When first hearing the phrase suit silhouette, it sounds a bit odd. By itself, the word silhouette brings to mind blackened outlines of corset-clad ladies from the Victorian era blotched onto starchy white paper, or is a reminder of earlier days as a child, forming shadows shaped like rabbits, projected onto the bedroom wall with the twisting and bending of fingers against a backlight.
Once exposed to the term suit silhouette, it's easy to warm up to the almost mystic thought of finding the suit silhouette that creates the right style and emotion. Winston Churchill mastered the art of creating an elegant persona, and while he may not have had the dream body, he presented a divine silhouette with his suiting. Churchill seemed to need to dip his toes into the stream of sartorial poetry while sharpening the serifs of his mind with details and at the same time, tuning his heart towards the pursuit of an almost biting elegance.
The silhouette we create (or have created for us) can form messages without speaking. If we go through our day in silence, still we say something with the way we dress and the gestures we make. I have the impression that a gesture can be carried further than lending a handkerchief from a pocket to a friend, that a gesture can be as simple as having kind eyes, giving up a seat on the train, an easy smile, or showing patience with the clerk who can't operate the cashier machine.
There seems to be a lack of recognition of the messages we are able to send without even speaking. Perhaps you remember a well-clothed man or woman you saw only momentarily in the past, who didn't speak a word, but whose image stays with you to this day?
Writing about the silhouette is difficult. It is difficult because the subject is truly profound when considering that globally, the outline of each individual person is unique, a one-of-a-kind. But hopefully, speaking about the influence of the silhouette lends some grace in the attempt to correctly approach this complex and esoteric subject.
The line and proportion of the whole and parts of a suit (lengths and widths) and the ratio between these dimensions forms the silhouette.
A close cousin to the suit silhouette is the suit's Visual Form, or the final result of fabric cutting, sewing and placement of individual components through tailoring to create the overall "look" of the suit.
Specific visual form selections can work together with a correct silhouette to convince the eye into believing that a man of short stature is average height (e.g., raising the gorge on a coat to lengthen the look of the body) or that an overweight man is ten pounds lighter (e.g., close fitting suit, dark fabric, and placement of high armholes to lift posture).
Before fully focusing on the silhouette, there are four areas that must not be compromised. If any of these four areas are neglected, the silhouette can be ruined.
1. fit (without a close to exact fit, creating a silhouette is useless)
2. degree of intimacy with the body (looseness or tightness-- intentionally changing the looseness or tightness of a suit for the purpose of getting a better silhouette should be done with a lot of care and attention so that proper fit is never sacrificed.
3. quality and integrity of fabric (a subpar fabric with poor texture and sustainability cannot create a good silhouette)
4. drape (how the suit fabric falls against the body should be considered before selecting a suit fabric to see if the silhouette desired can be well supported by either a stiffer or more drapable fabric).
Daniel Radcliffe, who is 5'5" (1.65 m) -- a close double-breasted fit, solid fabric, structured shoulders, minimal buttons, slightly lengthened trousers with no cuff, coordinating shoes, and a patterned pocket square to draw the eye towards the upper body. The correct silhouette and visual form creates lengthening of the body and the impression of added height.
Here are several design elements that make up the visual form, and create the silhouette:
a) shoulder construction
b) lapel choice
c) gorge height
d) lapel line from collar to working buttonhole
e) number and position of buttons,
f) pocket placement and design,
g) waist design
h) fabric color and pattern
j) lapel roll
k) sleeve design
l) paddings and inlays
m) seams, stitching, pipings and pleats. (i)
Already, the silhouette construction has many variables to consider, but still, there is more.
A good place to start in order to narrow down a preferred silhouette, is to know whether a structured or soft silhouette is preferred.
Some examples of each style include:
Structured: The British style is designed close to the torso, with a moderate focus on a typically padded shoulder and celebrated chest area, including a compressed waist. Side vents with a slight skirt flair and cleanly trimmed sleeves and trouser lines lend a feeling of royalty and staunch. Drawing inspiration from the military uniform, the coat is on the long side and fitted, which creates a slight hourglass silhouette.
Savile Row Collections, 2012
Structured: The French-Italian style steps up the shoulder construction to make a statement with artistic and structured shoulders with minimal padding. Strong attention is given to enhancing posture through the use of extremely high armholes. A small chest area is exposed (due to wider lapels, less fabric, and high set armholes) with a compressed waist and minimal fabric drape. There is an air of French aristocracy in this silhouette genre.
