It’s commonly accepted that all suit styles, however varied, can be reduced to three template fits that serve as their foundations. These three cuts have been named after the countries in which they originated: America, England, and Italy. This article will go in-depth, explaining each of these styles and their unique histories.
But first, a caveat. Here at Bespoke Unit, we usually advise men to try a suit in the British style. While the Italian style is geared towards smaller, slimmer men and the American fits everyone poorly (you’ll learn why below), we’ve found that the British style fits most equally well. It’s also the most given to variation (button number, lapel size, etc.) and eye-catching fabrics, like tweed and windowpane. Of course, no suggestion compares to personal experience and knowledge.
However, if you want to learn about different suit styles, we currently offering the following guides:
What Is The Best Suit Cut For Your Body Type?
Certain suit silhouettes will work better for you depending on your body type. If you don’t know what yours is, take a look at our guide to body types and you’ll get a good idea very quickly!
British suits tend to be sympathetic to any body type. The military-inspired cut makes men look lean, muscular, and regal. You can go to the British Suits section of this page to learn more about this specific and if this suit style will work for you.
Italian suits work better for any man who’s small-framed, as many Italian men are. Short, thin guys are well-served by the characteristically short jacket and high buttoning stance of Italian suits, and thin men look sharper in their slimmer fit. Jump to the Italian Suits section for more information on Italian cut suits and which body types these suits are best for fit for.
American suits, to be honest, aren’t terribly flattering to many due to their historically boxy, looser fit. With that said, heavyset men may feel more comfortable in them as their straight lines can hang more neatly on their bodies. To find out more about American suits you can skip ahead to the American Suits section below.
Traditional British Suiting: Savile Row
- 2 buttons
- Side vents
- Tapered waist
- Higher armholes
A Look Back In Time
By the mid-19th century, Savile Row, a street in London’s Mayfair district, had become world-famous for its bespoke tailors. True ‘bespoke’ tailoring, in which every suit detail is made from scratch to a customer’s specifications, is the preserve only of the word’s best tailors. These skilled artisans were attracted to the Mayfair area by its affluent residents, mainly surgeons and officers in the British military. London’s wealthy flocked to Savile Row, and soon a distinctly British suit style was born.
Because it originated in the practices of true bespoke tailoring, traditional British suiting has a far more ‘fitted’ look than the mass-produced styles that became emblematic of American style. Higher armholes made for closer-fitting sleeves. More elaborate, and expensive, construction lent the British suit a tapered waist. Lightly padded-shoulders, probably borrowed from highly-stylized military uniforms. And side vents garnered from a rich equestrian history that, by the time American suiting had solidified into a ‘style,’ was out-moded.
No country has contributed more innovations to men’s dress wear than England. Savile Row’s place in the formal history of suiting was cemented in the 1860s, when the Prince of Wales ordered a tailless smoking jacket, a relatively informal jacket style, made out of the fabrics traditional for a tailcoat. Tailcoats were de rigeur formal wear among Britain’s nobility and wealthier classes. But the Prince’s new style, called a dinner jacket, began a trend that revolutionized British fashion, introducing casual styles into the strictly regulated canon of English dress wear.
It’s interesting to note that, in England, the dinner jacket was only accepted as formal wear after months of resistance from the country’s elite. While in America, a dinner jacket, or tuxedo as it’s commonly known, is the height of dress wear.
Traditional American Suiting: The Sack Suit
Main Characteristics Of An American Suit
- 3 Buttons
- Center Vent
- No shoulder padding
- Loose fit
At the turn of the 20th century, a distinctly American suit style emerged among the world’s fashions: the sack suit. Modeled after a French coat popularized during the 1840s, the sack suit was loosely-fitted, giving its wearer a soft silhouette. “Sack,” though, did not refer to the suit’s bagginess, but to a traditional French construction technique. Rather than forming the jacket’s back from four curved pieces of fabric, as was standard for formal wear, a ‘sacque’ coat was made using only two, straight panels. This technique gives the sack suit its characteristically ‘boxy’ look.
