Technology and Fashion
One of the things that interest me about men’s clothing is not just the clothes themselves, but also the business of fashion - how things are produced, marketed, and even sold. In 2013, there were a couple of interesting stories about how developments in technology might affect the way we interact with and buy clothes.
Online Fitting: Our friend Jeffery Diduch had a post last year about developments that could improve our online shopping experience. The biggest difficulty with online shopping, obviously, is the inability to try things on before you buy, which is why it’s helpful to do business with stores with generous return policies. Companies are coming up with innovative ways to reduce that return-rate, however. True Fit, for example, is creating a database of garment measurements across companies, so that if you’re shopping at, say, Ralph Lauren, you can get a suggestion on which suit you should buy if you already know that the Brooks Brothers suit you have in your closet fits you well. You can already see how this works at places such as Nordstrom. 
The Store is Everywhere: There were a couple of stories last year about potential smart phone developments that would allow people to take pictures of others on the street, and then be able to identify exactly where they can buy the clothes and accessories they saw. This would essentially make the entire world a store where you can instantly purchase almost anything you see. Business of Fashion - a fashion industry trade publication - had some interesting thoughts on what this could mean for traditional retail.
Science Fiction: There were also some more futuristic predictions. Ray Kurzweil predicted that we’ll start to see 3D printing for clothes by 2020 (surprisingly not that far away) and Business of Fashion wrote about how the emerging field of “digital biology” - which enables biologists to not just read, but also write genetic code - could allow companies to design “synthetic life” materials. This could allow us to “grow” things such as self-repairing, self-cleaning garments, or create garments that can reproduce themselves and receive “updates” (new colors, patterns, etc), much like how software updates on our computers. 
Of course, many of the advancements in technology will affect fashion in ways we won’t immediately see or realize. Increasing computing power and the digitization of data has allowed companies such as Zara to react faster to consumer trends, and as companies grow in their ability to marshal "big data," we’ll likely see fast fashion get even faster (a speeding up of trends and a continuing drop in prices). For better or worse, the idea that men’s style moves at a glacial pace might not always hold true. 
(Pictured above: an early prototype of "body scanning" pods used for custom tailoring. This contraption was made in the 1940s)

Technology and Fashion

One of the things that interest me about men’s clothing is not just the clothes themselves, but also the business of fashion - how things are produced, marketed, and even sold. In 2013, there were a couple of interesting stories about how developments in technology might affect the way we interact with and buy clothes.

  • Online Fitting: Our friend Jeffery Diduch had a post last year about developments that could improve our online shopping experience. The biggest difficulty with online shopping, obviously, is the inability to try things on before you buy, which is why it’s helpful to do business with stores with generous return policies. Companies are coming up with innovative ways to reduce that return-rate, however. True Fit, for example, is creating a database of garment measurements across companies, so that if you’re shopping at, say, Ralph Lauren, you can get a suggestion on which suit you should buy if you already know that the Brooks Brothers suit you have in your closet fits you well. You can already see how this works at places such as Nordstrom
  • The Store is Everywhere: There were a couple of stories last year about potential smart phone developments that would allow people to take pictures of others on the street, and then be able to identify exactly where they can buy the clothes and accessories they saw. This would essentially make the entire world a store where you can instantly purchase almost anything you see. Business of Fashion - a fashion industry trade publication - had some interesting thoughts on what this could mean for traditional retail.
  • Science Fiction: There were also some more futuristic predictions. Ray Kurzweil predicted that we’ll start to see 3D printing for clothes by 2020 (surprisingly not that far away) and Business of Fashion wrote about how the emerging field of “digital biology” - which enables biologists to not just read, but also write genetic code - could allow companies to design “synthetic life” materials. This could allow us to “grow” things such as self-repairing, self-cleaning garments, or create garments that can reproduce themselves and receive “updates” (new colors, patterns, etc), much like how software updates on our computers. 

Of course, many of the advancements in technology will affect fashion in ways we won’t immediately see or realize. Increasing computing power and the digitization of data has allowed companies such as Zara to react faster to consumer trends, and as companies grow in their ability to marshal "big data," we’ll likely see fast fashion get even faster (a speeding up of trends and a continuing drop in prices). For better or worse, the idea that men’s style moves at a glacial pace might not always hold true. 

(Pictured above: an early prototype of "body scanning" pods used for custom tailoring. This contraption was made in the 1940s)

Professional tailor and patternmaker Jeffery Diduch created a nice little guide on how to properly measure garments. This is useful if you ever want to purchase made-to-measure clothes online, or if you want to sell clothes on eBay or StyleForum. You can see the full guide here. 
Note, if you’re buying online made-to-measure clothes, sometimes companies will have their own ways they want you to measure, so it’s best to always check with them first. The above is pretty much the convention though, from my experience. 

Professional tailor and patternmaker Jeffery Diduch created a nice little guide on how to properly measure garments. This is useful if you ever want to purchase made-to-measure clothes online, or if you want to sell clothes on eBay or StyleForum. You can see the full guide here

Note, if you’re buying online made-to-measure clothes, sometimes companies will have their own ways they want you to measure, so it’s best to always check with them first. The above is pretty much the convention though, from my experience. 

A Tale of Two Hangers

Over the weekend, I was going through the archives of Tutto Fatto a Mano, a blog about tailoring I really like. It’s maintained by Jeffery Diduch, a professional tailor and pattern maker that’s done work in bespoke and ready-to-wear. Of the people online who talk about garment construction, quality, and tailoring, I find Jeffery’s opinion to be more reliable than most. He has the technical training for it and is impressively fair-minded. Much of his site, in fact, is dedicated to “myth busting” commonly held beliefs about tailored clothing. 

Anyway, in the archive, I found this old post about hangers. As I’ve written before, I’ve always used wooden hangers with wide, flared out shoulders for my suits and sport coats, but remained skeptical of their necessity. That is until last year, when I grabbed drinks with a Savile Row tailor, who confirmed that an improper hanger can indeed ruin the shape of a jacket.

Jeffery has some really nice photos to illustrate this. In the top photo, we see a jacket being hung on a thin, “wishbone” hanger. As he notes, the ends of the hanger are poking through the sleeveheads, where there’s a piece of canvas meant to give support. This is causing the rippling you see at the top of the sleeve, which can be set in over time and require a skilled presser to remove. Worse still, if you pack your jackets too closely together in your closet, these creases can be very difficult to get out, even by an experienced hand. In the second photo, when the same jacket is set on a better hanger, we see the ripples go away and the collar of the jacket sit up a bit more properly. 

My hangers of choice are by The Hanger Project. In full disclosure, they’re our advertiser, but I’ve genuinely become a fan since receiving some of their hangers for review. I have a few new sport coats coming to me by the end of the year and plan on purchasing The Hanger Project’s hangers for all of them. I like that their shoulders are about a half-inch wider than most of their competitors’ and they come in four different sizes. The second part is particularly useful if you have jackets with narrow shoulders like mine. They also come in some beautiful, nicely finished woods. They are, however, a bit expensive. If you can afford them, two other sources to consider are A Suitable Wardrobe and Butler Luxury

If these are all too expensive for your budget, there’s no reason to break the bank. Wooden Hangers USA sells perfectly decent hangers at a very reasonable price. The woods aren’t as nice, and the shoulders aren’t as wide, but the first is a matter of aesthetics and the second could be an advantage if you have a particularly cramped closet. The point here is that good hangers are worth considering, no matter where you get them, and that you ought to take care to not pack your jackets too closely together. Jeffery’s photos nicely demonstrate the reasons why. 

