Classic Style and the Suit’s Ideal Proportions

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Pick-and-Pick-Suit-5

What is the standard to which we compare all suits? What makes lapels narrow or wide, a jacket long or short, or a button stance low or high? Style theorists—and I use this term loosely—talk about timeless suits that we should only be wearing, but what makes a suit timeless? Does this timeless suit even exist? Every decade of the past one hundred years has had its mark on the suit, though people will often cite the 1940s as the golden age of the suit. But most suits from the 1940s would now look outdated. James Bond was not yet around in the 1940s, so it’s not really a decade relevant to this blog.

Throughout every decade there have been tailors and clothing shops that did their best make and sell clothes that are ignorant of trends. From the 1980s to the end of the last decade, the American institution Brooks Brothers hardly took fashion trends into consideration. English shops like Pakeman, Catto & Carter and Purdey haven’t bowed to current fashion trends. But even many Savile Row bespoke tailors have considered and still consider fashion trends. They made narrower lapels in the 1960s and wider lapels in the 1970s, but never went to the extremes of fashion houses. Now, many of them are making trousers with a lower rise than they ever did before, and the drape cut is practically gone. The former Conduit Street tailors like Sean Connery’s Anthony Sinclair and Roger Moore’s Cyril Castle certainly kept up with fashion trends—especially the latter—but they kept classic proportions in the back of their minds and did not let fashion make their suits unflattering to the wearers.

Bilbao-Suit

A suit with balanced, classic proportions is generally the most flattering suit, since it considers the wearer’s body first and foremost. Alan Flusser writes about this in considerable depth in his book Dressing the Man. Pierce Brosnan’s suits in The World Is Not Enough excellently illustrate the principles of a timeless suit with balanced proportions, and I will be using the suits from that film to illustrate what makes the suits look so timeless. This timeless look is what I compare all other suits to. The suits in Die Another Day and Casino Royale have similarly timeless proportions, and the suits in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Octopussy and A View to a Kill come close.

Pierce Brosnan’s suits in The World Is Not Enough are all classically cut and styled in the Roman cut, which is derived from the English military cut. The charcoal suit in Bilbao and the pick-and-pick suit in Azerbaijan are the most basic of all the suits in the film, and thus they are the best to demonstrate what makes a classic suit. The suit jackets are made in the most classic of all jacket styles, the button three. They are cut for the lapel to gently roll over the top button, but they can still button at the top. The jackets have double vents at a medium length of around 10 inches. Double vents, single vents and no vents are all classic styles, though single vent is the sportiest style and no vent is the dressiest style. A vent length of 8 to 10 inches is the most classic since it is long enough to be useful but not too long as to cause unnecessary flapping about. The exception to vent length is for a longer 12-inch single vent on a hacking jacket since it splits open better on horseback. Besides the double vents, Pierce Brosnan’s charcoal and pick-and-pick suit jacket also have straight pockets with flaps and four buttons on the cuffs, which are the standards for suit jackets.

Pick-and-Pick-Suit-9

What is the classic length of a jacket that we compare all other lengths to? The jacket length is ideally one half the distance from the base of the neck to the floor. For people with a longer torso than their legs, the jacket length should be long enough to cover the bum. For most people, the bottom of the jacket lines up with the thumb knuckle. This length keeps the body looking balanced and neither top-heavy nor bottom-heavy. A longer jacket can make a man look shorter, whilst a shorter jacket can give the man leggier, more feminine proportions.

The part of the jacket that changes most with fashion is the width of the lapels. Ideally, the lapel width should be roughly half the distance from the collar to the edge of the shoulder, which ordinarily ends up being between 3 and 3 1/2 inches. This lapel width splits up the chest evenly. Though wide lapels have the effect of making the shoulders look wider, they can make the chest look smaller. Narrow lapels do the opposite. Extremes of either lapel width throw off the balance of the body. Pocket flap depth ordinarily follows lapel width and is around three quarters of the width of the lapel. The best lapel gorge height—where the notch is—is just as important to balance as the width of the lapels.  A gorge that is too low shortens the lapel lines and brings the eye away from the face, but it has the benefit of giving the chest more presence. On the other hand, a gorge that is too high makes the chest look weak, so the right placement is key.

