Style

Suit Styles: American, English, Continental

First, a history.

My great-grandfather hailed from the small fishing town of Mazara del Vallo, on the far southeast corner of Sicily. A little over 100 years ago he emigrated to the United States, where my grandfather was born. My grandmother was born in America as well, to parents from the same Sicilian city. Later they both moved to San Diego, married, had kids, and raised them on mama’s cooking. To this day, my dad still swears by his mom’s spaghetti sauce recipe:

1 large can tomato paste
1small can tomato sauce
1 onion chopped
Whole bulb garlic minced
Fresh basil & oregano
1 tablespoon each of sugar and balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

The result is heavy, runny, and enormously satisfying. It is your run-of-the-mill, basic American spaghetti sauce, and can be found in practically every red-checkered tableclothed restaurant from Boston to Boise, illuminated with dripping candles set in Chianti or Gallo bottles emptied long ago, alongside other such staples as cioppino served with a Godfather cocktail. Such restaurants don’t exist anywhere in Italy, but somehow over the past century this style came into existence, with its own distinct charm and coziness.

Which brings us to the suit.

The suit as we know it was born in France the 1840’s. Before then, the back of a jacket was made with four curved panels that hugged the body; this new style had only two panels with a seam down the center and, having no front darts, was a bit looser. As such, it was initially relegated to informal occasions of the elite, at times being called a “walking suit” or “lounge suit.” It was quickly adopted by the masses, was used as a template for military uniforms, and in short time became commonplace. Over next few decades the details would vary – they could be closed with from one to four buttons, be single or double breasted, have matching trousers and vests, or be worn with overalls – but the basic iteration of suit has remained unchanged even today.

By the turn of the century Brooks Brothers released its No. 1 Sack Suit. Sporting a three-button front that rolled to the middle button, lapels that reached halfway out to the soft, minimally-padded, natural shoulders, and moderately shaped body, this comfortable, easygoing suit became so proliferate that it ultimately became permanently associated with American style. Museum Textile Services of Andover, Massachusetts has a fascinating story of a recent acquisition of what they believe to be an example of one of these models in a wonderful three-piece grey herringbone tweed.

American sack suit illustrations, circa 1910.

Brooks Brothers sack suits

Suit made by American tailor Chris Despos

American style suit made by Japanese Tailor Caid

Around this time in Britain the lounge suit was gaining popularity as well but in a way that retained its origins with the military elite and upper class nobility. Shoulders were built-up and stiff canvassing were used, and compared to their American counterparts, jackets were cut closer to the body (until teh drape), sleeves were narrower, waists were nipped in and gently curved around the hips. The result was a garment that reflected the grand tradition of stately dress, becoming the iconic British style that we know today. And since at that time the British Empire included almost one-fourth of the globe, a recent article on the Beeb’s webpage ponders whether Regency London is responsible for the suit’s place in the world today.

Prince Edward of Wales in a British lounge suit

Cary Grant in a London drape suit

David Beckwith in his Steed suits

Ermenegildo Zenga opened a textile school in 1910, and the 30’s saw the birth of Attolini, Canali, and Corneliani, but it wasn’t until the 50’s that Italian Style had an impact on men’s suits. That decade saw Brioni’s first runway show in the north and Kiton’s formation in the south. Both companies promoted craftsmanship combined with comfort, and has more or less remained so till today. In contrast to the regal uniform of the British jacket or the egalitarian look of the American jacket, the Italian jacket is effortless and airy. Overall padding, canvassing, and fabric are light and soft. And besides, who wouldn’t want to look like they live La Dolce Vita? Post-war Italy made a name for itself, and continues to exert a powerful influence even today.

Marchello Mastroianni in Divorzio all’italiana, 1961

Marcello Mastroianno in Matrimonio all’italiana, 1964

StyleForum user Gusvs in Antonio Liverano

Myself in Vittorio Palmisciano

So that’s it, right? Not exactly. Much can be said about French tailoring, which has its own distinct style. In addition to Camps de Luca’s trademark cran necker lapel, Derek of Die, Workwear wrote that Parisian tailor Smalto is known for his precise handwork, and Paul of Parisian Gentleman noted that the same can be said for French tailors in general. “The attention to detail is second to none.” Paul wrote an article discussing his own experiences with Cifonelli, and here’s a video showing the process in which they make their signature shoulder.

Then, too, there are the Japanese and Korean tailors, many of which have been influenced by or have themselves spent years under the tutelage of Italy’s most respected tailors and have started working on their own.

Nowadays one might question whether anything can truly be labeled “regional”. David, who writes for No Man Walks Alone, covered Simon Crompton’s Tailoring Symposium and observed that despite the panelists hailing from various countries, “…there seems to be an international consensus formed around “full chest, soft construction.” Every coat could be and is described in this way…perhaps this is the homogenizing influence of the Internet. Tailors of previous generations might have but sparse opportunities to see the handiwork of their brethren oceans away. But today they can access pictures at any moment.”

I’m not sure I’m either ready or qualified to defend whether regional stylistic details should remain so or not. Even if it’s nothing like the country of origin, like my grandmother’s spaghetti sauce, the only valid question for me is: is the end result good?

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Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

7 replies »

      • It certainly is – happy to be part of the article. I enjoyed the write up. I am actually drafting something right now that addresses some of your points (albeit tangentially).