A Guide to Shoulder Styles

While the collar is the foundation of the jacket in terms of fit, the shoulder style is the foundation of the jacket in terms of style. Along with the choice of fabric, the manner in which the shoulder is constructed determines a jacket’s level of formality.

Here’s a quick guide featuring some of my favorite stylish gents.

The Unstructured Shoulder

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The “soft shoulder” or “unstructured shoulder” is created using a very thin pad, or no padding at all. Due to the lack of shoulder padding, the line of the shoulder is more sloped and transitions smoothly into the line of the sleeve. This is the most casual shoulder style, making it perfect for sportcoats and weekend suits. Typically the soft shoulder is combined with a light chest canvas (or no chest canvas at all) for a garment that is flexible, versatile, and easy to wear.

This style, in my opinion, is best served for a wearer with a strong, sloping shoulder. For example, our friend Angel wears a soft shoulder almost exclusively:

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THE LIGHTLY PADDED SHOULDER

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A typical business suit is going to have light padding. It gives the jacket some structure, allows the fabric to hold its shape, and creates a garment that is a little more professional and business minded than a soft shoulder. It also allows the garment to fit more democratically on off-the-rack customers with different shoulder types.

A shoulder pad should not be considered a “bad thing”. In many cases it can help build the silhouette of the wearer, especially on someone with a smaller physique or squarer shoulders. Here’s an example of light shoulder padding in action on Mr. Wooster:

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THE BROAD PADDED SHOULDER

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Back in the 1930s, shoulders were cut big and broad as a symbol of strength. The idea was to “build up” the physique using large shoulder pads to make the man look big and powerful. There were also limitations and restrictions on fabric imports during that time, which made it difficult to get cloth. Therefore, a full-cut suit with large padded shoulders was the ultimate sign of luxury, wealth and access.

A large padded shoulder creates a retro look that is best reserved for long, full-cut jackets. Here’s an example from the best-dressed doctor in America, Mr. Andre Churchwell:

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THE ROPED SHOULDER

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A roped shoulder is usually lightly padded, but has a large sleeve head that extends upward at the shoulder line. This is a European, specifically Italian, method of construction. It has become the trademark of many bespoke suit makers out of Naples. “The Neapolitan shoulder” is a dandy, almost Victorian look. Often times this style of shoulder will also be done using micro-pleats, to showcase the level of handwork that went into the jacket (shoulder pleating is one of few manufacturing details that cannot be mass produced by machine). It’s a dandy look, usually reserved for connoisseurs and those who truly appreciate the finest craftsmanship.

Our friend Khaled, who wears mostly handmade Italian bespoke from his favorite tailors at Sciamat, is often seen in the roped shoulder:

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Those are the four primary shoulder styles in menswear, and each has its own look and feel. I hope this provides some guidance the next time you’re looking for that perfect sportcoat or suit jacket.

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