Signals of a Handmade Suit : A Shoulder That Sings

Signals of a Handmade Suit : A Shoulder That Sings

The thing we know about men is that if they love a certain thing, then they are capable of immersing themselves in the subject of their affection until they become gurus in their own right. And, it is a little fascinating for women to watch this drive that men have to pursue and grasp technical information about the things they care about, to the point of a sort of pleasurable suffering (and there is a growing number of women who have "caught the bug" of wanting to emerse themselves in some of these enchanting worlds such as the arenas of fine spirits, travel, and tailoring).

Lately, more men are expanding their knowledge beyond the subjects of cars, watches, scotch and cigars, and entering into a whole new realm of knowing the pleasure of owning a handmade suit. In this series of The Signals of a Handmade Suit, we jump headfirst into a technical swimming pool of tailoring seek what it is about tailoring that gives pleasure to the eyes of men and women when we see a handmade suit. In a way, many of us are becoming aesthetes who simply appreciate beauty. And this penchant for what is beautiful, naturally leads us into the world of tailoring.

While the shoulder area of the suit is one of the easiest places for the tailor to measure, delivering the desired aesthetic look of the shoulder is, in art .  And, if you recall that the lapel roll can be the first signal of a handmade suit (as discussed in the first article of the series), then perhaps you will agree that quality shoulder expression is next (if not tied for first) as the second signal of a suit made by hand.

Shoulders are the most defining element of the silhouette of a jacket. They can be natural,  soft, convex, concave, lightly padded, padded or built up or knocked-down. Shoulder expression is simply the shape and appearance of the shoulder area of a coat. The shoulder area sets the parameters for the silhouette and drape of the suit,and so a technically correct cut is vital, of course. But just as importantly, is the "feeling" the shoulder expression evokes, creating real messages ranging from tones of professional to regal and from sporty to scholarly. A man who knows and understands himself, and is armed with some bare fundamentals on tailoring, should instinctively know which shoulder expression he prefers.

The construction of the shoulder should complement the build of the body. Sloping shoulders may need padding to lift the area. Narrow shoulders with a gut may want to slightly extend the horizontal shoulder area to offset things a bit. A body with a strong V shape, may shun strong shoulders in favor of more balance. But, a good shoulder construction is not too big (no sagging shoulder crown over the shoulder line) and not too small (provides relative ease in moving arms from front to back). All the rest is a matter of personal taste.

The old way of classifying shoulders types has been through describing where a suit is made. It seems silly these days to do this, since there are so many expats living in different places that we now have access to rich cross-cultural talent in various locations aound the world. And face it, the Italian tailors can't really be classified because they will do almost anything (and usually do it well). At any rate, since these categories are often referred to, then it is worth a quick look at these designated "shoulder styles":

1. American

Natural shoulder, very minimal padding, follows the shape of the body. The sack suit, the perennial "preppy look"

2. British

Stiffer suiting with a lightly padded shoulder. which compliments a nipped waist.

3. Italian

Versatile shoulders ranging from a strong and defined shoulder area, either with a "roped" look or with shirring (pleats) that makes the shoulders appear broader, to a natural shoulder made with tailoring precision. Note: Italian expertise in shoulder construction is so varied, that it often overlaps with British and American norms of shoulder expression.


Notice below how by simply altering the shoulder construction of three similar coats, a completely different look for each piece results. Let's name the shoulder expressions below as:

1. Pagoda Concave "Rope" Shoulder (Italian)

2. Straight Shoulder (British)

3. Sloping Shoulder (American)

Also demonstrated nicely in this photograph, are the main two components that make up the top of the shoulder sleeve: the crown, which is either lifted, left flat or knocked down (as demonstrated above), and the area that connects the sleeve to the coat, the shoulder ridge, which can range from a deep ridge, to a light ridge, to a knocked down ridge, as also shown above.

ITALIAN/FRENCH TAILORING - Expressive and structured shoulders

The Cifonelli Shoulder worn by Alexander Kraft

Higher armholes, cut slightly larger than the norm will give the appearance of an improved posture and broader shoulders. Many Italian tailors pride themselves on the fact that they prefer to eschew shoulder padding in favor of working with canvas and fabric to get the shoulder look they want. A wider shoulder cut allows room to move around (except perhaps not to raise your hands above your head because of the high-cut armholes. But not to worry, since Hugo tells me that whoever wears Cifonelli suits never surrenders anyway).

ITALIAN TAILORING - No padding please

Here are two Italian Neapolitan unpadded shoulder constructions: Left: Pagado, or Con Rollino, which means "with roll" (a very narrow and slightly puckered sleevehead, normally unpadded, where excess fabric bulk pushes up the sleevehead, creating an elegant rope effect). RIGHT: spalla / manica camicia (knocked-down shirt-sleeve tailoring, usually with shirring, which follows the shape of the body and falls naturally and is usually prepared by a high-level RTW house, or a Neapolitan Tailor).

The Neapolitan Touch -- Shirring

A notable feature on some Italian shoulder constructions is the process of shirring, or pleat-like folds at the seam where the sleeve connects to the shoulder. In this process, the upper sleeve is cut significantly larger than the armscye (arm cut-out on the coat itself), and since there is more cloth on the outer cut than on the inner cut, the fabric puckers and gathers around the shoulder area, when the sleeve is sewn onto the coat.

One of the best commentaries I've seen on the perceptions created by shirring the shoulders is taken from the "London Lounge":

"This is not done for aesthetics, although the devotees of the style certainly claim it is beautiful. To the unknowing eye, it looks sloppy, like a sign of inferior tailoring. But it most definitely is not. It is not to everyone’s taste, however, and de gustibus, as the saying goes. Anyway, it is done for comfort and freedom of movement. Classic Neapolitan coats have very small armholes, very close shoulders, and relatively lean bodies—more roomy than a Roman or Continental coat, but less than traditional Savile Row, and much less than what is typically made in America.

The large upper sleeve combined with the tight armhole, draped chest, fullness over the blades, and soft front canvas give the arms a most free range of movement. The coat can be worn all day, in almost any circumstance. The heat might get to you, but you will be able to do whatever it is that you need to do without having to take off your coat. (Within reason.) Source: BespokenN "

The Roman Shoulder -- Yet Another Italian Option

The Roman Shoulder, Brioni

The Roman Shoulder is more structured and, unlike the puckered con rollino shoulder, is unpleated and slightly padded. This construction emphasizes the "V" shape of a man and results in a "masculine look".

The general rule is that if you have strong shoulders, you may opt for less padding; but if your shoulders are more weak, then it is best to choose padding in the shoulder area, in order to give the illusion of broadening the shoulder area.

BRITISH TAILORING -- Straight to the Point

"The shoulder line is key on a bespoke suit. Once you have a strong understanding of that, the rest flows from there."

~Ozwald Boateng

According to AW London / Savile Row, there are three British shoulder construction standards:

A Classic British Suit – The Shoulder

1. The shoulders should neither be too narrow or to wide, but slightly hug the shoulder

2. Shoulders should be padded to add structure, rather than bulk

3. 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 barely extend the natural shoulder line so that the sleeve will hang straighter.

AMERICAN TAILORING -- No Strange Shoulders, Please

Iconic tailor Martin Greenfield. A great man.

Neapolitan tailors are known for their unpadded shoulders, and traditional American tailoring is known for the same. This can be a confusing point when trying to differentiate the two international styles.

The 1980s left pictures in our heads of Americans dressed like MC Hammer in oversized coats that gave the appearance that men everywhere had borrowed an oversized Marlon Brando jacket for the evening. With this image difficult to shake, many American men are finally discovering the elation that a properly fitted suit brings. Fine tailors like Nino Corvato and Leonard Logsdail of NYC are getting the look right. And American men seem to trust Anderson & Sheppard in London to make a well-tailored suit that they don't feel strange wearing.

And also, not everyone wants to emphasize their shoulders. Some shoulders are so broad, that broadening them out more with a wide shoulder design would result in looking like a carnival Strongman. Others just want a balanced shoulder that doesn't draw attention to itself. Instead, a more sporty or toned-down look is wanted with soft shoulders that have a natural and continuous line running from the top of the shoulder towards the arm. Hence, the sloping shoulder construction comes to the rescue.

How Much Knowledge is Enough?

There is much more detail that can be given about how the shoulder of a handmade suit is constructed, but hopefully for those not already familiar with shoulder construction options for a suit, with a simple familiarization about which shoulder options are out there, we are able to make informed choices, instead of simply "hoping for the best" when investing in a handmade suit.

Sonya Glyn Nicholson


Valet Handbook

Shoulder Expression, Style Forum, Jeffery D.

The London Cut, James Sherwood

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