The shoulder is the most defining aspect of a suit’s silhouette. Shoulders can be padded or unpadded, straight, curved or pagoda-shaped. But what is a soft shoulder? Neapolitan tailoring probably comes to mind. Soft shoulders have little or no padding and follow the line of the shoulder. Some may call this a natural shoulder, but what a “natural shoulder” is varies depending on who you ask. A natural shoulder generally does not have roped sleeve heads, and can have a varied amount of padding. A soft shoulder, on the other hand, has little padding.
To some, a soft shoulder has no structure at all, neither padding nor canvas. That would follow an unstructured jacket. But most jackets have canvassing, and it’s still very much possible to have a soft shoulder on a canvassed jacket. The canvas extends from the shoulder seam down the entire front length of the jacket to give it its shape.* Canvas can be very light and soft, as found in Neapolitan tailoring, or heavy and stiff, like in some English tailoring. The amount of canvas in the chest and shoulders varies from tailor to tailor and can determine how natural a shoulder is. Neapolitan tailors are known for having unpadded shoulders, and traditional American tailoring is known for the same. But the English don’t as often get their credit when it comes to unpadded shoulders.
Anthony Sinclair, Sean Connery’s tailor in the Bond films, was one English tailor who was against the use of padding in his shoulders, though they had a little wadding. Douglas Hayward, who tailored Roger Moore’s suits from the 1980’s onward, also did not use much shoulder padding. Their suits’ shoulders follow shoulder line, but they are also structured with canvassing. You might also notice that these suits have roped sleeve heads, the bump at the top of the shoulder. Whether or not the jacket has roping has little imapct to the shape of the actual shoulder, but it has a great impact of the overall look of the suit.
Soft shoulder suits are very difficult to find off the pegs since they need to closely match the natural shoulder line. They also need to be the correct width; if the shoulder is too wide it will droop down since there is little or no padding to support it. When the slope is off the jacket will look sloppy and the only practical way to fix it is to add padding. Some off the peg examples of a natural shoulder include Kiton, Isaia and Polo Ralph Lauren’s “Polo” model.