The Soft Shoulder

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Bond and Q wear soft-shoulder suits

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.

*Less expensive jackets may have fusible down the entire front and canvas only in the top half, canvas only in the lapels, or no canvas at all.

8 COMMENTS

    • The suits are from Tom Ford, chosen by costume designer Jany Temime. I’m not a fan of what I’ve seen so far, since the suits look too small and tight. It’s the polar opposite from Timothy Dalton’s suits in Licence to Kill. It’s rumoured that Bond will wear other styles from Tom Ford. Hopefully those will be more flattering.

      • According to the James Bond Lifestyle forum, specifically David Zaritsky, the suit we’ve seen thus far has been a Tom Ford Falconer. I agree, I think it’s slim to the extreme. Aaccording to David, Craig will also wear a Tom Ford Wetherby in Skyfall, which I’m not especially fond of either, as I think the lapels are the opposite extreme and are far too wide. I’m not crazy about extremes on either end of the spectrum. There’s a difference between a minimalist look and too tight! Connery’s suits never looked too tight. Neither do Jon Hamm’s.

        Then again the images we’ve seen thus far have only been production stills and rough edits. I’m reserving final judgement until November when the film is released and we can see the magic done by post-production and editing.

        Regarding today’s post, nothing makes or breaks a suit more than the shoulder. If the shoulders don’t fit the entire look is ruined, whether they are the natural shoulders shown here or Brioni’s built-up shoulders. Very fond of roped sleeve heads as well.

      • ^^ Agreed. I really don’t like the suits I’ve seen thus far in the SkyFall pics. Too short, too tight, single vents (not a fan of), and odd shirt collars. Hopefully it’s just in that one scene, as I really loved the TF suits in Quantum.

  1. ‘Natural shoulder’ is an awkward term. I know it’s now used to refer to lightly-padded shoulders, of the Ivy League sort, but it used to be used to refer to what is now known as a ‘Pagoda shoulder’ which actually does follow the contours of the shoulder.

    I think roping does matter in terms of a natural shoulder as it is currently considered, because turning the seam allowances to the sleeve side creates some lift as opposed to opening it or turning it to the shoulder.
    It really matters how the shoulder seam is constructed and most jackets have some structure in the shoulders anyway; those suits of Connery’s above do. Personally I find the modern idea of the natural shoulder quite lifeless and actually easier to make than a shaped shoulder.

    • Thank you for sharing. You mentioned that roping causing the shoulder end to lift up, but what I see in these examples (especially the Hayward) is that the jacket shoulder still follows the slope of the shoulder and has roping that doesn’t cause the shoulder to raise. Connery’s shoulders are constructed with canvas but little wadding and they do curve down at the end but still have roping. Roger Moore’s Angelo suits have a slight pagoda shoulder as do Daniel Craig’s Tom Ford suits. I know that Tom Ford suits do not use much shoulder padding but they have a lot of structure with four layers of canvas.

  2. Let’s be honest though. A soft/natural shoulder like you described it will look fine only on broad shouldered guys -ie, either athletic guys like Connery’s Bond or heavy set guys like James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano (RIP). On the average man it just looks awful and weak.

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