This article is part of our series on national suit styles. We’ll be talking about America’s role in the global suiting canon, the details of what makes an American suit American, and where these suits come from.
Unlike British and Italian tailoring, which you can learn about in the guides linked in the menu below, American suits have greatly evolved since their conception. Therefore, this guide will endeavour to break it down in a way that’s easy to understand.
In this guide, you will learn the following:
- What Makes An American Suit “American?”
- American Suit Vs British Suit
- American Suit Vs Italian Suit
- History Of American Suits
- American-Style Suits Today
- Where To Buy An American Suit
- Is An American Cut Suit Right For Your Body Type?
Use the links in the menu above to jump ahead or scroll down to learn more.
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What Makes An American Suit “American?”
Here’s a brief hit list of the details that we traditionally see on American-style suits:
- Center Vent
- 3-button single-breasted stance
- Dartless Front
- No Shoulder Padding
- No Waist Suppression
- Unpleated, Uncuffed, Low-Slung Trousers
American Suit Vs British Suit
If you take a British suit, remove its waist suppression, and lower its armholes, you get an American suit. Further, British suits are almost never made in three-button single-breasted stances, whereas this is relatively commonplace for American suits.
American Suit Vs Italian Suit
Traditional American suits and the ones you’ll find at the likes of Jos.A Bank and other such retailers are, in many ways, the polar opposites of Italian or Continental suits. American suits are known for looseness, lack of shape, and a general sense of being about a size too big.
Italian suits, on the other hand, are known for extreme cleanliness, slimness, and lack of bulk. They can get so slim, in fact, that their wearers can come off, as Flusser has said, “as walking phallic symbols.”
History Of The American Suit
On the positive stereotype front, America is known for a love of equality. Whether or not it lives up to that ideal is worthy of debate, but as it relates to suits, keeping this in mind makes the sack suit make sense, as it was a suit designed for anyone to wear.
Brooks Brothers’ “No. 1 Sack Suit” was released in 1901. A child of the Industrial Revolution, the Sack suit was the first-ever mass-produced tailored garment for men.
Mass-produced garments, to be economically viable to the companies making them, need to fit what we call the “largest common denominator.” In terms of suits, this translates to a boxy fit with large armholes (a small man can fit into large armholes, but a large man can’t fit into small ones).
The ability to walk into a retail store and buy tailored clothing that was ready to wear was unheard of at the time.
The Rise Of The Sack Suit
It wasn’t until the 1920s when Brooks’ invention became popular. Ivy Leaguers (students at elite Northeastern American universities such as Harvard or Yale) were the ones to fall in love with the suit and popularize it, wearing it with penny loafers.
Interestingly, the sack suit was considered fine for college kids at the time, but inappropriate for grown men. As college kids became adults, they were expected to dress with more sophistication.
Baggy clothing has typically been the purview of the young, especially those of us who grew up in the sartorially dreadful 1990s. That college kids seventy years prior were wearing baggy versions of their parents’ clothes serves as proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
After the Second World War, the sack suit’s popularity amongst middle-aged adults soared. In large part we can attribute this phenomenon to a common desire of postwar American men to blend into the background, desiring peace and quiet after years of violence and war.
A suit that retained the wearer’s anonymity through shapelessness was the perfect uniform for that.
The Sack suit became the silhouette of choice for American men in the 1950’s. Although Brooks Brothers barely makes them anymore, J.Press, the last bastion of American sartorial conservatism, makes nearly all of their tailored clothing in this silhouette.
Similarities To French Tailored Clothing
Though the term “sack” is commonly thought to refer to the jacket’s fit, this is actually a misattribution of meaning.
The suit’s coat is actually modeled off of a French coat popularized in the 1840s that also had a boxy look that hung straight down from the shoulders.
Technically, it refers to a French construction technique: rather than forming the jacket’s back from four pieces of curved fabric (the standard for formal wear at the time), the sacque coat was made using only two straight panels. This gave the garment its boxy look.
The Modern American Suit: Moving Away From The Sack
Even with the sack suit having fallen mostly out of favor, there is still an American silhouette to stand alongside the traditional British and Italian ones. When you get down to it, this “new American” suit is really a blend of the smartness of the British drape cut and the comfort of the American sack suit.