Why It’s Hard to Determine Quality
There are probably no fewer than a hundred books about classic men’s clothing, and the majority of them will have sections on how you can determine the quality of an off-the-rack suit. Some advice is reasonable. The most common one recommends that you conduct the pinch test to see if the jacket is canvassed. However, as we covered before, this will only tell you if something is fully canvassed, not whether something is half canvassed or fully fused. That’s because you can only conduct the pinch test on the bottom half of a jacket (since chest pieces are always floating). On a half-canvassed or fused garment, the bottom section will always be fused, so the pinch test will tell you nothing.
Other advice given, however, is a bit more dubious. I’ve read writers suggest you look for certain benchmarks, such as whether the lining has been attached by hand, or if the underside of the lapel shows that there has been any hand padding. The logic is that no maker would invest in such expenditures if the other parts of the garment weren’t also well made. The problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between handsewn stitches and machine-made ones, especially since there are machines nowadays capable of executing stitches that look like they’ve been handsewn. 
Other “benchmarks” are also problematic. Super 100s wools, as we’ve discussed, don’t reveal anything, and the country where the garment was manufactured is more often about marketing than it is about actual quality.
I recently had a chance to talk to Jeffery Diduch, a professional tailor and patternmaker who has extensive experience in the ready-to-wear manufacturing business. When I asked whether any of these “tricks” worked, he had a very good answer: one should think of garment production more like a recipe. There is some golden standard out there, where everything is made from the best materials and everything is done as traditionally as possible. However, most manufacturers have to meet realistic price points, so designers have to decide on what things to put into a garment and what to leave out.
Imagine it like making a dish. You could hire the best chefs in the world and buy the most expensive ingredients. But if you want to sell the dish, you might want to think about what things can be sacrificed in order to make things affordable. Perhaps you hire skilled, but less renowned, chefs. Maybe you use slightly lower-grade olive oil, but decide that the truffle oil must be kept if the dish is to have its signature flavor. This is very much like what designers do. There are hundreds of steps that go into making a garment, and each designer has to decide which steps are most important to him or her. These kinds of calls are going to be very subjective.
Which is to say that quality isn’t linear and you can’t order these things up in hierarchies. It also means that many of the things that go into a suit are internal, and not things a consumer can readily examine. The “benchmarks” that people have written about are sometimes just ways for a company to differentiate its product – either to attract customers who are looking for something that stands out from the crowd, or for the salesperson, who needs a tell-tale sign so he or she can easily grab something off the rack. 
In the end, I think the only true test for a garment is whether or not it makes you look and feel good. The best way to do this is to sample as much as possible – including the stuff at high-end stores. Even if you can’t afford a $3,500 suit or $2,500 sport coat, putting on a dozen or so can help give you a better sense of what details will be important to you. You should also pay close attention to men who look good in their suits. Notice what aspects of their fit and silhouette appeal to you, and try to look for those things when you’re out shopping. You might not be able to tell the quality of a suit based on all these “benchmarks” people have written about, but if you train your eye, you can tell what looks good on you. And in the end, that’s the only test that matters anyway.    
(Photo via The World Bank)

Why It’s Hard to Determine Quality

There are probably no fewer than a hundred books about classic men’s clothing, and the majority of them will have sections on how you can determine the quality of an off-the-rack suit. Some advice is reasonable. The most common one recommends that you conduct the pinch test to see if the jacket is canvassed. However, as we covered before, this will only tell you if something is fully canvassed, not whether something is half canvassed or fully fused. That’s because you can only conduct the pinch test on the bottom half of a jacket (since chest pieces are always floating). On a half-canvassed or fused garment, the bottom section will always be fused, so the pinch test will tell you nothing.

Other advice given, however, is a bit more dubious. I’ve read writers suggest you look for certain benchmarks, such as whether the lining has been attached by hand, or if the underside of the lapel shows that there has been any hand padding. The logic is that no maker would invest in such expenditures if the other parts of the garment weren’t also well made. The problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between handsewn stitches and machine-made ones, especially since there are machines nowadays capable of executing stitches that look like they’ve been handsewn. 

Other “benchmarks” are also problematic. Super 100s wools, as we’ve discussed, don’t reveal anything, and the country where the garment was manufactured is more often about marketing than it is about actual quality.

I recently had a chance to talk to Jeffery Diduch, a professional tailor and patternmaker who has extensive experience in the ready-to-wear manufacturing business. When I asked whether any of these “tricks” worked, he had a very good answer: one should think of garment production more like a recipe. There is some golden standard out there, where everything is made from the best materials and everything is done as traditionally as possible. However, most manufacturers have to meet realistic price points, so designers have to decide on what things to put into a garment and what to leave out.

Imagine it like making a dish. You could hire the best chefs in the world and buy the most expensive ingredients. But if you want to sell the dish, you might want to think about what things can be sacrificed in order to make things affordable. Perhaps you hire skilled, but less renowned, chefs. Maybe you use slightly lower-grade olive oil, but decide that the truffle oil must be kept if the dish is to have its signature flavor. This is very much like what designers do. There are hundreds of steps that go into making a garment, and each designer has to decide which steps are most important to him or her. These kinds of calls are going to be very subjective.

