Lapels are found on sport coats, suit jackets, and even overcoats. Indeed, they’re a central feature of men’s tailoring and despite having little functional use today, they have an important aesthetic role.
In this guide, you will learn about the function of the lapel, how to wear it, and how it can be decorated for additional style. We’ve broken down the article with the following talking points:
You can use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all.
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What Are Lapels?
Overall, lapels are simply flaps of folded cloth on the edges of a jacket or coat near the collar. Like many menswear components, they’re largely military in origin.
In the late-18th century, coats featured a collar that stood up at the back with large lapels at the front. These front lapels could be flattened over one another and buttoned up to protect the neck and chest from harsh winds.
The style became particularly popular during the 19th-century Regency period and the large lapels were often worn folded backwards rather than fastened. As their functionality waned, the lapels become smaller but the jackets retained decorative buttons and their holes or “boutonnières”.
Today, the buttons have all but disappeared. However, a decorative boutonnière can be found on almost every jacket as an allusion to its origins. Sometimes, coats or countryside sports coats may feature a button a functional buttonnière to provide some level of wind protection if desired.
Lapels have played a role in fashion trends and have often changed in size and shape. Contemporary styles often have quite thin lapels that offer little to no functionality.
On rare occasions, lapels have been criticised to be rudimentary decorations that consist of unnecessary flaps. However, jackets without lapels are quite rare. You may sporadically see some Nehru-style jackets or some sporting Mandarin collars.
Yet, the vast majority of jackets in the western world feature lapels. Similarly, you may notice that lapels are ironically absent on most formal dress uniforms today despite its military origins.
How to Choose Your Lapel Style
You may have noticed that there are several lapel styles that can be found on coats and jackets. Each one serves a similar purpose but is usually associated with a different level of formality.
Typically, lapels are grouped into three distinctive styles:
If you want to learn more about each style and when it is best worn, we suggest that you check out the individual guides above. Alternatively, we have another guide, which compares all three in a single place.
In short, the notch lapel is the most universal style that will be seen on most blazers, coats, and jackets. It’s by far the most versatile and easiest to wear in most casual and formal environments.
Meanwhile, the peak lapel is the most formal. It is typically associated with black tie and double-breasted jackets. However, it can be found on formal single-breasted business suits as well as some overcoats.
Finally, the shawl lapel is a throwback to smoking jackets and will occasionally be found on some tuxedo jackets.
How To Decorate A Lapel
Although a lapel can still be stylishly and elegantly laid bare, there are a number of ways to ornament it for extra panache.
Firstly, while it’s not on the lapel itself, you can use the breast pocket to add a pocket square. This simple attention to detail can already help impart visual interest to your suit. You can learn more about how to wear one and the best brands with our guides to pocket squares.
We’re particularly fond of lapel flowers as a colourful way to decorate your lapel. Although fresh floral boutonnières are still popular at weddings, you can easily find synthetic or stylised flowers to wear on a daily basis instead. You can learn more about lapel flowers with our full guide.
Alternatively, people often wear lapel pins to show their support or allegiance to a sports club, society, or hobby. Although more subtle that lapel flowers, care should be taken in choosing a pin that is appropriate for some professional or social circles.
For instance, many pins are used for political or religious expression, which may not always be appreciated in secular circles.
Finally, some people may argue that a pocket square is enough and you don’t need additional accoutrements. Furthermore, they may even suggest that wearing both a lapel flower and pocket square is excessive and too busy.
Indeed, traditionally the wearer should wear only one or the other. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to stylishly wear both.
How Wide Should Lapels Be?
Lapel width changes every few years. The sixties saw skinny mod lapels, and the 1970s saw huge, four-inch-wide lapels. What’s correct?
While lapel width should be determined by your frame as mentioned above, the commonly accepted lapel width is 3 3/8″ (8.6 cm) at its widest point. *
As it happens, this reaches the halfway point between the fold of the lapel and your shoulder. This is an intentional tailoring concept that works well regardless of body type.
However, you can take stylistic liberties if you are careful in harmonising the whole outfit. Indeed, consider your tie’s length and aim for consistency to ensure that it’s coherent. For instance, we would suggest a narrow lapel to be paired with a slim tie and vice versa.
If you wear a wide tie with narrow lapels, you’ll notice that it doesn’t quite feel right.
Now that you have an introduction to lapels, why not check out our in-depth lapel resources? You can see them all by clicking the links below: