( Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion – Alan Flusser)

Inappropriately scaled clothing is the root cause for the contemporary man’s current lack of sartorial distinction. Obsolescence in menswear is built upon the manipulation of the classic proportions, sometimes in ways that do not flatter, as flared bottoms, overly shouldered jackets, and square-toed shoes attest.

It is said that the quality of a chef can be judged by his consomme. Likewise, a man’s dressing skill rests on his ability to wear the simplest clothes to individual perfection. This is essentially a lesson in proportion. The first step in evolving a distinctive yet long-term dressing style is for each man to master the standard scheme of tailored suit, white dress shirt, solid necktie, white pocket square, with dark socks and shoes. This is not to suggest that he adopt such formulaic attire, although it can come in handy for certain occasions.

While this classic outfit does not constitute a study of all possible dressing proportions, its curriculum is fundamental to moving up to the next level of sartorial sophistication. The relevance of this specific sartorial paradigm is that within it resides a series of mini-portraitures, which, when knowledgeably rendered, form a choreography of ideal dressing proportions unique to each man. Once familiar with how best to exploit each for maximum personal advantage, one can use them as the blueprint for future fashion explorations. As stated earlier, genuine innovation has always taken place with an awareness, rather than an ignorance, of restraints.

Breaking down this ensemble into a corporeal map, you discover that in order to traverse it smartly, five major intersections must be negotiated – the neck, shoulder, waist, wrist, and ankle. Each contains a network of lines and curves that when correctly connected to one another enhances the overall aesthetic. Applying the whys of its collar decor to your face, or jacket length to your body, improves your faculty for less ritualistic raiment, such as tailored sportswear or casual attire.

Fortunately, the face’s shape, the neck’s height, the shoulder’s width, the arm’s length, the torso’s structure, and the foot’s size remain fairly constant over time, even allowing for some weight fluctuation. Unlike fashion, which is obliged to change seasonally, learning how to dress well does not have to be a case of stalking a constantly moving target. Confining one’s fashion focus to those physical characteristics found between hat and hose will facilitate one’s mastery of scale and proportion. Once these rules of classic form relating to his own unique physiognomy are understood, a man has every reason to feel confident about getting his arms around this stuff. Let’s examine in more depth the architectural logic and fashion rationale at work here.

Suit Jacket

While fabrics and patterns usually attract the eye first, the suit’s proportion anchor it in time. A suit extreme in silhouette is more likely to go out of style before it falls apart. In assessing a suit jacket’s potential life span, five elements of design require particular attention; these are the garment’s “bones”. Should the coat’s architecture conflict with that of the wearer or deviate too far from the archetype, the coat’s staying power will be significantly weakened.

The Jacket Shoulder: As its widest dimension, the shoulder sets the mood for the rest of the jacket. Since the jacket’s shoulders frame the head, if they are too narrow, the head will appear larger than actual size; conversely, if cut too wide, the head will appear disproportionately small.

Notice the difference in the shoulder expression between Doug Jr.’s suit jacket and that of Master Gary (following page). Doug’s shoulders are built up to offset his wider head, while Coop’s are narrow and more sloped to harmonize with his thinner face and longer frame.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s shoulders are built up to offset his wider head (left)
Gary Cooper’s shoulders are narrow and sloped to balance with his thin face and narrow frame (right)

The natural-shoulder suit silhouette adopted by the Ivy Leaguers in the 1920s came to be identified with America’s upper class and its principal purveyor, Brooks Brothers. Here is the late secretary of state Dean Acheson in typical New England understatement, his Brooks Brothers natural shoulder and fully rolled button-down whispering their patrician provenance. Compare his jacket’s rounder sleeveheads with those lightly puffed and contoured confections smarting up Gary Cooper’s shoulders.

Dean Acheson in a natural-suit silhouette

Unless a man is extremely slope-shouldered or so self-consciously short that he wants his shoulder line raised to produce an illusion of height, sharply angled or conspicuously built-up jacket shoulders shoulb be avoided. They look artificial and arriviste in taste, signaling that their wearer is attempting to appear more important than he feels.

Jacket Length: The principal criterion governing a jacket’s length is that it be long enough to cover the curvature of the buttocks while giving the leg as long a line as possible. Whereas the ideal measurement of a man’s jacket can vary by up to 1/2 inch without compromising its longevity, any more variation can play havoc with the hip pockets by moving them out of proper balance with the whole. It is quite normal for a jacket to be slightly longer in front than back in order to hang properly.

