Style / September 2015

The Noble Ninefold Path to Suit Enlightenment, Part IV

The Rake’s Founder & Editor-in-Chief continues to traverse the path to suit enlightenment, this week discussing the suit’s back, waist and sleeves.

Step Six: The Back

It's ironic that the majority of us only gauge the fit of a coat using the visual evidence before our eyes. But the fit of a coat across the back is even more important in terms of how it affects overall comfort. A coat must fit smoothly across the back, with little evidence of horizontal pull marks even as you move your arm. If slight creases appear, you can ask the alterations tailor if there is sufficient material in the coat's back seam to let it out. There must also be sufficient material over the shoulder blades and, in particular, just under the arms so that you can move freely without discomfort.

The Back Neck

Says John Hitchcock, 'The neck of a good coat should always stay on the shirt collar.' Trying on your coat, move your arms to check if the neck of the coat begins to stand away from the shirt collar. If so, this must be remedied by the alterations tailor. Similarly, if there is a roll of material just below the neck of the coat, or if there is visible straining across the trapezius muscle, alterations need to be made. Men looking to lengthen their appearance or to flatter a long neck should look for coats with slightly higher collars.

Step Seven: The Waist and the Buttoning Point

The 'front quarters' are the open area where the shirt and tie, or T-shirt and gold necklaces should you be in Miami, are framed between the lapels to form an inverted pyramid, which extends to the button closure of the coat. One belief is that the longer the front quarters, the longer the accompanying lapel line and the more height is emphasised. But it's not as simple as this: the buttoning point of a suit is, as Alan Flusser (author of the excellent sartorial educational tome Dressing The Man), describes, 'what the fulcrum is to a seesaw... if incorrectly positioned, a delicate balance is lost'.

So, where should the waist button be? The natural waist is a tailoring term for where your torso is the narrowest. It is higher than you might think it is, below the rib cage and well above the hips. Place your hands around your ribs and slide them downwards until you find the narrowest point of your midsection. This is your natural waist. Another yardstick to finding it is to place your arms to either side of your body. The crook of your elbow usually marks your natural waist.

Traditionally, the waist button of the coat should be placed ½ inch below the natural waist. Suppression should reach its tightest at, or just above, the natural waist. How much suppression exists at the waist depends on your physique and whether you're willing to sacrifice style for comfort. Coats with slightly built-up shoulders and fuller chests allow the illusion of a suppressed waist by creating the 'Atlas' silhouette.

Rakish Tip: When having the waist of a ready-to-wear jacket taken in, ensure the tailor does so through the side seam so as to create more shape rather than just tightening the coat. On a double-breasted jacket, never allow a tailor to simply change the button position on the coat to make it tighter - this is lazy and unacceptable, and the mark of a cad.

The Function Of Vents

Vents are the vertical openings in your jacket that allow you access to your trouser pockets with ease when your jacket is buttoned, and also aid significantly in freedom of movement.

There are three types of vents found in coats: single-vented, side-vented and non-vented.

The single vent evolves from the hacking coat, which was created to meet the needs of the horse-rider. But try to place your hand in your pocket when strolling down the street in your single-vented coat, and you'll find the vent uncovers the seat of your pants.

The vent-less suit provides the trimmest line. However, attempt to put your hands in your pockets or sit, and you'll appear as if you're trying to escape a straitjacket.

Since most of us like to access our pockets and occasionally take a seat, the most practical and consistently flattering vents are the side vents. In terms of length, the beginning of the vents should occur at a point below the waistline of your trousers, and the flap should fall in a smooth line and not pull open over your buttocks when the coat is buttoned. Check also for a sufficient amount of overlap, and that the lip of the overlapping vent is angled to prevent gaping.

Step Eight: Sleeve Length

A man is never fully dressed without the display of a little shirt cuff. This practice is called 'showing linen', as in the past, shirts were literally considered to be undergarments or 'linen'. The majority of men wear their coat and shirtsleeves too long. Coat sleeves should end just below the wrist bone, while shirtsleeves should just crest but not cover the palm. When gauging the length of the coat sleeve, you must wear a correctly fitted dress shirt. You should also bend your arm when the coat sleeve is pinned to see how it affects the relationship with the cuff.

In terms of proportion, a shorter man will be better flattered by the display of less shirt cuff (1/4 to 1/2 inch), while it's more proportional for a taller man to display more (3/4 to 1 inch). It is, however, important for a shorter man to display at least some cuff, for a sleeve that appears to swallow his hand will make him look like he's wearing a larger man's clothes and bring attention to his small stature. (Refer to the previous image of the Duke of Windsor for an example of the perfect sleeve length for a smaller man.)

When fitting sleeve length, precision is vital. Very few of us have equal-length arms, and as such, it is unacceptable for an alterations tailor to simply pin up one sleeve and use this to hem the other sleeve. What he should do is hem one side to the sleeve length you prefer. He should then measure the distance from the hem of your sleeve to the tip of your thumb, and use this to hem the other sleeve so that it is precisely the same distance from your other thumb. Take as long as you want during this process you have to get it exactly right.

Rakish Tip: Ask the tailor how far from the sleeve hem the first button will appear. It should always be 4 cm from the hem.

Sleeve width

While men are all aware that the sleeve hem should be altered, fewer are aware that sleeve width plays such an important part in your appearance. A sleeve should fit in such a way that your shirt cuff fits nicely underneath, but it should not have excess material to flap about indecorously. In a ready-to-wear jacket, if your sleeve is too wide ask the alterations tailor what can be done to narrow it.

Note that generally, sleeves should only be narrowed from the elbow to the wrist because you never want to alter the sleeve head of the jacket.

Rakish Tip: Never allow anyone to alter the sleeve length of a jacket for you by altering it at the shoulders. If someone suggests this, immediately thwack him in the head with your walking stick as if he were a mime with no sense of personal space. The way a sleeve head is sewn into a shoulder seam is one of the most delicate operations in tailoring, involving filling in the added width of the sleeve head into the smaller armhole, so it should never be un-stitched and re-stitched by the alterations tailor.

 

Part III of the Noble Ninefold Path to Suit Enlightenment can be found here. Part II is also available to read herePart I can be found here, and the Introduction to the series here.

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Wei Koh

The Rake's Founder & Editorial Director.