The most consequential decisions; the shoulder, the cut and the canvas.
Welcome to part 2 of the STS Guide to Choosing a Suit Jacket. In the previous instalment, we covered the choices concerning single and double breasted jackets, as well as lapels. In this instalment, we round out that knowledge with styles of shoulder and overall cut. We will also talk about the canvas; the inside component that gives the jacket its structure.
There are four main types of shoulder construction, categorised by the cultures that spawned the looks. These are English, French, Italian and American. The four common shoulders also correspond to the four main types of cut.
Using just enough padding to create the line, the classic English shoulder has a straight line and a sharp angle where the seam meets the sleeve. The seam tends to slightly hug the shoulder. It is a strongly structured appearance, and the look is flattering to a wide range of body types.
Also known as a pagoda shoulder, or a Cifonelli shoulder (after the Parisian tailor Lorenzo Cifonelli who has popularised this shoulder style). It is made by roping in the fabric, and makes for an excellent silhouette; this is my personal favourite style visually. It is the rarest among modern suit styles as it fell out of vogue for some time and has only been somewhat recently revived by the bespoke scene.
This is an unstructured shoulder. It has little to no padding, and follows the natural line of the shoulder as opposed to creating a look like the English shoulder.
This style rocketed to global popularity in the 1980s with the protagonists of Miami Vice sporting unstructured jackets, and the style has remained in mainstream vogue ever since. It is easy to get an unstructured shoulder off the rack.
Neapolitan shoulder refers to an Italian unstructured shoulder with a beautiful pinching of fabric at the seam. This is a highly desirable look to many, and is a great choice for a laid-back personality. This style requires a bespoke touch as the unique look needs to be made by hand.
The American shoulder is similar to the Italian style in that it has no rigid structure to the shoulder and is designed to appear more natural. However, there is often a layer of padding in the American shoulder; a point of difference to the Italian style.
Which is best for me?
Good news, it is entirely up to you! Try some different styles on, and decide which shoulder construction style best suits your taste. Some jacket shoulders will be a blend of different styles. You may find that you like more than one; even better!
There are distinguishing factors between the overall cuts of each prominent construction style. Some err towards closer fits while others are more relaxed; weight and range of movement are other differences.
It is colloquially spoken that ‘an English suit should fit like a suit of armour’. As such, the jacket tends to noticeably broaden the shoulders and trim the waistline. However, the jacket also tends to wear heavy (heavier fabrics, heavier canvassing) and the structure can sometimes provide less range of movement than other styles of tailoring. An English jacket will tend to have dual vents at the rear.
Go for this style if you live in a cooler climate and/or you like a classic look. It is – in a traditional cut – best suited for a slim to average build with narrower shoulders given the extra accentuation on the shoulder line. However, the beauty of tailoring means that your chosen style can be made to work with your body type; so do not let that stop you.
The French silhouette is highly expressive (just like the shoulder), and will fit very slim. It is a bolder look best suited to someone who does not mind showing off their silhouette.
This is an opulent choice. If you have the money to do it, and have a loud or rakish personality; do it! Do not expect to find a French cut with the pagoda shoulders off the rack; go bespoke.
Like the French, the Italian cut is very close to the body. The fabric tends to be much lighter weight, as is any canvassing used. This difference stems from the Italian climate. The Italian look is very popular around the world and is common to see in Australia thanks to the heat. Classical Italian jackets often feature no rear vent, to truly hug the figure.
An unstructured shoulder is great if you have broad or well-defined shoulders, as you do not need any more support in that department. However if you are of slimmer build and/or have sloped shoulders, you should consider opting for something with more structure.
As for the Italian style of cut overall, it is popular for a reason. Slim fitting and expressive, if you have a slim and shapely figure it will do you well. This is a style you can buy off the rack with a decent chance of it fitting well, but as always go to a tailor to get it looking best on you.
Traditionally the American style was known as the ‘sack suit’, with a baggy and boxy structure (from a time when it was patriotic to be opposite to the English in everything). It was essentially a straight line down the torso, the most relaxed of fits. The traditional sack suit is rarely seen nowadays as it is widely considered un-stylish compared to a more fitted cut, and the American style has become closer to European styles over time. However, it is still a more relaxed fit than the others.
A looser cut is something you may consider for a more slouchy casual ensemble, but I think a more formal ensemble is better off with more defined shape.
The canvas is the inside component that gives the suit its structure. It is a piece of fabric (usually horsehair or wool) that sits between the inside and outside layers of fabric (also known as ‘floating’) to keep it in place. There are three types of construction; non-canvas (fused), half canvas and full canvas. To see a visual representation of the different types, scroll to see an infographic.
Non-Canvas or Fused
When there is no canvas present, the inside and outside layers of fabric are simply glued together (known as fusing). This is the cheapest method, but there are consequences to its use. The jacket will have poorer range of movement, may cause ‘collar gap’ (an unpleasant gap appearing between your shirt collar and jacket collar when you sit down) and will result in an unsightly bubbling in the fabric when the glue begins to break down after a few months or up to two years (depending on the quality of the glue).
Fused construction is the most common among ready-to-wear suits and jackets due to its cheaper manufacturing cost. As the demand for better quality suiting has risen in recent years, it is possible to get at least half canvassed jackets off the rack now so you should avoid a buying a jacket of fused construction if possible.
Related reading: What Happens To Fused Jackets When They Age
Half Canvas and Full Canvas
A half canvas is the bare essential needed to properly make the suit without fusing it. It is lighter weight than a full canvas (it only sits in the and will cost less, making it an attractive option for hotter climates or tighter budgets. It will also make the fabric drape on you better than a fused piece. If you are buying a jacket, you should aim at least for this option.
A full canvas is the most comprehensive option, and is the most expensive. The full canvas encompasses the entire fronting of the jacket, giving the jacket the most foolproof construction and allowing it to alter with your body over the years. For a detailed description of the differences between construction types, see the below infographic:
Suit Canvas Styles Infographic (thanks to evolutionofstyle.com)
You made it to the finish!
This wraps up Part 2 of the series. This is the most exhaustive section, but provides the most important details. In part 3, we will discuss the details: pockets, buttons and rear vents. See you then!