What Are Italian Or Continental Suits? A Gentlemen’s Primer

What Are Italian Or Continental Suits? A Gentlemen’s Primer2018-06-07T14:24:50+00:00

This article is an installment of our series on suit styles which includes comprehensive guides on American suits and British suits. We invite you to read the page in its entirety, but you can also click any of the following links to jump to the section you’d most like to see:

For now, we’ll discuss the style of suit that most people associate with high fashion and sophistication: the Italian suit.

What Is An Italian Suit Cut?

Graphic Of Italian Suits

Though there are different intra-Italian variations on the Continental suit, they tend to share some common traits, which are:

  • Flapless pockets
  • Ventless jackets
  • High gorge
  • Higher-than-average button stance
  • Slim, extremely clean silhouette

Where the British suit makes use of superfluous fabric known as “drape,” Italian suits are more concerned with looking “clean.” This means no wrinkles or excess fabric. Fit is exacting and slim.

Italian Or Continental Suits: What’s The Difference?

You will often hear the words “Italian” and “Continental” used interchangeably in a discussion on suits. For the purposes of this article, we will do the same.

This is normal and not technically incorrect. “Continental” in this case refers to the continent of Europe and serves to separate these suits from their British (non-Continental) counterparts.

Continental is a more inclusive term than Italian, as it also makes reference to the French, who have a small suit making tradition of their own.

History & Different Styles Of Italian Suiting

Lo stile italiano was invented by Roman tailors shortly after the Second World War. Brioni, a Roman firm, is widely acknowledged as the inventor of the style. Their “Roman Style” was featured in the first-ever fashion show to be male-centric, back in 1952. While commonplace now, the idea of using male models at the time was groundbreaking.

Gregory Peck wore Brioni suits in 1953’s Roman Holiday, which won Best Picture. This sparked a craze for Italian suits in the American market that hadn’t been seen before. The States fell head-over-heels for the slim, handsome silhouette.

Despite the overall valuing of slimness and cleanliness, there are regional differences amongst the different Italian suit styles. Specifically, we see differences in what’s referred to as “shoulder expression,” or how the shoulder of the suit looks when the finished product is made. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll look at the Neapolitans and the Romans.

Neapolitan Suits

Naples has its own style of suit making and is the home of Kiton, one of the most renowned tailoring houses in the world. It’s known specifically for two types of shoulders: spalla camicia and con rollino.

Italian-Suit-Shoulders graphic

Spalla camicia, or “shirt shoulder,” is sometimes referred to as a “natural shoulder.” It’s called a shirt shoulder because it follows the natural shape of the wearer’s shoulder and has little, if any, padding. On very high-end jackets made by the likes of Kiton, there is often gentle pleating or “waterfalling” that occurs at the top of the sleeve crown. This is a sign of a handmade garment and is demonstrative of the southern Italian sense of ease.

Con rollino, which roughly translates to, “with a little roll” is the other main Neopolitan shoulder style. Also referred to as a “pagoda” or “trumpet” shoulder, this shoulder expression is built up about 1/4″ above the trapezoid. It’s highly structured and adds a little bit of height to the wearer.

Shirring is one of the more interesting aspects of the Italian shoulder expression. In a nutshell, it’s pleating seen at a sleeve crown. This is achieved by cutting the upper sleeve larger than the armscye. Because there’s more cloth than there is room to put it, pleating results.

To novices, this looks like a sloppy error. To the cognoscenti, this is a delightful detail signifying that a suit is handmade, and it also offers additional comfort and freedom of movement.

Roman Suits

The Roman shoulder is most similar to a British one: it’s structured, unpleated, slightly padded, and sits evenly with the trapezoid. It tends to be standard in various Italian tailoring houses.

Both Roman and Neapolitan tailoring houses often make use of what’s called a barchetta, which translates to “little boat” but refers to an ever-so-slightly curved breast pocket that resembles a small sailboat.

Italian Fit Suits Vs British Suit Style

As far as tailored menswear is concerned, the British and the Italians are widely considered the gold standards of quality and aesthetic beauty. As has been discussed by the likes of Alan Flusser, both countries tend to value different qualities, specifically correctness versus individuality.

Without trying to paint with overly broad brushstrokes, the British are concerned with dressing correctly, whereas Italians value individualism.

Much of Britain’s tailored tradition comes from the wealthy upper classes: landed gentry, military officers, and the like. Strict social stratification over the course of hundreds of years certainly bled into what these classes were expected to wear. The reason to wear a dinner jacket after 6pm, repp stripe ties in certain colors, or morning dress at the Royal Enclosure at Ascot is to show that you are part of a group, that you belong. Sure, everything must be tailored impeccably, but the point is to not stand out.

In fact, it’s said that a British bespoke tailor hasn’t done his job if a client’s new suit looks “too new.”

Italians, on the other hand, seem to be more concerned with individual style and relaxing on the idea of correctness. Standing out is the whole point!

Our guess is that this is a function of the milder weather, which encourages behaviors we see more in Mediterranean Italy than we do in rainy Britain: sitting at outdoor cafés, taking a nightly passeggiata, that sort of thing. This “see and be seen” culture born of it being really, really nice out makes an individualistic, style-based approach to suits sensible.

That Italians tend to be more slightly built than their British counterparts helps to explain the affinity for slimmer fits.

Italian Suits Vs American Suits

Italian suits are complete opposites of their American cousins. The former are slim, clean, and can be fashionable to a fault (there is indeed such a thing as too slim). American suits are loose, boxy, and unstylish to a fault (comfort isn’t everything).

Is An Italian Suit Right For Your Body Type?

To answer this question, there’s really just one factor to consider: your body type. If you’re unsure of what your body type is, we strongly encourage you to click the preceding link. You’ll learn a lot about how to best dress your frame!

Below, we give a brief synopsis of how the Italian suit will (or will not) work with a given body type:

Average

Average men look good in anything, so if your preference is for a slimmer fit with modernized details, a continental suit would work very nicely for you.

Heavyset

Bigger guys should, generally speaking, avoid Italian suits. Their cut is not sympathetic to heavier frames.

Thin

Skinny men do well in Italian suits, as their slim-to-begin-with cut suits a thin man perfectly (pardon the pun).

Tall

Tall men are better served by British suits than Italian ones. The shorter jacket and higher gorge of Italian suits emphasize height, which the tall man doesn’t need.

Big & Tall

For reasons listed above for both heavyset and tall men, big-and-tall guys should stick to British or American suits, not Italian ones.

Tall & Thin

Again, a British suit would be ideal for this body type, though the slim features of Italian suiting would work well with a thin man. If possible, opt for a regular-length jacket and yes, you can wear an Italian suit.

Short

Men under 5’6″ do well in Italian suits. The shorter jacket and higher gorge will give the illusion of height.

Short & Heavyset

While short men of regular build do well in Italian suits, being short and heavyset can throw a wrench into the works. Either have it strategically tailored, or stick to British suits.

Short & Thin

Short, thin men are the ideal candidates for Italian suits. They will sync beautifully with your slender frame, and the overall shorter jacket will serve to make you appear less short.

To learn more about the other styles of suits, click any of the following links:

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.