Can The Sack Suit Survive?


It’s time to bring the recent run of Brooks-related posts to a close (if only so we can move on to J. Press), so in this post I’d like to address a few of the more theoretical notions to come from the vibrant discussion in the comments section over the past week.

First off, here are the results from Brooks’ website when you search for the term “sack.” As you can see, nearly all of them are the updated, shrunken Cambridge model. On the other hand, the jacket pictured above is from Brooks’ Japanese website. It may not be a platonic ideal, but it brings up a number of points that are both fascinating and frightening.

The first thing you’ll notice is the unironic, non-fashion-styled presentation. The jacket follows classic proportions, isn’t shown on a 22-year-old model, and isn’t paired with weird items. Blogger and comment-leaver “oxford cloth button down” recently delved more deeply into Brooks’ Japanese website, where he found a significant number of undarted jackets with a traditional, non-fashion presentation.

What does this mean? Well, you know how children, when explained that the world is round and not flat, can’t understand how the people on the other side of the world aren’t upside-down? Japan is on the other side of the world, but apparently over there things are rightside-up, and it’s here in the US where everything’s upside-down. To wit, the classic American cut offered by the quintessential American clothier is apparently easier to find in Japan (and manufactured in China) than it is right here in America. I can really see how you older guys who grew up on Brooks would be moved to tears.

The next idea comes from our post on Brooks’ new Own Make collection, and the recounting by my friend that a salesman told him it was “fashion forward,” an entirely apt description.

Yes, as if the world weren’t already upside-down, now it’s inside-out. The Brooks Brothers sack suit, epitome of conservative dress for a hundred years, has gone so far to the right that it’s wrapped around to the left. By changing the proportions, the reactionary has become avant-garde.

I’m reminded of the famous timeline graphic by fashion historian James Laver:


You can see how the basic concept applies to the Cambridge, Black Fleece and Own Make sack jackets. Forgetting the years in the right column (which refer to fast-changing women’s fashion), the sack jacket has basically gone from “dowdy” to “shameless” in the eyes of the traditional Brooks customer (or at least the eyes of Ivy Style comment-leavers) simply by changing the proportions.

The final point that’s bobbed around in my head this past week has been the insightful comment that the Own Make blazer recently pictured looks like a woman’s blazer. Ever since Thom Browne came along with his shrunken suit, everyone’s been quipping about Pee Wee Herman and Little Lord Fauntelroy. In fact, the suits may not make you look like a little boy, but rather a grown woman. The nipped waist, tapering trousers, and pocket angles make this guy almost look like he has child-bearing hips:

BF LOOK_FK00051-FJ00109

The more you look at him, the more androgynous he becomes. It’s almost like the costume from some “Gattaca”-like science fiction movie in which men have become sterile and human reproduction is taken care of in government laboratories. Compared to male costume from other cultures and eras, the sack suit disguised secondary sexual characteristics. It did not not seek to broaden shoulders and slenderize the waist, recalling the marble male torsos of antiquity. The new fashion-forward sack suit, however, does emphasize secondary sexual characteristics — but for the wrong sex!

Here’s a sack jacket on manly poster-boy Steve McQueen. Yes it’s not a full-body shot, but you get the point:


In this upside-down, inside-out world we live in, it’s hard to believe that clothiers think men would be better off looking like the gray-suited ephebe pictured above, rather than like McQueen, with the quiet masculine understatement of his natural shoulders and unpretentious waist line.

In closing, another recent comment mentioned wing and detachable collars, which I pointed out had been selected for sartorial extinction. Brooks Brothers appears to see the legacy of its iconic sack suit as something best used to serve fashion ends via distortion and irony, while offering the straight, non-ironic version to conservative businessmen in Japan. Both are signs that the sack suit is one step closer to extinction. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

49 Comments on "Can The Sack Suit Survive?"

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Other two present day fads of great irritation to me are low waist trousers and too short shirts. It seems that the only way to get slim trousers that fit well is to have them made bespoke. By the way, great McQueen photo!

  2. Cranky Yankee | September 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm |

    Thank heaven that J. Press still gets it! I’ve all but given up on Brooks (I made my first purchase there when JFK was in the White House), and now have to go to their Made-to-Measure sales to get a sack. Ridiculous.

    When I was growing up, Brooks catered to fathers and grandfathers while we youngsters saw it as a store for grownups…and that’s how we wanted to dress, too. Now, as you say, it’s all upside down and I don’t want to look like a kid.

