Proportion – the Foundation of Style (p.3): Into the fitting room

Here is an all-too-poignant example of why today’s fashion-conscious male does not dress better. As this contemporary photograph graphically illustrates, even the most classic clothing can be compromised by poor fit. While this black-and-white shot projects an unmistakable aura of elegance, the poor fit of the model’s jacket and shirt collar, not to mention his dress shirt and jacket’s voluminous cuffs, is one more reminder of the need for self-sufficiency in all matters sartorial, particularly fit.

Once inside the fitting room, surrounded by mirrors, tape measures, and the like, most men relinquish questions of styling and fit to the store’s salesperson or tailor. Years ago, when men’s fashions were less fickle and tailors were better trained in the protocol of proper dress, this was a reasonable act of faith. However, today’s fitting tailor is often obligated to alter clothes in conformity with the wishes of the suit’s designer or the store owner. While the independent-minded tailor with real expertise can be found, the preponderance of floor tailors are simply duty-bound cogs in the store’s assembly line, anxious to get you out with as few alterations as possible – hardly people to defer to in matters concerning taste or correctness.

Fortunately, the correct fitting of a man’s suit is not the arcane science that it is often made out to be. It is something that can be learned. Since a man’s suit is made to fit a standard form and no two people are built exactly alike, only one man in a hundred is likely to step into a ready-made suit and find that it needs no alterations. Once again, the more knowledgeable you can become about how your clothes should fit in relation to your unique architecture, the more likely you are to walk out with an elegantly tailored result.

As for the preliminaries, when first putting on a ready-made suit to be fitted, make sure you have your wallet in your pocket and your keys or cell phone wherever you normally keep them. No sense in having a breast-pocket billfold produce a bulge when the suit can be altered to hide it. It is also a good idea to wear or bring along a representative dress shirt with the correct sleeve length and collar height to help in the fitting process. Dress shoes with the proper heel height can aid establishing the correct trouser length and bottom width.

Proper fitting can do much for an inexpensive suit, while a poor fit can scuttle the most expensively hand-tailored creation. If a three-thousand-dollar suit’s collar bounces off your neck as you walk, the suit’s value will be severely compromised. The jacket collar that creeps up or stands away from your neck is the fault of the tailor, unless you assumed a posture other than your normal one during the fitting. After slipping on the trousers and jacket, stand naturally in front of the mirror, and not as if you had just graduated West Point or are anticipating losing ten pounds.

Having already established that the jacket’s “bone” harmonize with your own, you should begin the suit’s fitting at the top. In addition to the shoulder’s relationship to the head, its width needs to be generous enough to permit the jacket’s fabric to fall from the shoulder in an unbroken line all the way down the sleeve. Also needed is enough fullness across the back and chest for the lapels to lie flat without gapping open.

This part of the fitting procedure can cause all kinds of problems, because there are those men, frequently accompanied by like-minded women, who feel that for a man’s jacket to fit to perfection, it should be wrinkle-free, meaning it should look as if the fabric were painted on the body. For starters, there should be sufficient fullness over the shoulder blades for a slight break, or fold of fabric, to extend up the back from below the armholes. Unless the wearer doesn’t mind donning a flawlessly fitting straitjacket, these folds ensure that there is enough room for movement and comfort.

Fifty percent of all tailored jackets need some kind of collar alteration to make them hug the wearer’s neck. Watch that the collar does not stand away or have horizontal ridges below the base of the neck, a sign that the collar must be lowered by cutting away the excess fabric under the collar. If there are tension lines pulling across the shoulder blades, the back is too tight and must be let out a little.

The jacket collar at the back should always be at such a height that at least half an inch of shirt collar shows above it. This way the jacket not only looks best but hangs correctly. Were it any higher, the collar would chafe against the neck; were it lower, the jacket would look as if it was sliding off your back. Since many fabrics fit and drape differently, this is a common alteration that can be competently performed by most store tailors.

Once the jacket’s shoulders, chest, and neck are deemed satisfactory, continue the inspection downward. The waist shoul be slightly suppressed, responding to the natural curves of the body underneath. You can tell if the fit is too tight by looking for X-shaped lines forming on either side of the fastend waist button. If too pronounced, the waist should be let out. When buttoned, it should have enough room for you to sit down comfortably, although no style points are lost for unbuttoning a jacket when seated. The tailor can usually adjust the waist to your liking, but be careful not to have it taken in to the point where horizontal creases appear in the small of the back, tugging on the jacket’s hip and pulling the rear vent(s) open. Back vents should hang in a straight line perpendicular to the floor.