Which is to say that quality isn’t linear and you can’t order these things up in hierarchies. It also means that many of the things that go into a suit are internal, and not things a consumer can readily examine. The “benchmarks” that people have written about are sometimes just ways for a company to differentiate its product – either to attract customers who are looking for something that stands out from the crowd, or for the salesperson, who needs a tell-tale sign so he or she can easily grab something off the rack. 

In the end, I think the only true test for a garment is whether or not it makes you look and feel good. The best way to do this is to sample as much as possible – including the stuff at high-end stores. Even if you can’t afford a $3,500 suit or $2,500 sport coat, putting on a dozen or so can help give you a better sense of what details will be important to you. You should also pay close attention to men who look good in their suits. Notice what aspects of their fit and silhouette appeal to you, and try to look for those things when you’re out shopping. You might not be able to tell the quality of a suit based on all these “benchmarks” people have written about, but if you train your eye, you can tell what looks good on you. And in the end, that’s the only test that matters anyway.    

(Photo via The World Bank)

Beware of Steamers
A garment steamer, like the one you see above, can be useful to take out wrinkles. If you use one, however, you should be aware: what seems to be a rather simple and innocuous device is actually something that can ruin your clothes.
This has been something of a crusade for tailors such as Jeffery Diduch (though he’s certainly not alone in the opinion). The logic here is straightforward: for high-quality garments, a fully canvassed jacket will have been carefully molded and shaped through a lot of hand pressing. As I’ve written before, a well-tailored jacket has a certain three-dimensional shape. You may notice a convex curve at the chest, concave curve at the waist, and maybe even a well-shaped, cylindrical sleeve. These aren’t formed by just cutting pieces of cloth to a certain pattern, but also by shaping the wool with a heavy iron.
A garment steamer can destroy a lot of this work. To understand how, imagine what would happen if you blew hot steam through a woman’s hair after it’s been carefully done up through curlers and ironing. It would go limp – her hair would relax and the shape would fall out. Wool is the same way. Which is why, given how much handwork goes into a well-tailored jacket, and how much value that work imparts, one should reconsider garment steamers.
Another, arguably larger, danger looms for fused jackets. There, hot steam can delaminate the fusible interlining inside, which then can result in bubbling. If you don’t believe this can happen, know that in order to delaminate jackets, factories do exactly this: blow hot steam through a jacket. The only way to prevent delamination is to apply both hot steam and pressure. Without the second ingredient, you risk a separation of the layers.
So then what to do about wrinkles? Jeffery has often recommended that men learn how to press their own jackets, but this isn’t the same as ironing your shirts. In fact, the key here is to not iron, but press, and to learn how to do that properly, you should read Jeffery’s tutorial.
Jeffery’s write is well done and detailed, but I admit I’ll never try doing such a thing. I just don’t have any confidence I’d do it right. So, if you’re in the same boat, I’d recommend sending it to someone who can do it professionally. Note, most dry cleaners will say they offer this service, but what they’re actually doing is putting your jacket over a form and blowing hot steam through it. Not what you want. Make sure you’re getting a true hand press. If you can’t find someone local for this, I recommend RAVE FabriCARE.
But what if you just need something quickly done? Sending your garments in for a professional press after every wear seems excessive. If you have small areas with wrinkles – say at the back of your trousers’ knees or behind the elbows – I think it’s reasonable to carefully and judiciously apply a very light amount of steam for a short period of time. Note, many tailors I know will still wince at this suggestion, but I think it’s the most reasonable “middle road.” Certainly don’t go crazy with your steamer, and don’t steam areas that have been heavily shaped (such as the chest). Try to avoid areas with canvassing, and even sections with seams (as you can blow them out). Just light, gentle, and careful steaming. This, in my opinion, is certainly better than the often passed-around advice of putting your tailored jackets in the bathroom with you while you take a shower. There, the steam won’t be targeted at all, and you can end up wearing the man’s clothing version of a woman’s limp hairdo.
(Photo from Overstock)

Beware of Steamers

A garment steamer, like the one you see above, can be useful to take out wrinkles. If you use one, however, you should be aware: what seems to be a rather simple and innocuous device is actually something that can ruin your clothes.