Pick-and-Pick-Suit-6

The button stance has a big effect on the look of a jacket and a man’s perceived height and strength. The button stance is at the button that fastens, which is the middle button on a jacket with three buttons and the top button on a jacket with two buttons. A button stance that is too high makes a man look taller by extending the perceived leg length at the expense of a smaller-looking chest. A low button stance does the opposite. Pierce Brosnan’s button stance in The World Is Not Enough has the perfect balance and is about an inch lower than midway from the top of the jacket to its hem. The button stance should also correspond to the natural waist, which is typically about an inch above the navel. The body bends at the waist and placing the button stance there helps the jacket move better with the body.

A jacket’s shoulder width and amount of padding should be balanced to the person and not be too wide or narrow, or too built-up. But this is one thing that can vary within the realm of classic style. Pierce Brosnan’s shoulders on his Brioni suits in The World Is Not Enough are straight, built up with a lot of padding and slightly extended past his natural shoulders. But the shoulders are not overdone and actually balance his build. Something less dramatic could work just as well and look equally classic. The fullness of the chest and amount of waist suppression have the most allowance to vary within classic style, as long as they aren’t so tight that they put stress on the jacket or so loose that the jacket looks sloppy. Brosnan’s suit jackets in The World Is Not Enough have a clean chest with a gently suppressed waist.

Pick-and-Pick-Suit-8

Just as the amount of fullness or tightness in the body of the jacket can vary within the realm of classic proportions, the amount of fullness and tightness in the trouser legs can vary too. Naturally, the fullness of the trouser legs should be in proportion of the fullness of the jacket. A jacket with a full chest needs to be balanced by trousers with a full thigh. If the jacket tapers a lot at the waist, the trousers shouldn’t be baggy. Just like a jacket should not be so tight that is pulls, the same goes for trousers. Other than that, anything goes for the width of trouser legs. Pierce Brosnan’s suit trousers in The World Is Not Enough fit neatly through the thigh and taper gently to the turned-up hem, which mimics the clean but not dramatic cut of the jacket. The front of the classic suit trousers can have pleats or darts (like most of Pierce Brosnan’s suit trousers in The World Is Not Enough), or be plain.

There is, however, a proportionate standard for the trouser rise. Like the jacket’s button stance, the trouser rise needs to work with the shape and movement of the body. There is a reason why classic suit trousers rise to the natural waist, like Pierce Brosnan’s suit trousers do. The waist is the narrowest part of the body and should be emphasised. Placing the trouser waist there does just that. The trousers have nowhere to fall down when they are at the narrowest part of the body. And by wearing trousers at the waist instead of at the hips, the legs look longer. The trouser rise should also correspond to the jacket’s button stance so that the shirt and tie don’t show below that jacket’s fastened button. It makes the suit look more fluid and the whole body look taller and slimmer.

Bilbao-Suit-5

There is still plenty of room for creativity in a suit with balanced proportions. Just because a suit follows this classic formula doesn’t mean it has to be boring. The silhouette, the most defining aspect of a suit’s design, can vary considerably and still be balanced. Though Pierce Brosnan’s suits in The World Is Not Enough have straight, padded shoulders, the shoulders are just as proportionate and as classic as the natural shoulders on Roger Moore’s Douglas Hayward suits. Smaller stylistic details can also make a big difference. Sleeve heads can be roped or flat. The shape of the gorge can curve in different ways or not curve at all. The amount of belly in the lapels can vary. The quarters and pocket flaps can be more rounded or more squared for much different looks.

