 3-piece suit
(unless you work for a less formal organization or the networking event is a
happy hour, in which case, opt for the blazer and contrasting trousers
instead). But no matter how you slice it, all three pieces are great additions
to any man’s wardrobe, and each jacket contributes significantly in the
spectrum of casual to formal attire.
RJ Firchau

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.