Fashion Anatomy: The Suit Jacket

This article appears in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by CASSIE KAYE    

The suit jacket. Fewer articles of clothing are more steeped in history and tradition or evoke more of a die-hard following. A high-end suit can cost upwards of $3,000, and many don’t always understand what exactly their money is paying for. What makes a Giorgio Armani suit better than something you’d pick out at a department store? Craftsmanship and fabric. But it goes much deeper than that.

The first mass-produced suit for men — the zoot suit — was purposely made big and baggy so as to fit many body types without additional tailoring. Before that, everything was hand-stitched. “Patterns for suits were passed down through generations,” explains Rosemary Hopper, master tailor and professor at Bauder College in Atlanta. “They were protected like gold. You didn’t give up the secrets of the trade, and you never tarnished the craft with any talk of money while a garment was being made.”

In today’s world of standardization, Hopper fears the tradition and artistry behind hand tailoring is slowly disappearing. Fewer men know the way a luxury suit feels — how the fabric hugs the body in a way that truly makes you understand the term “power suit.” But as the legendary Tom Ford himself said, “Dressing well is a form of good manners” (for Jay-Z, it’s better than drugs: “I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford ...”), and there is no finer way to dress well than with a well-fitting suit. Sure, the suit (or simply the suit jacket, in this case) may not make the man, but a high-end, well-tailored garment can make all the difference. 

As in women’s fashions, popular suit styles are cyclical, and the same trends come and go, albeit at a slower pace and with fewer nuances. For men, the baggy suits of our fathers are being replaced by a double-breasted variety that is snugger in fit — the suits on today’s man remind us why they say suits are to women what lingerie is to men. In terms of fit, everything about a high-end jacket is done to create the perfect fit and, ideally, a suit jacket will gently hug the body. “Men often come to me for tailoring complaining the jacket fits too tightly, because it pulls the taping across the shoulders when they’re driving,” Hopper sighs. “But gentlemen don’t drive in their suit jacket. You don’t do acrobatics in your suit either; it’s not what it’s meant for.” 

A collar should roll rather than have a stiff crease, and the hand pad stitching with a canvas interior will give the collar a permanent roll — imitating this with a machine will give somewhat the same effect, but it won’t be lasting. All the stitching at the gorge line — which attaches the collar to the lapel — is done by hand on high-end garments, and a half-inch of shirt linen should show above the jacket collar in a well-made piece. 

High-end suit jackets will have pad stitching and taping in the shoulder area. The pad stitching prevents “breaks” (wrinkles) in the fabric, giving the garment a smooth finish from the shoulder down to the bottom flaps. The canvas sewn inside the jacket makes the garment turn toward and hug the body. Cheaper, factory-made pieces tend to flip out, particularly around the flaps. With expensive, hand-tailored garments, “there’s a reason for everything,” Hopper explains. The taping also works to bring the garment toward the body. When you sew, the fabric is stretched, and taping helps form it back into shape and keep the jacket closer to the torso. 

Hand-tailored garments typically have a hand pricking done to roll the seam along the edge of the lapel toward the jacket, so it won’t be seen. 

The armholes are always taped because you put a sleeve in differently on a jacket than you do with a dress or a blouse. You tape it to bring the armhole back in and hug the body; otherwise, you could see the stretching that would occur. A two-piece sleeve is always going to fit better, because it tends to curve and take on the shape of the arm. The sleeves are supposed to have a roll line, not a crease, to snugly fit the arms. Even men’s shirts shouldn’t have a crease down the arms, “but nobody knows any better these days,” Hopper says. Suit sleeves should also be short enough to reveal a half-inch of the shirt fabric, just like with the collar. 

Whether the suit jacket has one, two or three buttons is dependent on style, but regardless of the number, the bottom button is never fastened. In terms of buttons on the sleeves, a high-quality suit jacket will have four, whereas a sport coat or cheaper suit may only have three. 

Pocket flaps tend to use more fabric, but now the insides are done with a lining, which, Hopper explains, is something you hardly see anymore. “It makes the pocket flaps melt into the garment,” she says.