The jacket sleeves should also hang straight, with no horizontal wrinkles or breaks forming on the upper arm. If a man carries his arms either too much to the front or back of the coat, the sleeves will not lie smoothly, and they should be removed and rotated accordingly. A good tailor will recommend such an alteration (and charge you for it). The jacket’s sleeve should taper to the wrist bone, with a bottom opening measuring around six inches in diameter, or no longer than to frame the shirt’s cuff.

Most men wear their jacket sleeves too long, either because of recent fashions or their tailor’s lack of sophistication. As for the correct length, a man’s arms ought to be his guides. The jacket sleeve should extend to where the wrist breaks with other hand. If the arms are on the short side, 1/2 inch of shirt cuff can peep out. If the arms are on the short side, 1/2 inch of shirt cuff can peep out below the coat sleeves; if longer, like Gary Cooper’s 3/4 inch to 1 inch will give the arm a better proportion. The band of linen between sleeve and hands is one of the details that define the sophisticated dresser.

Waistcoat: The fitting of any tailored waistcoat should be done with its back strap fastened. The adjustable rear belt gives shape to the vest’s waistline and discourages the vest from riding up the torso during the course of wear. The waistcoat’s chest should be full enough to allow its wearer to sit comfortably with no hint of looseness at the waist. Only a small segment of waistcoat, revealing no more than the top button, should be visible above the jacket.

The vest must be long enough to cover the trousers’ waistband , stopping in front before its points extend below the hipbone. A delicate balance must be forged between the trousers’ waist and the depth of the vest’s “V” points: the whole edifice would crumble should it expose a patch of shirt or belt buckle.

Suspenders are the recommended antidote for the gap that typically develops between suit trouser and vest. They raise the trousers’ waistband so it remains covered by the vest, while bringing the trousers’ pleats and vest’s points into better harmony with each other. Vests and belts should choose different dance partners. A strip of leather encircling the stomach adds more bulk to an already layered waistline, and belted trousers also tend to slide down the hip, frequently revealing the undesirable presence of a belt buckle.

Top-quality waistcoats have slits on either side, the back vents extending below the front so as to keep the trousers’ rear waistband from showing when its wearer bends forward. High-class tailor-made waistcoats have slightly curved fronts, echoing the rounded shape of the single-breasted coat’s fronts. The vest’s button stance is designed so that is bottom buttons is left undone, a custom dating back to the eighteenth century, when Edward VII, a corpulent sovereign, forgot to button his after an unusually vigorous repast, with the oversight ultimately taken and handed down as a style indicator.

Trousers: When fitting trousers, the cardinal rule is to wear them as high on the waist as comfortable. Hip-positioned pants will make the crotch hang too low and look sloppy. Moreover, the curvature of the hip tends to spread pants pockets and pleats. Like the jacket’s armhole, the trousers’ fork should fit as high as hospitable if it is to facilitate movement comfortably.

With pleated trousers, the hip and thigh must be cut full enough so that the pleats lie flat and do not pull open when standing. The function of the pleat is to respond to the natural widening of the hip and seat when sitting down. If you are not prepared to wear trousers with a more generous front, stick with the plain-front trouser. When one is standing, the trousers’ front leg crease should bisect the kneecap and finish in the middle of the shoe. Trouser creases should err toward the inside of the knee; those falling to the outside create the illusion of breadth, something most men prefer to avoid.

If it is to be worn on occasion with suspenders, make sure the trouser is fitted with them, since suspendered trousers can change the fit of the waist, back rise, and inseam. Try them on in the standing, sitting, and legs-crossed positions. Trousers intended to be worn exclusively with suspenders should allow more room in the waist so that they can “suspend” from the shoulders.

Today there are several schools of though on the length of a trouser. In the States, they are often worn to rest with a slight break, or “shiver”, on top of the shoe. In this case, they should be long enough to cover the hose when a man is in stride, with a width that conceals the shoelaces. Plain-bottom trousers should slant downward from front to back so as to not fly away at the heel when the man is walking. If cuffed, their width should be neither so narrow nor so wide that it calls attention to itself. For time-honored balance, the proper width of trouser cuffs should be 1 5/8 inches for a man under 5 feet, 10 inches, and 1 3/4 inches if taller.Another approach is that of the Europeans or, more specifically, the Milanese, who wear their trousers narrow cut and a little on the short side, even showing some sock. In this case, the pants sit just lightly on the shoe. Signor Luciano Barbera, head of an Italian menswear company that bears his name, calls it the “mid-Atlantic solution”, since it is halfway between Europe and America. Although he doesn’t want to see your socks, he does want to see your shoes

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