A suit, especially a bespoke one, is a complex garment. The fit, fabric and individual details – including shoulder styles – must all come together to compliment a man’s physique and reflect his distinctive style.
The shoulder line, in particular, conveys intent and is one of the most defining elements of a jacket. If the suit makes the man, then the shoulder makes the suit.
Just like the keystone in an archway, the shoulder locks the other pieces of the coat in place, determining its silhouette and drape. Shoulders come in a dizzying array of varieties and permutations. They can be lightly or heavily padded, soft or structured, straight, concave and even convex.
SETTING THE TONE
The style selected sets the tone for the jacket’s expression. A soft, unstructured shoulder is sporty and casual, while a structured shoulder with commanding “rope” is more formal—almost regal—in its appearance. It’s also worth noting that the shoulder style goes hand-in-hand with the type and weight of chest canvasing used in the jacket. For example, a soft shoulder with little padding favors a lightly canvased jacket or a “shacket” (shirt-jacket) construction, while a more padded shoulder needs a heavier chest canvas to help support this added structure.
The construction of the shoulder should also compliment the build of the wearer. A man with square shoulders would do better with less padding than a man with sloping shoulders. A gentleman with a narrow frame and a round midsection may want to extend his shoulder line slightly to create the appearance of a more angular physique.
By contrast, someone with an athletic build—a trim torso and broad upper body—may opt for softer, less defined lines for his suit. For individuals in between the extremes, the world is your oyster: there is a time and place for almost every style.
A NOTE ON ROPING SHOULDER STYLES
Although roping is more of a feature rather than its own distinct shoulder style, it is still worthy of being mentioned and considered. Roping implies that the sleeve attachment is slightly raised in relation to the shoulder, forming a ridge. The higher it is, the more imposing the shoulder line appears.
Although some credit the Italians with the roped shoulder, it is more common on Savile Row jackets and the French Ciffoneli. In general, roping imparts a more formal look upon its wearer. Michael Andrew Bespoke’s signature designs feature extra roping.
As the cut of a jacket shoulder is often idiosyncratic to its maker, there is no universally accepted lexicon for the differing styles. We have nevertheless attempted to categorize the different shoulder styles in general terms that can be applied to the majority of coats you will encounter.
THE CONTINENTAL SHOULDER
While this is perhaps the most common of shoulder styles outside of Italy and England, it has the least accepted nomenclature. We refer to it as the “Continental” shoulder because in our assessment it falls half-way between the traditional English structured shoulder and the Italian unstructured shoulder. It is also sometimes referred to as a Roman shoulder (in contrast to the Neapolitan shoulder), as it was popularized in Rome when Italian tailoring came of age and remains one of the go-to shoulder styles for legendary Roman suit-maker Brioni.
Today, however, it may be more aptly called the “Updated American” shoulder since it is the standard on suits by Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Zegna, Hugo Boss and, of course, Michael Andrews.
The Continental shoulder is lightly padded but follows a strong, straight line from the collar down to the edge of the shoulders, and is finished with a medium amount of roping.
Some degree of canvasing goes along with the Continental shoulder, reinforcing the chest. This shoulder style is sufficiently formal for the office without overpowering the wearer or drawing excessive attention to the jacket’s structure.
THE STRUCTURED / ENGLISH SHOULDER
The English suit is the most structured of all suits, featuring large padding and significant canvasing, it is also interlined with horsetail and reinforced with chest felt and tapes.
The shoulder line is extended and roped (save for a few exceptions such as Anderson & Sheppard) creating an almost martial appearance.
THE UNSTRUCTURED / ITALIAN SHOULDER
The shoulder styles on this kind of jacket are referred to as spalla a camicia, i.e. “like a shirt” in Italian. This construction is designed to drape naturally over the shoulders and not alter a man’s shoulder line. Only a thin layer of canvas is used in the Italian suit. The fit, drape and small arm hole are meant to allow a free range of motion.
Usually worn to events with a relaxed code of dress where one would still want to look stylish, the Italian shoulder confers nonchalance but in an elegant, casual way.
THE NEAPOLITAN SHOULDER
The Neapolitan shoulder style is practically identical to the Italian shoulder save for one, additional, distinctive feature: the puckering or slight shirring—to use the sartorial term—of the sleeve cap’s fabric.
It is also its mark of craftsmanship: this kind of stitching can only be accomplished by a steady, seasoned hand.
As with the Italian shoulder styles, the Neapolitan construction, too, displays elegance but in a relaxed manner and without heaviness or formality. The shirring, being unique to this shoulder style, may be seen as an acquired aesthetic taste.
THE NATURAL SHOULDER
A style popularized by Brooks Brothers and mimicked by other American tailors, it is also known as the American shoulder. It was a signature detail of the Brooks Brothers “sack suit”. The sack suit, developed as a counterpoise to the highly structured suits that reigned supreme in Europe, was the de facto American business suit for decades.
This shoulder style has no roping and, in contrast to the Continental shoulder which is straight and the English shoulder which is either straight or slightly concave, is convex, following the natural, downward slope of the shoulder. While this style theoretically follows the natural line of the body’s shoulder, to call it a “natural” shoulder is a bit of a misnomer, as this style frequently features a thick shoulder pad that helps hold the shape of the jacket. Absent the thick pad, this shoulder would be very similar to the Italian shoulder styles.
THE PAGODA / CIFONELLI SHOULDER
The Pagoda shoulder style is a highly stylized construction in which the shoulder line has a concave contour, sloping downwards from the collar and rises up again towards the arm—creating a shape vaguely similar to the roof of a pagoda. The pagoda shoulder creates this curve through a specially made shoulder pad and manipulation of the jackets chest canvasing.
Although it had fallen out of fashion in recent decades, the pagoda shoulder is now making a resurgence, as Cifonelli and several Savile Row tailors have been promoting this distinctive shoulder style.
SHOULDER STYLES: TO EACH HIS OWN
The right jacket for a man depends on both his goals and physique. Not only do different occasions call for different shoulder styles, but different frames also call for different fits. Fortunately, with all these shoulder styles constructions at your disposal—and with the right bespoke tailor, of course—no man will be left unsuited.