Though fashion notoriously messes with the suit’s classic proportions, tailors may also alter these proportions to better suit people with extreme body types. For instance, a very tall man may benefit from a lower gorge (lapel notch) so he looks more grounded, and a short man can benefit from a higher gorge that lengthens the lapel lines. A man with a large head can benefit from extended shoulders so his head looks more balanced with the rest of his body. A short man can benefit from a shorter jacket length that will make his legs look longer. But any of these taken to the extreme like fashion has often done over the years is ultimately not flattering.

Pick-and-Pick-Suit-4

Classic proportions aren’t just about the suit. We all know that the width of one’s tie should match the width of a jacket’s lapels. However, the shirt collar also needs to be in proportion with the lapel and tie width. The shirt collar point length can match the width of the lapels, though in practice the collar points are typically a little shorter than lapel width. It is more important that the collar match the shape and size of one’s head rather than the jacket’s lapels. Pierce Brosnan’s collar has roughly 2 3/4 inch points, but his lapels are around 3 1/2 inches wide. The size of the cuffs should correspond to the size of the collar. Brosnan’s cuffs are around the same 2 3/4 inches deep as his collar points.

It’s not just the point length of a shirt collar that can match the jacket’s lapels. The angle of a shirt collar’s spread should roughly correspond to the jacket’s gorge height and angle. A narrower point collar points to a lower notch whilst a wider spread collar points to a higher notch. Pierce Brosnan’s moderately wide spread collars in The World Is Not Enough roughly follow the angle of the lapel gorge and end at around the same height of the lapel notches. But more important than matching the gorge angle, the collar spread should inversely match the width of the face. Pierce Brosnan’s face, however, is neither wide nor narrow, so he can look good in almost any collar. The height of a collar is determined by the length of one’s neck and has no relation to the proportions of other parts of the outfit.

When some of the suit jacket’s proportions are tailored to best suit the person wearing the suit, and the suit, shirt and tie are well-designed to be in proportion with each other like Pierce Brosnan’s are in The World Is Not Enough, the entire of the outfit will be classically proportioned and most flattering. The clothes in The World Is Not Enough escape the clutches of fashion trends and look just as great today as they did fifteen years ago.

For more about the classic proportions of a suit, read Alan Flusser’s book Dressing the Man.

40 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting…when looking at the first two pictures the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “Oh, those are very classic suits” but “Wow…those are very 90s suits!”.

    Obviously, some people will only regard suits as seeming very much of the 90s (or any time period) if they go to the extreme of the styles prevalent in that era. And some people will have suits, or even casual clothes, of the time that they were first aware of fashion and style as being imprinted on their mind as to what is “normal” or “correct”.

    Yes, style changes and thank dog for that. Imagine how boring it would be if we were trapped in amber repeating the same thing over and over again (imagine 75 years of music or movies not changing since the 1940s!). And, as Matt says several times, even “classic” suits (and there are so many styles I don’t think that there is one template for suits anymore) should have details altered to conform to the individual’s own unique features.

    Yet, even now, there are those who will insist that their vision of what a suit is to be is the correct one and that anyone who likes something different is wrong. Style is as individual as tastes in music or art. To me, people who say that I’m wrong to like what I like are no different than my girlfriend’s father who says that the type of music that he likes (from the 40s) is “real” music and everything else is just “noise”.

    • What makes these suits look very 1990s to you? The GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies suits are more of what I think of as 90s suits, being longer and baggier. I never saw anyone at the time wearing suit trousers without pleats. Pierce Brosnan’s suit jackets in The World Is Not Enough don’t look so much different than a suit jacket from the 1940s or 1950s, and the suits overall aren’t what I associate with the 1990s.

    • I agree, Goldeneye was probably the most fashiony of them, including Brosnan’s unfortunate “haven’t graduated from Remington Steele yet” haircut…

    • Maybe it’s the three buttons that’s putting you off? “Three buttons is a little 90’s, Mr Wayne..”

      @Carmelo: Haha. I’m sorry, I really can’t agree with you on that.

    • This is interesting!
      The idea that three buttons is 90s seems an American thing,in my opinion.
      In Italy three buttons are never go out fashion,and Italian tailors make only single breasted three buttons (of course some of these,especially in Naples are often 3 roll 2 coats).
      I think that less or more the same is for UK bespoke: three buttons are not out fashion in Savile Row.
      I confess that in Italy we have a sort of prejudice on two buttons; tailors and customers consider it a shortcut,a thing for middling ready to wear.
      Naturally this is not true,and Savile Row has always made beautifull two buttons..but the point is that this dictatorship of the rack…..in 90s all full cut three buttons in 2010s all skinny two buttons…..is more an American feature.
      Plus i see also a bit of conformism in this.

    • I agree. What styles and fits people think looks right changes. There isn’t one template for suits anymore and that’s a good thing.

    • anonymous, there has never been only one template for suits. The principle of a good fit, however, is something that has not changed. A good fit means that the suit has clean lines and doesn’t bunch up anywhere from being too large or too small in any one area. That’s why Timothy Dalton’s suits in Licence to Kill and Daniel Craig’s suits don’t fit well. And the fashions that they wear don’t necessarily require their suits to fit poorly.

  2. Nice post, Matt. Aside from the three button style, I would have no qualms about a closet full of these suits! While they will never be “on-trend,” they won’t ever go out of style.

  3. I agree with TheLordFlasheart. Although the suits do appear as timeless (Matt, you did an excellent job of explaining it as thus), I find the suits very 90’s and a little boring. To me, Pierce Brosnan is one of the more boring Bonds as far as suits go. This might be because Pierce was never in great shape like Connery, Lazenby, and Craig were at some point (Moore tells a hilarious anecdote about Albert Broccoli starving him for “Live and Let Die” to make him appear in shape). Brosnan’s suits were a tad too roomy and I found the cuts of his suits in “The November Man” and “Love Is All You Need” to be much more flattering for his figure. His Brioni suits just seemed a little too bland and unremarkable. Then again, I enjoy all Moore’s slubby silk jackets and Craig’s slim cut trousers so my opinion might be invalid! 🙂

  4. The London suits in OHMSS seem quite timeless to me too. Brett Sinclair’s three-piece city suits in The Persuaders are also quite proportionate : the fabrics might date some of them but the plain grey and navy pinstripe are classics.
    It is funny how what seems timeless is suits from transitional periods : late 60s early 70s (narrow to wide lapels and tapered to flared leg), and late 90s to 2000s (fuller cut to slim).

  5. Great,great post!
    “Timeless” silhouette exist.
    Is a mathematical proportion,a golden ratio.
    But is less common thanone can think.
    I have see many pictures of timeless clothes from 20s,to ourday.
    For the most are bespoke,but not ever (for exemple Brooks Brothers 1930-1989 is a good exemple of timeless ready to wear..in the American sack field,of course).
    Tailors as Caraceni or Anderson & Sheppard are another exemple; look this 1960 double breasted of Caraceni; nothing compromise with fashion fads: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/108591?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=caraceni&pos=5
    In my eyes a timeless apparence is indispensable for a good suit.

  6. Matt,
    I find that a narrower trouser just suits my leg better. I’m in great shape, not big though, and the extra room makes me appear too slim. I’m not talking super-slim, like today’s fashion, I’m talking more of a George Lazenby type silhouette. I find the jackets, and trousers, from OHMSS for an in shpae and slim man such as myself, are a much better option. Would you consider something like that “classic” as it is designed to fit the wearer? Just curious for future purchases.

    • Thanks Matt,
      I think that’s the perfect English suit! Look, if you’re slim there’s no reason to be wearing a suit that drapes over you, it’s better to form fit it just a little. That just looks so much better on a slim guy unlike the Daniel Craig stuff from Skyfall.

    • Actually, the slim man can benefit from some drape. I see skinny men these days wearing tight suits that only make them look small and weak. Cary Grant looked great in his drape suits, and he was a very slim man.

    • What I meant was that a little bit of fit can benefit a slim man and I’m not talking the new GQ-type short jacket stuff. I’m not talking about the skinny guy either, but more about the slim guy who’s in shape, someone built like Lazenby (or me). I guess it also comes down to styles. I guess Cary Grant, also very slim, dressed in the 1920s-50s quite timelessly and even looked good, with a draped cut, well into the 1960s. It’s actually a really interesting subject and it comes down to personal taste. I think Lazenby’s suit, in the photo, represented a near-perfect British silhouette whereas Cary Grant, or Paul Newman for that matter, would show off the perfect American one and that Brosnan’s suits are perfectly Roman. They all look good and all look “classic.” I think we can agree, however, that the Skyfall-esque out-of-proportion crap looks good on practically nobody! Thanks Matt for stimulating my sartorial mind!

  7. Carmello’s comment about the golden ratio got me thinking…Personally, I think that the 1:1 ratio where the jacket is half the length to the ground and the lapel width is half the distance to the shoulder looks too static. Instead, I think a more natural proportion is the golden ratio http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio . With this ratio the jacket might be 63% (1/1.6) of the distance to the ground. The lapels could be 37% of the distance to the shoulder.

    Aston Martin advertised that proportions of the Rapide S followed golden ratio http://www.astonmartin.com/cars/rapide-s/rapide-s-design

  8. This is a great post, thank you for your thorough analysis.

    I’d wonder how much the change in a suit’s ideal proportions change as the perception of the body’s ideal proportions do — flattering the build of what’s considered attractive at the moment, or helping others look like that.

    • I don’t think the ideal proportions of the male body have changed that much. Men still want to look strong and tall, and the ways of achieving the strong look have varied with fashion. Sean Connery’s low button stance and draped chest, Roger Moore’s low button stance in his 80s Bond films, Timothy Dalton’s copious shoulder padding in Licence to Kill or Daniel Craig bursting out of his suit in Skyfall are all fashions used to make James Bond look stronger. However, I don’t find the Skyfall fashions to be that effective at making Daniel Craig look strong since the narrow shoulders only make him look smaller. Daniel Craig is the only James Bond under six feet tall, and the high gorge (lapel notch) on his suits has been not only been fashionable during the last decade but also has a lengthening effect on the torso.

  9. What a post, Matt!
    I guess this is like a summary of the various points you’ve made about suit proportions in your previous posts. I find it interesting that you took Brosnan’s TWINE suits as the example. I do find TWINE and DAD to be the movies where Brosnan really looks the best. The suits are more classic looking and I personally like the ties better.
    For Craig, I personally think he looks his best in QoS. But you’ve excluded QoS in your assessment of “classic looking suits”. Would you mind clarifying which parts of the suits you find not classic? Is it the lower rise of the trousers?
    An interesting observation from Eric above is that the best proportioned suits are from transitional periods. I don’t think it’s accidental though. As the fashion pendulum swings to extreme trends, we get short periods in between where the dimensions are “just right”. Funnily enough, we can probably see this in Bond’s suits over the years. As we have (hopefully) seen the extremes of the skin tight trend, I think it’s about time the pendulum swings the other way. We should have another good period in the next few years. Hopefully in time for Bond 24!

  10. I must say that I am little in doubt about Brosnan’s suits being timeless. As already stated by TheLordFlashheart they show many features I would attribute to the 90s. The thing that bothers me most about them is the cut which – in my opinion – is far too loose. By looking at the first two pictures shown in the article that becomes quite obvious: The sleeve length is not correct and the suit on the second picture has a rumpled look and doesn’t flatter Brosnan’s body at all (plus sleeves which are too long). It almost looks like an off-the-peg suit.