  3. BB’s, please finally go away, RIP, and take the psuedo “Angus Young-ACDC” characture in the grey suit along with you!!!

  4. O’Connell’s still gets it, give them a try.

  5. Of course. The fascinating/frightening part is the inventors of it, synonomous with the look for a century, have all but abandoned it, deeming it only worthy of an updated version that strikes many as at best an odd cut, worse a distortion, and at worst a caricature.

  6. Cry the beloved country.

  7. The irony, of course, is that Brooks saved the sack jacket/suit by resurrecting Southwick. Southwick offers at least four different sack models, (probably many more) including the most famous nowadays, the Douglas.

    Other tailors can/will make a natural shouldered, undarted sack jacket. Adrian Jules, arguably one of the better manufacturers, offered a model called the Harvard, the description of which reads as follows:

    “The Harvard is the Ivy league classic featuring narrower soft shoulders, slight waist suppression, and a medium fit chest.”

    It’ll be around so long as a (small, admittedly) percentage of American men prefer things that might be best described as “traditional.” More than a few of them antiquarian Anglophiles.* “Traditional” is an overused and clumsy word, but I’m not sure there’s another that suffices. One of the more skilled bench tailors in America holds the undarted, natural shoulder jacket in such regard. It goes way, way back.

    It’s probably good that that soft, natural shoulder tailoring is (once again) custom. It’s the only way to do it well, I think. The Brooks-Japan Harris Tweed looks more like a drape cut (high, wide shoulders, tapered middle) than the classic sack.

  8. The sack may die, but let’s not pretend that these shortened abominations are all that will remain in the future.

    We may, however, have to embrace darts.

  9. *One among the many versions of, that is.

  10. I am not a branding expert, but from what I can tell, straying from your core concepts, values, product, etc. for trendier and quicker mass appeal never goes well in the long run. It applies to anything (Sports, Politics, Coca-Cola,). The list goes on and on. How Brooks Brothers, an American institution, has failed to see this, is beyond me? Del Vecchio needs to reassess what exactly it is he is trying to accomplish with the brand. Whatever it is, alienating his core constituents is not the way to go about it.

  11. The sack as RTW simply doesn’t have enough purchasers.

    Therefore, the sack as RTW is dead or will probably die soon.

    On the other hand, the sack lives as MTM via Southwick and others.

    Yet still, we have O’Connell’s that carries forth with RTW albeit with a smaller yet glorious RTW inventory.

  12. Great bit of writing by Mr. Chensvold. I agree with most everything.

    I would like to know other’s opinion on Black Fleece pants? Their jackets don’t interest me, but I don’t mind their trousers. Most have a relatively high waist, and I like that they’re not too slim at the cuff. Yes, the advertisements have them hemmed a bit too short for my preference, but I think that with the proper inseam they may make a lasting pair of trousers. With that said, the price is rather steep—even secondhand.

    Of the trousers for sale on their website, these are my favorites:
    Shepard’s Check Tab Trousers – Item# FJ00113
    Large Plaid Belt Loop Trousers – Item# FJ00114
    Navy Plaid Belt Loop Trousers – Item# FJ00112

    On Sale
    Madras Trousers – Item# FJ00090
    Bellows Patch Trousers – Item# FJ00033

  13. Am I the only one who thinks that even the jacket at the top of this post has too much waist suppression?

  14. @ Dutch Uncle

    No, you are not the only one.

  15. This reminds me of one of my favorite qoutes
    “Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.”
    -Hunter Stockton Thompson

  16. The grey tweed jacket in the picture looks something like what I think Brooks Brothers once called an Odd Jacket with patch pockets and welted edges. Much of what Brooks Brothers now sells might be considered odd by some.

  17. BB, my last hope vanished. McQ’s herring-bone tweed could not possibly fit over a sweater, yet still looks better than the new American girly waif. I assume even MTM will only be available with notches too high, padded shoulders, etc., all that Euro-waif stuff that now seems to be required of American men.

  18. I feel really pulled here. I’m a late-20s professor who doesn’t care for the “Little Lord Fauntleroy” look, but who also doesn’t want to go into J. Press or the like and walk out swathed in too much material. It’s a real shame that there isn’t a largely accessible RTW happy medium for those of us who like our fits a little more streamlined, but also like our jackets to cover our asses.

    I’m sure someone else has already made the comment on this site at some point, but it is hugely interesting to see Brooks, who can lay claim to an awful lot of what is being reintroduced and celebrated in this “heritage” movement, by and large celebrating the stylistic tenets of “fast fashion” before anything else.

