As I've discussed in previous posts, suit and sport coat design and trends are more about playing with details than reinventing the wheel - wide vs. narrow lapels, short vs. long jacket length, etc. One of the most important, and often overlooked details is the shoulder type.
While most people have observed that the shoulder width of jackets has narrowed dramatically from the early 90s to today, the type of shoulder - that is how it is constructed - is a more subtle detail and can be telling of a jacket's pedigree. It's important to understand that the amount of shoulder padding and the type of shoulder are independent of each other:
There are two broad categories of shoulder construction:
- The "soft" shoulder, which has a relatively undefined, gradual transition at the sleevehead - the edge between the shoulder and the sleeve.
- The "structured," characterized by a more angular sleevehead.
British and some Italian clothiers have traditionally favored a more structured shoulder while American and other Italians (Naples is the most prominent) have preferred soft shoulders. Neither shoulder type is superior to the other, it is just a matter of preference and what is best suited to the body type of the wearer.
Within each category there are several variations. The "Neapolitan" shoulder is one of the most highly regarded soft shoulder types due to its comfort and style. It's defined by "spalla camicia", which loosely translates to "shirt sleeve" and is a reference the tiny pleats that are characteristic of the shirring on a shirt sleeve. The micro-pleats are created as the slightly larger sleeve is turned and hand-sewn to the armhole of the jacket. It allows for greater mobility and to the trained eye is a sign of quality.
A soft shoulder can also be cut without spalla camicia as a smooth shoulder, though it tends to be a little more restrictive. The Italians call this "con rollino," in English "with roll," which is a reference to how the fabric is rolled into the seam.
The con rollino style shoulder can be built up with roping or padding to make it more structured and dramatic, becoming a roped shoulder:
A standard structured shoulder is used in the vast majority of ready-to-wear jackets and is normally constructed by extending the shoulder pad past the sleevehead. This creates a squared-off effect where the sleevehead doesn't sit above the shoulder as it does with roping and doesn't gradually slope into the sleeve in the same way that a soft shoulder would.
In my opinion, this shoulder looks cheap and sloppy in most cases and I assume that it is so widely used because it is inexpensive to manufacture. It also has the tendency to come to more of a point at the very top, which I suspect is caused by the hanger deforming the pad.
Though the shoulder type might not stand out as much other details, it is nevertheless an important aspect of the overall look of jacket and should be given more attention. To those of us that can't help but take in all of the details of a jacket, it ranks towards the top in importance.