Maestro Massimo Cifonelli
Soft: Although the Italian style is highly diverse, it is usually known for its more relaxed Neapolitan or bald soft shoulder construction with less regard to strengthening shoulders as much as to creating a svelte overall body shape without weakening the chest and slightly emphasizing the waist. This look creates a feeling of sprezzatura, an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castoiglione's book, The Book of Courtier, which alludes to a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
Maestro Antonio Panico
Maestro Mariano Rubinacci
Soft: The Ivy League (or American) Style is classic, youthful and comfortable with the jacket falling straight with no pinch at the waist, deemphasized shoulders, and a typically benign chest area. Trousers are usually pleated and cuffed. Think Harvard professor strolling down the campus in Boston.(iv)
If a style preference is already settled upon, it is possible to go to a specific tailoring house that specializes in either structured or relaxed suit construction, even down to the specific style genre within the construction. Although not true for all houses, some more successful tailoring houses may be quite committed to creating a specific silhouette and will not want to deviate from their house speciality.
If it is not clear which style is preferred, it can work well to go to a smaller tailoring house who is used to crafting suits with a variety of style options. Working with a smaller house is an excellent way to have a suit crafted and can be an intimate learning experience. With no predetermined house style, smaller houses may be more affordable and more flexible in satisfying different tastes ranging from a preference for soft suiting to opting for a highly structured suit.
When equipped with a preference for either a structured or relaxed silhouette, a visit to the cutter is in order. The cutter is paramount in creating the bare bones of your silhouette. The cutter records measurements and cuts out the suit, piece by piece, from typically around four yards of fabric.
While there is usually just one cutter handling a suit, there may be more than a dozen tailors working by hand to piece the suit together. The cutter is revered in the tailoring house. There are few, if any craftsman other than the cutter that shows up to work in a handmade suit, sometimes donning his cravate with an antique tie pin or his coat breast pocket with a stately pocketsquare.
Master Richard Anderson
Maestro Lorenzo Cifonelli
Master John Hitchcock
Maitres de Luca, father and son
When evaluating a client, the cutter will compute the following body considerations:
1. Height -- Short, tall or average?
2. Weight -- Light, heavy, or average?
3. Head -- Big, small or balanced?
4. Shoulders -- Narrow, broad or balanced?
5. Chest -- Strong, weak or balanced?
6. Waist -- Big, small or average?
7. Butt -- Substantial, flat, or balanced?
8. Legs -- Long, short or average?
9. Feet -- Big, small, or average?
These body considerations can be analyzed but are also based on the self-perception of the client. And so the house cutter's responsibility is now elevated to understanding the mind of the client, as well as the body. After the fitting, any area to be improved is identified, as well as any body idiosyncrasies such as a low shoulder, uniquely curved back, or a longer leg. At this point, the cut and the design of the suit can specifically target the areas to be improved and refined through the creation of the overall silhouette and final visual form.
When working with the body to balance and highlight different areas, the cutter can transform a person's wardrobe by accentuating some places on the body, and diminishing others. The cutter takes developing the silhouette and visual form further by integrating fit, fabric, drape, and body balancing with a strong array of design choices such as shoulder expression, lapel style, waist and pocket design and button placement, to name a few. At this point, the complexity of the process becomes fully apparent.
Take for example, how a cutter may work with a client who is short in stature.
Increasing the Appearance of Height
* Cut armholes high to lift the body and lengthen the silhouette.
* Slightly lengthen the trouser legs for a subtle extension of the lower body.
* Raise lower pockets on the coat to sit around the hip area to appear to lengthen the lower body.
* Limit button quantity on the coat and cuffs, as numerous buttons breaks the vertical line.
* Avoid belt loops and belt to prevent causing a horizontal line that visually "chops the body in half" and diminishes the look of height
* Slightly compress the waist to create more overall lines than a coat that falls straight would create.
* Construct coat pockets with no flaps to keep the vertical line clean.
* Select suit fabric of either a solid color, a fairly muted pattern, or vertical lengthening pinstripes to keep a continual visual flow without pattern distraction.
* Place lapel notch/gorge high on the lapel, to give the appearance of increased height from the shoulders-down.
* Cut trouser waist higher to lengthen the appearance of the legs.
* Keep a lean close-fitting chest for a clean line.
* Cut coat length just covering the seat and not too long to avoid the look of shortened legs.
* Create a long, narrow lapel roll line (the imaginary line measured from the point that the lapel begins (collar section) to the point where the lapel ends (button area) in order to lengthen the appearance of the torso.
* Avoid trouser cuffs, which shorten the appearance of the leg.
* Use a structured shoulder, as the Neapolitan and American shoulders may minimize stature.
Example of a Style Choice that Increases the Appearance of Height
One style recommendation that we like to increase the appearance of height (other than avoiding wearing distracting socks that break the line of the leg) is to draw attention to the upper body with the use of accessories. This can be done quite cleverly and have an astounding affect in terms of keeping the eye high up on the body of someone who is short in stature.
While the list above feels a bit like an algebraic formula, creating the suit silhouette cannot survive formulation without injecting emotion. Injecting the emotion of the client and the cutter into the suit is what brings the suit to life and creates an air of the total man. Here, the well known saying of "first know the rules, and then break them", has rarely been more exacting and leaves little else to be said.
Sonya Glyn Nicholson – Senior Editor