When Shopping for Men's Suits, Contemplate the Button Dilemma

Things have gotten really complicated. The people who have always said it is harder for women to find clothes than it is for men, have not been men's suit-shopping lately.

For years there was only one style: two buttons. Now there are double-breasted, one-, two-, three-, four-, five-, and even six-button suits. Before, men could just find a fabric and color that looked good on them, find their size, pay, and leave. Things used to be so simple.

But, back to buttons. The number of buttons defines more than just the look of a jacket; it defines the wearer's image. Shopping is easier when you know what to look for before you go inside a store. If you do, you can reduce your ''button panic.''

* The double-breasted suit, like David Letterman wears, has become the new mainstay in men's wardrobes. But, like any suit, the double-breasted look comes in many styles and each looks better on men of different builds.

For those who are shorter, the double-breasted look is popular and usually very flattering. If you are short and fairly muscular or stocky, a boxy six-to-two suit complements your look extremely well. A six-to-two suit has six buttons and two of them attach.

Taller people are also allowed to wear double-breasted suits and in many cases can look quite nice in them. Tom Hanks wore a fabulous six-to-three tuxedo to the Oscars. If you are tall and lanky as he is, a six-to-three suit is great.

A double-breasted suit emphasizes the waist and stomach, not hides it, so if you have a larger waistline, a double-breasted suit will make you look like a sausage.

* The two-button suit is still the classiest and the most versatile suit. Anybody can wear one, and it can look both conservative and hip depending on what you wear under it. The right two button will look good on any build.

If slimming is your aim, pockets are your game. The style of pocket can make a noticeable difference. Take President Clinton. Much has been made in the media about the fact that, despite running and playing golf, the president can't seem to get rid of his extra pounds. It must be all the gourmet food at the White House. Either way, the president needs to camouflage his midsection when he wears a suit. His jackets all have besom slits rather than flap pockets. ''Besom what?'' you ask. That is just the fancy name for those pockets without flaps. The besom slits allow the line of the jacket to be uninterrupted, successfully drawing your physique down and hiding it, according to Tom Julian, a menswear expert.

* The new rage in designer collections is the three-button jacket. At stores from the Gap to Giorgio Armani, the emphasis is on three buttons. ''Almost anyone can look good in a three button when it's unbuttoned,'' Mr. Julian says. The jacket is usually a little longer and creates a nice line for taller men. However, a third button raises the gorge (the point where the lapels meet) so that spare tire around your waist is emphasized.

* If you want to be as fashion conscious as possible, the key is to get as many buttons as can fit on a jacket. Designers have created jackets with four buttons in which the lapel is almost completely gone. The shirt jacket is extremely popular right now. It usually has six buttons or more and is completely unconstructed. No, you don't have to do any sewing. It means the shoulder pads and lining are missing. The shoulder-less need not apply.

And above all, make sure you pick the right fabric. A bad fabric will ruin the greatest suit. Today's look is soft. This means soft wools, silk, and linen. Just because a suit is wool doesn't mean it can only be worn in the winter. A light, loosely woven wool suit without a lining can be worn all year.

Furthermore, unlike women's clothing, a properly chosen men's suit won't go out of style in a season. With the right color or fabric, that jacket may last 10 years before it is time to recycle it. This means that men can afford to spend a little more to get better quality. A style may look similar when comparing a designer label with a store brand, but the cost is in more than the label. An expensive suit will last longer and look better.

For men who dislike shopping, this advice is only a first step. Only you know what you want to look like, so don't be swayed by designer's whims. Be thankful that a greater variety of styles and fabrics exists, and that designers have given men the choice. So take advantage. But, don't wear a suit that doesn't fit your shape just because it's hip.

And remember, it is supposed to be easier for men to buy clothes.

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