It usually features higher armholes, any waist suppression whatsoever, a darted jacket, and a two-button closure. However, you can occasionally expect some waist suppression for a more tapered hourglass shape as well as additional padding in the shoulder for structure.
This was introduced to the States back in the mid-1960s by Paul Stuart, who still makes beautiful garments in this silhouette. Ralph Lauren’s Polo suits make use of this silhouette, and Alan Flusser’s custom shop in New York excels in this silhouette.
All in all, the American suit has Anglicized itself, thus increasing its sophistication but maintaining its comfort.
Where To Buy An American-Cut Suit
While we mentioned a few brands that continue to focus on making American suits, you can also shop elsewhere. We recommend the following top 5 best brands for buying an American-style suit:
- Indochino: Made-to-measure suit brand with both online platforms and physical stores.
- Black Lapel: More high-end made-to-measure suit producer with precision fitting and craftsmanship.
- Brooks Brothers: Despite the comments above, Brooks Brothers continues to produce American-style suits.
- Charles Tyrwhitt: Although a British Jermyn Street brand, it offers relaxed fits that incorporate British tailoring.
- JCPenny: JCPenney offers garments that embody the very identity of the American sack suit.
Given how American suits tend to have a loose and relaxed fit, we would suggest that you opt for made-to-measure tailoring. It’s essential that the suit fits properly as a relaxed suit that’s even slightly too big may risk looking like you’ve raided your dad’s wardrobe.
Although going custom sounds pricey, both Indochino and Black Lapel offer excellent value. Indochino produces very affordable suits and you can enjoy a 10% discount when you spend more than $399 with our code “BESPOKEUNIT“.
Likewise, you can use the code “FTOBESPOKEUNIT” for $25 off your order when shopping with Black Lapel. Although slightly pricier and online-only, Black Lapel offers superior construction and fabrics.
Conclusion: Is An American Suit Right For My Body Type?
If you’re unsure of your body type, take a quick look at our body type guide. You’ll be able to determine yours very quickly.
Even with that said, we have to say that the traditional sack suit does no one any favors, unless your primary concern is not standing out in a crowd. Note that the “new American” suit as we described above will work for the same body types as a British suit.
Average men, who look good in anything, will look just fine in a sack suit.
Heavier guys benefit from the straight fit of the sack suit’s jacket and the looseness of its trousers. If tailored properly, it will turn out neat and clean, which is what you’re looking for.
Thin men will look like they’re swimming in a sack suit and should generally avoid them or get them heavily tailored.
Tall men of average weight will look fine in an American suit, but they won’t look great. Opt for a new American or British suit instead.
Big & Tall
A guy who’s classified as “big and tall” can benefit from the proportions of the sack suit. Again, we ask that the suit be well-tailored so as to appear neat.
Tall & Thin
Tall, thin men should opt for new American or British suits. A sack suit will make him appear so thin as to look gaunt.
The jury is out regarding short men in sack suits, specifically around the button stance. One school of thought says that the three-button single-breasted jacket found on sack suits will make you look taller, while the other says that the longer lapel roll of a two-button jacket emphasizes height.
We say opt for Italian or British regardless. The relative shapelessness of the sack suit won’t hurt you, but it won’t make you appear any taller.
Short & Heavyset
Short, heavier men can get away with a sack suit, but you must be extra vigilant that the jacket isn’t too long. Make sure you explore your options regarding short jacket sizes when shopping, which would look like “44S” on a 44 jacket, for example.
Short & Thin
Short, thin men gain nothing from wearing a sack suit and lose everything. Wear literally anything else.
Regardless of your body type, if you’re a vintage enthusiast, you’ll likely find yourself in a sack suit regardless. To this, we say, “more power to you.”