Traditionally, sack suits are:
- Without shoulder-padding
- Without ‘darts,’ or folds that are sewn into a suit jacket’s canvas layer to increase the three-dimensionality of its elements, like lapels. Darts generally create a more ‘tailored’ look.
We owe the sack suit’s ascendance to American ubiquity almost solely to economic factors. Manufacturers were looking for low-cost garments to produce in large quantities, garments that lent themselves to industrialized production. Because the sack style was meant to look baggy, it was already a one-size-fits-all product: less variation was less expensive.
Established clothiers like Brooks Brothers and J. Press accepted this logic and set their machinery to full-steam. The style was quickly adopted as a collegiate ‘uniform’ by Ivy Leaguers seeking a care-free, but not entirely informal, style of dress. By the late 1950s, a sack-style suit was the standard for American business attire, despite it’s original French intention, extreme informality.
Today, the sack suit retains some of the “Ivy League” connotations with which it was born. Namely, a strain of American pragmatic conservatism. The sack suit has come to represent an “old guard” mentality, the States’ equivalent of a landed gentry.
But it’s lack of ‘fussiness,’ the fact that a sack suit can fit any body type and is generally cheap, ensures that it will never veer toward overt elitism. At one time, the sack style was an emblem of America’s democratic aspirations.
Decline In Popularity: A Speculative Interpretation
Still, the sack suit has fallen out of style in America. Why? There is the apparent aesthetic explanation: to contemporary tastes, a sack suit is ugly. There is a functional response: baggy suits don’t ‘work’ as well as those that fit. Then, there is the financial elitist’s response: because it’s mass-produced, it’s cheap; because it’s cheap, it bears no value for the wealthy. And the wealthy rule the world of fashion no less than any other.
I think that the sack suit’s decline in popularity can also be linked to America’s widespread villification of mass-production. Since at least the 1960s, mass-production has increasingly meant offshoring labor. Which is to say that, increasingly, mass-production is no longer America’s hope, but the doom of the American economy. Perhaps the sack suit’simpersonal silhouette bears a bit of America’s economic decline on its soft-shouldered back.
Traditional Italian Suiting
Main Characteristics Of An Italian Suit
- No pocket flaps
- No vents
- Padded shoulders
- Very slim and tailored waist
In the 1950s, America’s sartorially-engaged public was introduced to the “Continental” style suit cut. Although this new look was largely a product of American marketers, it bore some resemblances to the suiting traditional in Italy and France. The “Continental” presented a highly tailored silhouette, with padded shoulders, a slim, tight-fitting chest, and closely tapered waist. The story was that Italian culture valued aesthetics over all else, and thus sought the “cleanest” suit style possible. Vents would have broken the suit’s lines, so most Continental jackets were ventless. And jetted pockets were traditional, leaving the suit’s waist a seamless visual impression. Commonly, jackets bore two buttons, which slightly elongated the torso (the average male height in Italy is 5’9″, compared to America’s 5’10”).
Brioni, a venerated Italian fashion house, is widely credited as the innovator of the “Continental” style. They introduced their “Roman Style” to the world in 1952, at the first fashion show to feature a male model as its focal point. In 1953, Roman Holiday, the first American film shot entirely in Italy, won Best Picture. The film’s star, Gregory Peck, wore Brioni suits cut in the Roman style, officially launching America’s obsession with the slim, Continental fit. At the time the “new” Italian style suit quickly eclipsed both the sack suit and the British-style fit in popularity.
Suit Styles Conclusion
We believe that there is a strong resurgence of the British Cut; as more men become interested in the historical origins, craftsmanship, and overall flattering cut of the “British” suit. However, now that you have got a little history and style knowledge, what’s your preferred cut? Let us know below in the comment section or on one of your social profiles.
If you’d like to learn more about the different suit styles and see some great pictures we recommend you read Sharp Suits by Eric Musgrave. Alternatively, if you’re curious to see our deeper dives on the three main styles of suits, click any of the links below to be directed to their respective pages:
You can currently also learn about other suit styles including the following: