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. You’re more than welcome to read the entire article, but feel free to click any of the following links to jump to the section that most interests you:
- What Makes An American Suit “American?”
- American Suit Vs British Suit
- American Suit Vs Italian Suit
- History Of American Suits
- Is An American Cut Suit Right For Your Body Type?
What Makes An American Suit “American?”
Here’s a brief hit list of the details that we typically 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: Brooks Brothers, J.Press, & Sack Suits
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.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s 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 1990’s. 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. Though 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 1840’s 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 features higher armholes, any waist suppression whatsoever, a darted jacket, and a two-button closure.
This was introduced to the States back in the mid-1960’s 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.
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 avoid them.
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: