This is part II of a series on Classic Tailoring. Click here for Part I.
Last time we discussed the rationale and some resources. Now, you may ask, what makes a suit a suit? Today’s post aims to answer exactly this question.
Semantically, a suit is a combination of two or more pieces made in the same cloth. The term come from the French “suivre”, which means “to follow”. When a suit is made of jacket and pants is called a two piece suit, whereas if a vest is added it’s called a three piece suit. Adding a contrasting vest to a two piece suit means that it’s still a suit.
Before moving on to the multiple elements of a suit, and its myriad moving parts, I just want to stress that tailoring is all about creating an illusion, about showing what you want to show and conceal what you dont want people to see. This can be a transformative and affirming experience for many, not just among the gender non conforming crowd. In this post I’ll talk about the customs and traditional rules but keep in mind that most things are just a matter of personal preference and of what makes you feel confident.
To avoid boring you all to death, I’m splitting the anatomy into two parts, starting from the jacket.
The suit jacket
A question I get asked a lot is “how long should a jacket be?” followed by “where should a sleeve end?”. I’m going to give you two answers, because this largely depends on how closely you want to follow tradition. Generally speaking, a jacket should cover one’s bottom. We can spend all day debating whether this is a consequence of Victorian morals, and why there seems to be a difference in length between genders, but I’d say f**** that and do you. I believe the jacket should end where it feels comfortable to you, and save for exaggerated silhouettes (which…I don’t hate), a good medium length should suffice.
Same goes for sleeve length. Traditionally, the shirt would end at the first bone of your thumb, and the jacket at the wrist bone, so you always show a bit of shirt cuff. On the other hand, after a life of short sleeves (I have very long arms), I now overcompensate by keeping my sleeves slightly longer than that. I still like to show some cuff, but just a sliver.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s start from the obvious here. Jackets are either double to single breasted. The main difference is that double breasted jackets have an overlap in front whereas single breasted jackets don’t.
You may also notice that the bottom fronts differ: that area is called “quarters”, which can be either open or closed. A single breasted jacket will more often than not feature open quarters, their openness depending on preference. Personally, I don’t like my quarters too open, because I don’t like showing that triangle of shirt. Actually, showing too much abdomen is apparently a suit faux pas, and covering one’s belly in formal situations has brought the invention of the cummerbund to be worn in black tie situations (not that I have any of those occasions in my life, but the more you know!). Needless to say, double breasted jackets feature closed quarters, all the time.
Now, let’s move on to buttoning. Besides the style, the buttoning depends on the type of “tailoring tradition”. British suits typically have 2 buttons, whereas American ones have 3 (at least in Ivy style). In Naples, on the other hand, “tre bottoni stirato due” (3 buttons-roll 2) is the traditional option, where the top button rolls with the lapel, the center is buttoned, and the bottom one is left open
On the other hand, double breasted suits present more variety when it comes to buttons. Generally, the most common buttoning styles are 6×2 and 4×2, where the first number refers to the number of buttons, and the second to how many of said buttons are closed. Naval uniforms often feature 6×3, whereas 6×1 is rare.
This is not by any means the only way and number of buttons. With the exception of 4 or more buttons on single breasted jackets (which I personally find reduce the lapel length too much to look good), any combination is fine, be it 3, 2, or 1 button. It’s largely a matter of preference and of what looks good on each body/makes you feel smashing. What I would, on the other hand, pay attention to, it the button stance, meaning the distance between buttons. This influences the look of the jacket a lot, especially with double breasted jackets, so it’s something you want to keep in mind. In my opinion, a good way is to start from the buttoning point, which should sit more or less at the level of your natural waist (± 2 cm), and work you way from there. I usually mark the buttoning point and then play with the position of the other buttons to create the effect I want.
A very contentious topic in tailoring is lapels. Besides the shawl lapels typical of tuxedos and black tie attire, two style of lapels are commonly used: notch lapels (① in the figure below) and peak lapels (② below). Traditionally, double breasted suits call for peak lapels, a combo which conveys both severity and power (if you look at power suits in the 1980s, they often feature it, and were de rigeur in many Italian industrialists closets). Single breasted suits can have either notch or peak lapels, though in my observation the latter is more uncommon.