    To me the most timeless suits of the series are still Connery’s suits worn in Bond Nr. 1-5. If I remember correctly Matt wrote in his article on Brosnan’s pick-and-pick suit that costume designer Lindy Hemming took Connery’s suit style as a paradigm – so it can’t be too outdated. IMHO they have very well withstood the ravages of time and still look fresh today. I don’t care about some minor items (lapel width, tapered legs etc.).

    And I also doubt if fashion really is the point. A bespoke suit is made for an individuum (actually for a single individuum only). So the lapel width, fullness of trousers etc. should best suit its body specifics – and not display any fashion items. Connery’s suits do flatter his body and therefore they merit to be considered real bespoke suits. To me that’s the crucial point and the reason why even today they look very well crafted and – in the best sense of the word – timeless.

    In general Lazenby’s suits also kept quite well. I don’t want to comment on Moore’s suits.

    • I agree that the sleeve length is a little too long, but I don’t think that the cut is too loose. It’s not as loose or as long as the suits in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. The rumpled look is due to Brosnan walking, and it has the same exact cut and fit as the suit in the first picture. The amount of fullness is actually similar to Sean Connery’s suits, though Connery’s suits have natural shoulders and more fullness in the chest than Brosnan’s have. Connery’s suits are really only dated by the lapel width and low button stance. You are right that Connery’s narrow lapels are flattering, since his chest his so large that traditionally balanced lapels would look very wide. Still, they don’t need to be so narrow.

  11. I very much enjoyed this article, Matt. Thank you.

    I’ve since come around to this philosophy of dress, to wear the clothes that best fit my body and complexion and reduced the influence of fashion. I think there’s a benefit to following fashion, as you may not be aware of all the influences you wear, but I think it’s important to strive for a more platonic ideal. To be honest, this blog has helped me rotate my wardrobe from cool grays and white shirts, to cream & blue shirts, with more navies and beige neutrals. This change came because I realized those cool and high-contrasts tones didn’t fit my low-contrast, spring-y complexion. The Sean Connery and Don Draper palette isn’t for me, but I can wear Roger Moore colors much better as my complexion is more like Craig’s (who, I think, is purposely dress against his complexion).
    Again, great information. The World is Not Enough features some of my favorite suits from the series.

  12. Matt, I agree completely with your point of how current trends make men appear small and weak. I think the best example of that in the Bond series is a comparison of the Skyfall and Casino Royale suits. The Skyfall suit makes Craig look smaller than he really is while the Brioni suits in CR make him look extremely powerful. I don’t think Brioni makes those suits anymore, but some of Tom Ford’s cuts are very masquline and Bond should be wearing them.

  13. Great analysis, Matt.

    The World Is Not Enough are my favorite of Brosnan’s suits.

    Will you be looking at November Man soon?

  14. Great article, and agree completely. Maybe another way to think of it would be to imagine transplanting each of the Bonds (and their respective attire) into the other eras. I think the TWINE incarnation of Bond would look the least affected while remaining stylishly dressed and well proportioned.

  15. Matt, I would like to know from which point to another do you measure the width of a lapel. I thought I knew how to do it, but my results are really surprising and the numbers seem a bit exagerrated. I must be doing it the wrong way.

  16. Sometimes i end up finding a suit that fits me but is a long instead of a regular. What are the rules when shortening the length of the suit? I ask because sometimes i feel the pocket is too close to the bottom of the suit and at times i feel that the suit has been cut in half. Is there suppose to be a certain distance between side pockets and the bottom of the suit?
    My tailor has always said im difficult to tailor since i have a longer torso and short arms and one shoulder lower than the other

    • There’s no set distance between the hip pockets and hem. It’s a judgement call whether or not the pockets will be too close to the bottom. Different tailors use different pocket heights. If the pockets have flaps, you can keep the flaps tucked in to make the pockets appear higher.

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