Due to the longer swathings of the 1980, the so-called Armani era, the majority of men wear their jacket and jacket sleeves far too long, foreshortening both their legs and arms. This is especially evident in the Far East, where the average person’s torso is longer in relation to his legs, in comparison to the average person’s build in the West. Such a man needs to pay particular attention to his jacket’s length to help him reproportion his longer torso with his shorter leg line. In the illustration on the previous page, examine the length of the jacket and its diminishing effect on the man’s leg line.

Two methods for determining the correct jacket length originated with America’s development of ready-made men’s clothing, which needed general guidelines upon which to establish its standards of fit. The first employs the arm as a guide; when your hand is dropped at your side, the bottom of the jacket is supposed to line up with the outstreched thumb. Though generally reliable, this formula has one drawback: arm length varies from person to person.

The second approach measures the distance from the jacket’s back collar (at the point where it joins the coat’s body) to the floor, which is then divided in half. This is the procedure taught in most tailoring schools. Either of these two approaches can be influenced by dimensions unique to the wearer; a top tailor will use neither, trusting his practiced eye to take in the whole picture before deciding on the jacket’s ideal length.

The Waist Button: The waist button is to a suit jacket what the fulcrum is to a see-saw. If incorrectly positioned, a delicate balance is lost, calling the garment’s pedigree into immediate question. The button functions as an axis: raise it too much, and the torso becomes abbreviated; lower it too much, and the torso is elongated at the expense of a longer leg line.

When the waist button of a coat is fastened, it should divide the body so that the torso and legs appear at maximum length. Observe the navy suit’s elegant silhouette by following the line from its trouser bottom up to the jacket’s waistline. The trouser’s fullness smoothes the transition between the bottom and top halves of the suit, stretching out the overall figure, and the coat’s waist button placement enhances the illusion of a long leg line while helping to articulate its inhabitant’s chest and shoulders.The correct placement of this critical detail occurs 1/2 inch below the natural waist. To find your natural waist, place your hands around the smallest part of your torso and then press down at the sides into the hollow above the hip-bone. Because this all-important button functions as the coat’s center point, a top Savile Row-trained tailor will grab the waist button in the final fitting and pull it from side to side to make sure the coat has enough room to move gracefully on the body.

In an effort to defang the overly stiff tailored suit jacket, along with cutting its guts out, Giorgio Armani lowered its waistline and extended its length. Although he created a more fluid-looking jacket with a totally different feel, he doomed his early low-waisted jackets, along with theirr numerous wannabes, to lives of quiet obsolescence in their owners’ closets. (Of course, thanks to Giorgio, all tailored clothing is much more comfortable nowadays. His positive innovations, on balance, transcended any fashionable excesses).

The Gorge and Lapel Width: The gorge is that point where collar and lapel meet to form either a steplike “notch” or a pointed “peak” effect. The positioning of the gorge on the jacket’s chest should be a function of one’s build, not fashion. Drop it too low, and the truncated lapel’s line makes the short man appear shorter and the heavy man look heavier. If he is short, a man’s lapel notches should sit higher up on his chest, the longer lapel line emphasizing verticality. As Coop’s lower-sitting peaked lapels illustrate, the taller man’s lapel notches can rest a bit lower in the chest area, condensing the upper body’s length while extending its breadth. Twenty years ago, this element of the coat’s design rarely came into question. However, once again, while injecting more swagger into the conventional man-tailored jacket. Armani and others lowered its lapel gorges along with its waistline, loosening up both its classic demeanor and its hold on stylish longevity.

Gary Cooper’s lower sitting lapels play down his height

In order for a buttoned suit jacket’s “V” opening to smoothly escort the viewer’s eye upward toward the face, the jacket’s lapels and the necktie’s width should harmonize. Since the breadth of the jacket’s shoulder guides its lapel width, a broad-shouldered man will naturally require a fuller lapel for proper balance. Like the single-breasted notches on Gary Cooper’s three-button or on Dean Acheson’s two-button coat, the sing-breasted lapel should cover between two-fifths to three-fifths of the distance between the jacket’s chest and shoulder line, which usually results in the avarage notch lapel measuring from 3 3/8 inches to 4 1/4 inches in width.

While peaked lapels need more breadth to accommodate their upsweep design, they should not be so broad as to become conspicuous, such as those gracing Doug Jr.’s chest. In the invariably dapper Mr. Fairbanks’s case, his dramatic shaped lapels fall more into the arena of period style than of classic taste.

The Jacket Sleeve: Properly cut jacket sleeves lend a trim, well-formed grace to the arm. Full at the top, or sleevehead, and tapering down to the wrist bone, the sleeve’s converging lines should conform to the broad shoulder and narrowing waist of the jacket. Sleeves that flap around the wrist not only lack smartness, but give the illusion of heft.

The band of linen between jacket sleeve and hand is yet another stylistic gesture associated with the well-turned-out man. It used to be said that a jacket sleeve without a bit of visible shirt cuff below made the hand appear as if part of it were missing.

The suit trouser

Suit trousers should extend the line of the jacket. Fuller-chested jackets require fuller-cut trousers, just as more fitted jackets mandate slimmer-fitting trouser. The proportions of today’s average suit have recovered from the hip-hugging jeans mentality of the sixties and the tight, low-waisted seventies fashions of the Pierre Cardin era. Today, most suit trousers are pleated for comfort with a longer rise, allowing them to reside at the wearer’s actual waist, and fuller at the knee than bottom, following the natural line of the body.

Like the navy blue suit trousers seen earlier and the gray flannels of this traveler, suit trousers should be worn on the waist, not on the hip. Not only does the waist then appear smaller, but by raising the trouser’s fullness, it can better fill up the jacket’s bottom opening, thereby lengthening the overall figure.

The dress shirt

Just as the suit frames the collar, making it the focal point of the shirt, the shirt collar frames the face, making it the cynosure of the ensemble. The choice of a dress shirt should be guided first and foremost by the appropiateness of its collar shape to that of the wearer’s face. Think of the face as a picture and the collar as its frame. A small picture requires a like-scaled frame, just as a smaller man with delicate features requires a collar of restrained dimensions. Conversely, when the content is more expansive, the frame mus correspondingly enlarge.

The necktie

The necktie’s correct width has always been determined by the jacket’s lapel. A man with narrow shoulders has less chest to drape a lapel across; therefore, the lapel’s narrower dimension dictates that tie width follow suit. Conversely, a broad-shouldered man requires the services of a more generous lapel and thus a larger-scaled necktie. As the average single-breasted notch lapel ranges in width from 3 3/8 inches to 4 1/4 inches, an equivalent range of bottom widths will immunize most neckties from the vagaries of high fashion.

The secret of tie aesthetics lies in compressing the knot so that it can dovertail high up into the inverted “V” of the collar’s converging sides. To enhance its staying power, a dimple or inverted pleat should emerge from under the middle of the knot. If the tying procedure is not executed with an eye toward producing a taut knot, the knot will not have the necessary spring to arch out from the collar. Instead of looking crisp and distinguished, it will hang like a dead fish, undermining the composition’s dignity. With the preferred four-in-hand smartly wedged high into the collar and its dimple lined up directly under the upside-down “V” point of the collar, a plumb line is formed, subliminally conveying authority on the wearer’s part, as one who is in command of his own style.

The pocket handkerchief

One would be hard-pressed to find a picture of the Duke of Windsor, Fred Astaire, or any well-dressed Adam from the thirties in which some form of pocket square was not in evidence. The last American politician to be considered stylish, President John F. Kennedy, never left the White House in a suit jacket sans pocket linen. Although most men are intimidated by such vestigial raiment, no man can consider himself an elegante without knowing how to rig out the simple white pocket square.

But in terms of proportion, one way to ensure a natural effect is to angle the hank outward toward the shoulder, with its points irregularly arranged. When worn well, this eye cue of sartorial refinement can add more than just polish; by echoing the slant of the jacket’s lapel, it reinforces the breadth of the wearer’s chest and upper body. Jean Cocteau’s casually furled pocket hank and unfurled jacket cuffs were trademarks of his unique degage dressing style.

The tailor ankle

From hat crease to trouser cuff, the art of male habiliment can be divided into a series of mini-portaitures, the most southern being the rendezvous of trouser, hose, and shoe. To effect a permanently smart aesthetic below one’s knee, certain rules of proportion must be respected.

Once again, it is the body rather than the fashion that should take the lead – the general rule of thumb being that the trouser bottom should cover about two-thirds of the shoe. Narrow trouser bottoms make large feet loom even larger, while wide trouser bottoms make a small foot appear even smaller.

This symmetry in scale between trouser bottom and shoe remains an immutable linchpin of permanent fashion. Just like the slipper-type evening shoe worn under cuffless formal dress trousers, the round- or slightly-square-toed oxford, or blucher lace-up with a welt-constructed sole, ranks as the ideally proportioned shoe for suit-driven attire. The shoe’s learner line is enhanced by its beveled waist, the center portion of the sole that joins the heel to the toe, a feature of all dress shoes as opposed to the square waist used for stouter outdoors types, like the Norwegian model. The sinuousness of the shoe’s form suggest its dressier intentions, while its sturdier (nonglued) welted soles offer the correct balance under the weightier-appearing cuffed trouser bottoms.