There is a lot of debate regarding the lapel size (Figure 4A), but truthfully, the size of the lapels has historically changed depending on trends and mode, from wide in the 1930s, to skinny in the 1960s (think Don Draper), to wide again, to skinny but wide in reaction to skinny *shrug emoji*. As with most things, I believe excess is to be avoided (unless we are talking about activism), so I think a good rule of thumb is to draft a lapel which is half the width of your shoulders. This way you can draw attention to the shoulders while not making your chest look bigger. Of course, this is if that’s what you want, but it does create a nice proportion between your chest and your shoulders.
Another lapel-related aspect worth mentioning is the gorge (B in Figure 4), which is defined as the seamline which connects the collar to the lapel. Stylistically, its location has changed with the eras, from super low in the 1930s, to super high now. I’m a sucker for a low gorge, mostly because I love love love the style of the 1930, but once again it’s really up to you.
Another interesting feature of the suit jacket are vents. This includes sleeve vent and back vents. Functioning vents were considered the hallmark of a well made suit, but today even fast fashion retailers sell blazers with this feature. It’s easy to add to any pattern which has a two piece sleeve – I’d argue there is no reason for pattern makers not to have it as a feature in their patterns, but I digress! Buttons on this vent can be positioned in two ways: close to one another (“kissing buttons”) or quite distant. Both are correct ways and their use depends on preference, as so does the number of buttons.
Back vents are a different issue altogether. In the 1930s no vents were popular, whereas now two side vents are the most common configuration – so you can put your hands in the pants pockets. Whatever you choose, one center vent, two, or no vent, it’s a question of style.
The last topic I want to cover in jackets are the shoulder seams. There are different schools depending on location and way of constructing suits, from the completely unstructured spalla camicia (shirt shoulder style) in Naples to very structured padded shoulders, which stand by themselves, from Savile Row, and everything in between. Just in Italy, I can think of at least 3 different styles which are considered “unique and traditional”. I sought to simplify this for the sake of explanation into 4 major categories, from which you can build your knowledge and skillset.
As you can see, spalla camicia is characterized by the presence of “grinze”, what people in the business call shirring (in my opinion more gathers than shirring, but I digress). Most importantly, Naepolitan tailoring doesn’t rely on any form of shoulder padding (hence the name, “shirt shoulder”), and even the jacket front is only lightly canvassed. This makes form a very breezy and comfortable jacket, which follows the shape of the body.
Another famous shoulder seam type, and similar to the style commonly used in Roman tailoring such as Brioni (don’t @ me, I know this is somehow debated), is the “rollino” (roped) shoulder, which is achieved by adding a cap piece, generally in the form of fine cotton batting, and pressing the seam allowances upwards toward the shoulder. Also in this case, padding is minimal if not absent, but the shoulder is dressed in a more dominant way when compared to spalla camicia.
Besides these stylistic differences on how the shoulders are dressed, another crucial point is that, typically, armscyes are cut very high in Italian and British tailoring, which gives a higher range of motion than lower cut ones. This may seem counterintuitive, but after trying various armscye sizes (not to mention the tips given me by tailors) I have to admit I’m a convert!
British tailoring is very different from that above in one particular instance, it’s known for the liberal use of hair canvas and shoulder padding. The idea is not so much to follow the body but to create a uniform, structured look. Needless to say, this type of tailoring has become very widespread in the world, not unlikely also thanks to the cultural – and practical – imperialism of the UK. Looking at the shoulders, there is evident padding and the sleeves are attached at a 90 degree angle to the shoulders.
According to AW London / Savile Row, there are three British shoulder construction standards:
- The shoulders should neither be too narrow nor too wide, but slightly hug the shoulder
- Shoulders should be padded to add structure
- There should be a sharp 90 degree right angle between the shoulder and the sleeve of the suit
British tailors have historically used just enough padding to follow the natural shoulder line, with a precision fit that could be suited for the military. Some tailors will slightly extend the natural shoulder line so that the sleeve will hang straighter.
American tailoring, on the other hand, is famous for a “natural shoulder” style (I’m purposefully ignoring the sack suit here, which I firmly believe should be expunged from the annals of tailoring).
Nowadays American suits or at least sports coats are mostly associated with natural, barely padded shoulders. Differently from Italian and British tailoring, the American tradition prefers low cut armscyes.
There is so much more to write about the suit jacket, but I think for now this should cover the basics.
As always, I wish you all days filled by whatever is that you want to wear, shoulder pads and all.