This has been something of a crusade for tailors such as Jeffery Diduch (though he’s certainly not alone in the opinion). The logic here is straightforward: for high-quality garments, a fully canvassed jacket will have been carefully molded and shaped through a lot of hand pressing. As I’ve written before, a well-tailored jacket has a certain three-dimensional shape. You may notice a convex curve at the chest, concave curve at the waist, and maybe even a well-shaped, cylindrical sleeve. These aren’t formed by just cutting pieces of cloth to a certain pattern, but also by shaping the wool with a heavy iron.

A garment steamer can destroy a lot of this work. To understand how, imagine what would happen if you blew hot steam through a woman’s hair after it’s been carefully done up through curlers and ironing. It would go limp – her hair would relax and the shape would fall out. Wool is the same way. Which is why, given how much handwork goes into a well-tailored jacket, and how much value that work imparts, one should reconsider garment steamers.

Another, arguably larger, danger looms for fused jackets. There, hot steam can delaminate the fusible interlining inside, which then can result in bubbling. If you don’t believe this can happen, know that in order to delaminate jackets, factories do exactly this: blow hot steam through a jacket. The only way to prevent delamination is to apply both hot steam and pressure. Without the second ingredient, you risk a separation of the layers.

So then what to do about wrinkles? Jeffery has often recommended that men learn how to press their own jackets, but this isn’t the same as ironing your shirts. In fact, the key here is to not iron, but press, and to learn how to do that properly, you should read Jeffery’s tutorial.

Jeffery’s write is well done and detailed, but I admit I’ll never try doing such a thing. I just don’t have any confidence I’d do it right. So, if you’re in the same boat, I’d recommend sending it to someone who can do it professionally. Note, most dry cleaners will say they offer this service, but what they’re actually doing is putting your jacket over a form and blowing hot steam through it. Not what you want. Make sure you’re getting a true hand press. If you can’t find someone local for this, I recommend RAVE FabriCARE.

But what if you just need something quickly done? Sending your garments in for a professional press after every wear seems excessive. If you have small areas with wrinkles – say at the back of your trousers’ knees or behind the elbows – I think it’s reasonable to carefully and judiciously apply a very light amount of steam for a short period of time. Note, many tailors I know will still wince at this suggestion, but I think it’s the most reasonable “middle road.” Certainly don’t go crazy with your steamer, and don’t steam areas that have been heavily shaped (such as the chest). Try to avoid areas with canvassing, and even sections with seams (as you can blow them out). Just light, gentle, and careful steaming. This, in my opinion, is certainly better than the often passed-around advice of putting your tailored jackets in the bathroom with you while you take a shower. There, the steam won’t be targeted at all, and you can end up wearing the man’s clothing version of a woman’s limp hairdo.

(Photo from Overstock)

Why You’re Unlikely to Tell Between a Fused and Half-Canvassed Jacket

Tailor Jeffery Diduch, who maintains the rather illuminating blog Tutto Fatto a Mano, was nice enough to contact us a few weeks ago to correct us on the pinch test. Apparently, you can’t use the pinch test to see if a suit jacket or sport coat is half-canvassed, only if it’s fully-canvassed. The pinch test, as many readers know, is when you pinch the two outer layers of a jacket, typically along the lower front near the edge, and pull them apart to see if there’s a distinct, floating piece of material in between. If there is, this is said to be a mark of quality. To understand this, we should first review how suits and sport coats are made.

A Quick Primer on Suit and Sport Coat Construction

Oversimplified, a jacket is made up of distinct layers of fabric. The two outermost layers, which is the cloth we see and feel, make up the “shell.” Sandwiched in-between are layers of haircloth, canvas, felt, and fusible interlining, depending on whether the jacket is fully-canvassed, half-canvassed, or fused.

On a fully-canvassed jacket, you’ll have a canvas – typically made from a blend of wool, often cotton, and animal hair – running down the full length of the garment. Tacked onto this will be the chest piece. As the name implies, this piece is just set at the chest and shoulders, so that it gives this area some shape and support. This chest piece is usually made of haircloth, which is a cloth that has had strands of horse tail hair woven in. Horse tail hair is very stiff and wiry, which is why it’s perfect for lending structure. Add on to this some felt to cover the wiry animal hair, possibly a very lightweight fusible if the outer shell’s material needs some stabilization, and we have the basic ingredients of a full-canvassed jacket.

