Alexander Freeling

About Alexander Freeling

Alex is a freelance writer and literature professor based in the UK. These pursuits turned out to share a theme: the history and practice of style. He is very slowly improving at DIY suit alterations.

In Defense of Structure

Last year in these pages, Mitchell Moss made a strong case for the appeal of soft tailoring. His argument, like his subject, is approachable, laid back, and appealing. In offering a defense of structured tailoring, I’ll try to give the counter-argument without being rigid and inflexible.

What do I mean by structure? In practical terms, I mean a few features of a suit jacket or sport coat that give it shape—particularly shoulder pads, wadding, and chest canvas and padding. Of course, the vast majority of jackets fall in between totally unconstructed and heavily built up. Most good ‘unstructured’ jackets still have a very light canvas layer; they don’t give up on structure entirely. But more abstractly, by structure I am writing about anything that inclines a jacket to shape the wearer as well as the wearer the jacket.

There’s a great old thread on the forum which captures a common trajectory of new menswear enthusiasts:

“You came to SF looking for an answer to a clothing question. You got caught up, and next thing you know, you’re wearing suits, jackets, dress shirts, ties, wingtips, dress pants, etc. Eventually, you come full circle and realize you look like Pee Wee Herman in the real world and decided to tone it down a notch.”

What begins as research for a single suit purchase, for an occasion or a new job, leads to a swelling appetite for everything #menswear. Your new hobby leaves you hopelessly (if not obnoxiously) overdressed. And at this point -it’s true- soft tailoring is a godsend. It takes the formality down a notch. You stop wearing a three-piece to the beach and find some middle ground. Since you never did work for a white shoe law firm, even though you dressed like it, soon enough it’s spalla camicia all week.

But this doesn’t have to be the end of the journey. When you’ve experienced the appeal of soft tailoring, you can go back to structure with a subtler eye. To the newcomer, suits are formal and stiff, and that’s the whole story. Once you know better, you can see the difference between ’80s Armani shoulder pads and the subtle shoulder extension of Liverano. You can feel the difference between the cardboard-like fusing of a cheap suit and the tension of the stiff horsehair chest piece in a Savile Row jacket, which begins equally firm, but molds over time to your body. In short, you start to see structure as a series of nuances and possibilities.

I don’t believe anyone has a single “true” style. Finding a style that suits you is an ongoing process, and the right answer changes as you develop, change jobs or lifestyle. And if there’s no one “authentic” choice, you’re always free to experiment.

If you’ve gone over to wearing soft tailoring for every occasion, here are a few reasons to reconsider:

Structure comes in degrees.

You don’t have to go straight from Isaia or Boglioli to Huntsman. Between the two are the Northern Italian makers like Canali and Pal Zileri, who excel in modest, refined use of structure. While I love Canali’s Kei Jackets, which wear almost like knitwear, a modern Canali mainline suit has subtle shoulder padding which just grazes the body, creating a clean line from neck to shoulder without adding imaginary bulk.

Structure provides balance.

When I ordered a suit from Luxire, I was in conversation with the tailor who was making it. During the fitting process, he observed that one of my shoulders is higher than the other, which is not uncommon—especially for men. Because my suit had shoulder pads, he could balance the jacket by taking one out and sewing in some extra wadding. Wadding is like music in films or seasoning in cooking: if it’s added correctly, you don’t notice it except as an improvement to the shape of the whole.

Structure can also be cool.

When you watch a film like O’Mast it’s easy to recognize a level of bravura and danger in the Naples of Antonio Panico and Renato Ciardi’s childhoods that starchy, high bourgeois London and Paris cannot match. And with it comes unaffected, careless elegance. But while Naples is associated with unstructured tailoring, it’s also where the spalla con rollino is perfected: the rollino highlights the shoulder by rolling excess sleeve into the sleevehead to create a distinctive raised silhouette. Think of Rubinacci, or the Anglo-Italian house cut.

Structure is flair.

While plenty of structured suits aim for stiff formality (as do the military uniforms from which they were derived), Tom Ford’s use of structure is all about sculpting, exploiting and exaggerating the torso to create gravity and sex appeal. Anderson and Sheppard’s drape cut fills out an Olympian chest on any figure. Cifonelli’s iconic cigarette shoulder makes no concession to conformity.

I’m not arguing against soft tailoring. Everything in its time and place. But it’s worth finding the time and place to enjoy the fine balance—and the virtuosity—of structured jackets.


Join the conversation on the forum on the Soft Vs Structured Tailoring thread.