To learn about the other suit nationalities, click either of the links below:
This article is laughable at best. There are no American style suits. We take our cues from the dominant trend, which I may add is European. There is still a market out there for three button traditional suits, however it is a small percentage of suits sold. Most suit wearers know that one style does not fit all. By that I mean many guys can wear a traditional cut jacket as a more muscular client would need the larger armhole. If you knew anything about suits, you know a client with large muscular pecks and biceps can not comfortable wear a slim or tailor fit suit jacket. Furthermore……NO ONE SELLS THREE BUTTON SUITS OFF THE RACK. However, we can make one of you desired. When was the last time you stepped into a fine suit selling establishment…..sounds like a decade or so.
To some degree, I do see where you’re coming from. This suit style is waning in popularity thanks to the European influence. However, it still exists and is very much present today albeit at a less exaggerated degree than in the past.
It would be amiss to overlook the American style suit given its prevalence in tailoring history. Tailors themselves will continue to refer to this type of cut as “American” whereas the more popular styles will often be regarded as British and European even if they’re in demand and popular in the USA.
Additionally, you seem to be looking at this from a strictly ready-to-wear perspective. Indeed, an slim-cut off-the-rack jacket will be difficult for a muscular gentleman to wear. However, he can have a suit tailored to his measurements that effectively retains this effect.
Indeed, we do go to both RTW retailers and tailors on a regular basis. Many still sell three-button suits so I’m not quite sure where you got that impression.
All the best,
I can’t emphasise how fortunate I feel to have stumbled upon this article – it’s pure gold. I am in the process of getting a bespoke made American Style jacket and I have been having the most difficult of time trying to get the message across to the tailor of how it should look. They are a Hong Kong based tailoring shop and they mainly do British style, but also Italian and Japanese..
I will use this article as a reference point when I speak to the tailor next!
@Admin, may I private message / e-mail you?
I would like to pick your brain and get your opinion on some of the style elements of an american / Ivy style sports jacket.
Thanks for your comment and kind words!
If it’s all the same to you, would you mind leaving your questions as a comment? They may be beneficial to future readers with similar questions and we’re all about sharing information! Would that be okay?
So my questions are:
– When you say “no padding” for the shoulders, does that mean minimal padding or none whatsoever?
– Looking at John Kennedy wearing sack style tweed jackets I always notice ever so slight suppression around the waist. However in your article you mention “No waist suppresion”. Not even a little bit?
Also, does this article apply for sack style sports jackets or just stricly for the Sack Suit?
There is a Japanese tailor in Tokyo, Mr. Ishizu (http://www.ivy-style.com/the-man-who-brought-ivy-to-japan.html) who brought Ivy style to Japan mid-20th century. His legacy endures. Also, here (https://www.esquire.com/style/mens-fashion/a22804481/japan-tokyo-ame-tra-american-traditionalist-style-fashion/) is a Tokyo tailor, Mr. Yasuto Kamoshita. He has Ivy League American sack style down pat: either 2-button or 3!
Very interesting. Thanks, Stephen!
All the best,
Hi Nimzowitsch! You contacted me via TI – did not notice until now. :) Ad American sports coats: minimal padding, no padding is rare… waist suppression is ok, but not too much. I can recommend you a bespoke tailor in Vienna who can do such a sports coat, if you want. Best, Dom
I think the that waist can be taken in. Nevertheless, this is usually quite minimal to improve fit while retaining the boxy style. As for the shoulders, they do have some padding in order to create some structure.
Thanks for the article. I detest the current styles; reminds me of pencil suits of the ‘60s, popular when I was a child. They look to me as I’ll-fitting and uncomfortable. I particularly dislike the shorter jackets and pants. I pray a soon return to the styles of the ‘80s. As a side note: based on my height (5’7”) I should require a short jacket, but every time the salesmen put them on me, they shake their heads and say, “you need a regular fit jacket; we;ll just have to hem the sleeves”. An objective, knowledgeable sales clerk is invaluable.
I can understand that. I’m more partial to British tailoring myself, which is fitted but not overly tapered. However, I can understand the appeal of Italian-inspired fitted suits. However, I completely agree with regards to jackets and trousers that are far too short.
It’s interesting that you say that a knowledgeable sales clerk is invaluable. We often talk about the importance of an expert local tailor in our alterations guides. Indeed, it makes a phenomenal difference.
All the best,