The upside to this kind of construction is that the canvas will give a nice bloom to the lapels, making the jacket look more three-dimensional, and give some support to the front. The downside is that this type of construction is very expensive, both in terms of the materials and labor required, and if poorly executed, it could cause the fronts to pucker.

So, about forty years ago, a German company came up with a new type of construction: fusibles. A fused jacket is much like a full-canvassed garment in that it still has the two outer shell layers, a chest piece, and some felt. Replacing the floating canvas, however, is a fusible interlining. When heated and pressed, this interlining’s special resin will melt and bond to any cloth, thus adding a similar kind of support that canvas does. The upside to this is that we cut costs. It’s quick, easy, and requires little to no skill on the part of the operator. The downside, as you can imagine, is that it slightly stiffens the cloth and doesn’t provide as nice of a support as animal hair. Lapels don’t “bloom” in the same way, but rather look flat and lifeless. It also used to be the case that fused garments carried a risk of delamination and bubbling over time, but the technology has come far enough where such cases are rare.

Finally, we have half-canvassed garments, which are the compromise. Here, the front of the jacket is fused (since you still need to stabilize the fronts), but the fusible doesn’t extend to the lapel area, where you want that kind of bloom and structure that animal hair gives. Instead, the lapels will have canvas in it like a full-canvas garment. Here, you try to get the benefits of both methods, while minimizing the cons.

The Limits of the Pinch Test

Now, the pinch test is said to be a way for you to tell if a jacket is canvassed or not. Usually, you’ll want to take the fabric a few inches below the lowest button, pinch the two outer layers and pull them apart. If you can feel a distinct, floating layer in-between, that’s the canvas. You know so because below the lowest button, there’s really nothing but the two shell layers and whatever has been used to stabilize the fronts. If it’s floating and distinct, then you’ll know it’s been fully-canvassed. If you can’t feel anything between, that means some fusible has been glued onto one of the shell layers.

The reason why you can’t do this on a half-canvassed garment is because below the second button is always fused, so you don’t know if the garment is half-canvassed or fully-fused. If you go above the second button or so, towards the chest area, you won’t know if you’re just feeling the chest piece. All garments – fully-canvassed, half-canvassed, or fused – will have a floating chest piece, so feeling a distinct layer there means nothing. The only way to know if a garment is either half-canvassed or fused is to ask a knowledgeable salesperson, but from my experience, these are very, very hard to find. Especially, frankly, at places that would sell a fused garment. So, unfortunately, there’s little way to tell if a garment is fused or half-canvassed.

* Thanks to Jeffery for his help with this article. For a more detailed write-up on how suits and sport coats are made, read Jeffery’s post here

Understanding a Suit’s Silhouette

It’s common to hear people describe a suit’s silhouette in terms of its nationality. Suits are described as being American, British, or Continental. The first is either a sack or modified sack silhouette; the second said to be built up with military shoulders and have more waist suppression; and the third said to be a bit slimmer and feature “natural shoulders”. This is roughly correct, though it stays truer for some countries than others. Jesse, for example, did a wonderful job of describing the traditional American style of suits a few months ago. His description really works for America because of how large J Press looms in our sartorial history. For a country like Italy, however, it can be a bit more diverse. For example, a Neapolitan jacket can be very different from a Roman one, and some would say that Naples itself is also too heterogeneous to categorize. Thus, it can be useful to break down the silhouette of a suit into parts and not just think of them nationally. By doing so, you can better understand what you like or don’t like about a particular suit, and be better equipped to find one that best fits your personal sense of style.

At the most basic level, a suit’s silhouette can be said to be either structured or soft. A structured suit will be made with a stiffer canvas and have a more built up, padded shoulder. A softer silhouette will, naturally, be made with a softer canvas and have a thinner layer of padding. A related issue, though not exactly the same, is the shoulder’s expression. A shoulder can be roped, natural, or bald. The first will have a prominent ridge at the shoulder seam that runs along the crown of the sleeve. The second will have a very light ridge, but run flat. The third will have a knocked down shoulder seam and very low profile. Jeffery Diduch did a great job of explaining the differences between shoulder expressions here. The takeaway is that while some expressions may be associated with specific styles of construction - for example, the bald shoulder with a softly constructed, unpadded shoulder line - they don’t necessarily have to go together. They’re two separate elements that work in concert with each other to make up what we see as the shoulder, which in turn gives us the impression of a structured or soft silhouette.

The minimally padded, softer silhouette is more popular these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should wear it. One of the important lessons taught by Alan Flusser is that we should dress to our body types, not what happens to be fashionable. A friend of mine in San Francisco, for example, has a very round upper chest, as well as round, sloping shoulders with prominent blades. In a soft Neapolitan jacket, he looks like an gorilla, but in something more structured and with a nipped waist, he looks athletic and handsome. As always, it’s best to try both of these styles on and be objective about how you look in each.

The other important aspect to a suit is how lean or full it is. In the most basic sense, this is about how close the suit sits to your body. Unfortunately, the trend of slimmer fitting clothes has led men to be single minded about this subject, but a better understanding is more nuanced. We can think of the suit in three parts - the chest, waist, and skirt (the skirt is simply the part of the jacket that hangs below the waist).

A lean chest will be shallow while a full chest will either be swelled or draped. A swelled chest will be fuller all around and look a bit more sculpted. A draped chest will have large, vertical folds of excess cloth that “drape” along the jacket’s edges, near the armholes. I made a post about drapes and swells at my other blog some time ago, and you can see illustrations of it there. The two often go together, but they don’t have to. You can have a swelled chest, for example, with no drape.

Similar to the chest, the waist can be nipped or left loose, and the skirt can hug the hips or be left a little full. These will create either a leaner or fuller silhouette, depending on how you combine these constructions.

The “lean and clean” look is what men’s fashion magazines have been pushing for years, and probably what has been most popular with men for decades. This silhouette will sit closer to the wearer’s body in all three sections. A fuller silhouette is less popular, but I think unjustly so. I don’t just mean the dartless American sack suits here, either. Anderson & Sheppard, for example, makes a fuller chest that gently billows out a bit. I find the effect more masculine, heroic, and elegant. I once read Michael Alden compare someone’s “lean and clean” suit to an overly skinny runway model that needed more “meat on her bones.” Setting aside my slight discomfort with talking about people’s bodies in this way, his description spoke well to how I feel about these kinds of silhouettes in general. Of course, this is all a matter of personal taste and style, but I find fuller suits to have more depth and elegance, and be infinitely more interesting. Not that everyone should share my taste, of course, but I do think that most men should consider fuller suits more.

Moving on to the last dimension, a suit’s silhouette can either be elongating or widening. There are many aspects to this. An elongating suit will have a lower buttoning point. This will draw longer vertical lines along the suit’s lapel, which in turn will make the wearer look a bit taller. It may also have a higher gorge. A suit’s “gorge” is often conflated with the lapel’s notch, but it’s actually the seam that connects the jacket’s collar to the lapel. More or less the same, but still slightly different. Italians tend to make suits with a higher gorge than their British counterparts, and Neapolitan and Sicilian tailors make them higher still.

A widening silhouette will have wider lapels and perhaps extended shoulders. In today’s single-mindedness about suits, this may sound unappealing, but it’s worth reminding that many Neapolitan suits, which so many people are in love with nowadays, often have widening silhouettes.

In the end, all of these aspects can be combined in a number of ways to create an overall silhouette. One of the most elegantly dressed men I’ve ever met wore a softly constructed suit with a bald shoulder. His jacket had a fuller chest, nipped waist, and tight skirt. His trousers had a slightly higher rise and the legs were fuller than what more “fashionable” men wear today. They were still slim and flattering, however, and they created a nice line going from his jacket to his shoes. What he wore matched not only his body type, but also his personality and character. As a man, he was every bit as elegant as his clothes, and what he wore expressed him as a full human being, not as a clotheshorse.

As you look at pictures of well-dressed men, try dissecting each of these parts. You’ll develop a more refined understanding of suits and become more sensitive to how they can make an impression. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll be better equipped to purchase suits according to your body type and sense of style. Maybe you like lean, structured suits, or maybe you don’t, but you won’t know until you understand how to look for them.

Pictures taken from The Armoury, Permanent Style, The Sartorialist, Mister Crew, Rubinacci Club, and a few others I’ve unfortunately forgotten. This article also owes a lot to Michael Anton’s original article on the same subject at the London Lounge, so many thanks to him for that.