    Long live the sack jacket.

  19. Cranky Yankee | September 27, 2013 at 11:52 am |

    To: ‘Steve — September 27, 2013 @ 11:15 am’

    I have two recent Brooks MTM sacks. One is a Harris Tweed and the other a lighter tweed from Scotland. They send my fabric and size info to Southwick which uses the old pattern and then customizes button holes, stitching preferences, etc. Luckily, this store has a salesman who has been there for 20+ years, because their current tailors aren’t as familiar with the sack.

  20. Hear, hear, Mason. J. Press’s jackets fit okay, though their shoulders are not so soft, but their trousers are pretty terrible. I am an athletic person (i.e., in shape but not a waif), and I have to have the seat taken in significantly to avoid diaper-butt (despite wearing them right on the waist, and being tall), and have to have the leg opening tapered or else they swallow shoes whole. Ultimately, not worth performing major surgery for a pair of decent khakis.

    Instead of the tragicomic York Street, Press should have made a subcollection for younger men that was traditional in style, but designed for people who haven’t yet accumulated the results of 50 years of Beef Wellington around their waist, Scotch around their jowls, and sedentariness around their swollen ankles. (No offense to present company!)

    Re: Brooks, I really can’t parse exactly what this article is trying to say, other than more complaining about the direction of the company. Brooks is trying to be everything to everyone, but that is causing immense fragmentation in its product line. There is no predictability as to fit or quality anymore, and that’s distressing for consumers. Adding more and more subcollections, suit fits, etc. is only worsening the issue. I’d love for them to purge what they currently have for suit models and adopt two or three, designed to appeal to the slight variations that exist among their customers (a slightly slimmer fit for the young and/or in shape; a fit for fatties) but all with the hallmarks of a classic Brooks suit. But as a gigantic multinational company, this isn’t feasible; they can’t afford to be impervious to trends. And so.

    For me personally, what I would love Brooks to do is make “Clark” fit suits and sport coats. Clark is basically their only wearable trouser model–it is a straight, neat fit with a natural rise and a good leg opening. Comfortable, without Bill’s signature billowing in the breeze. Nothing they offer in a suit or blazer comes close to avoiding either the businessman’s-special-excess-fabric or the gigolo-on-the-prowl-nut-and-butt-huggers looks like Clarks do.

    (Note: I don’t think Black Fleece’s continued existence owes anything to its success for the company. It was brokered by the editrix of Vogue magazine herself, and that relationship is what has sustained it.)

  21. Here’s the problem, as a tribe (both birthrights and proselytes) Trad-vy types are frugal. Why target a cheap demographic?

  22. Ha, nice try! You’re a clotheshorse who spends more than he should on clothes (as is probably everybody who visits style sites on the web, or writes them).

  23. Madaket, you’re on to something here:

    “Brooks is trying to be everything to everyone, but that is causing immense fragmentation in its product line. There is no predictability as to fit or quality anymore, and that’s distressing for consumers.” (emphasis added)

    Consumers, especially men, don’t like innovation. We like to find a good thing, and then to be able to keep on getting it, year after year, from the same source, made to the same specifications.

    This, I think, is at the heart of the lamentations about Brooks Brothers. Once upon a time, their clothes were predictable. There was seasonal variation, and not every pattern or color was always available, but the core was stable. The fit was known. You knew that you could get what you wanted and needed, and there was enough variation to keep things interesting.

    It’s not just Brooks Brothers, of course: it’s everywhere. Now, innovations are introduced for innovation’s sake. The past is discarded because it’s “old,” and not respected precisely because it is venerable.

    Anyone who has studied Nihilism can see that this is an instantiation of Vitalist Nihilism, of course.

  24. I can’t deny that I do have a mild addiction, but between mark-downs, sample sales and consignment the only item I’ve ever paid more that $300 for was one pair of Crockett and Jones shoes, and those were still half off!

    Why would Brooks target a cheap borderline tie hoarder like me over a spendy European ex-pat? It’s a similar situation in any industry, make something that will be easy to make obsolete so it will have to be replaced in a year or two.

  25. Just thought of something! Brooks should start a trade-in system similar to some companies’ cell phone or car trade-in programs. Bring in your 2012 Black Fleece and trade it in for a discount on 2013’s Own Make! Naturally we’ll have to come up with an apparel “Blue Book” so to speak.

  26. Now that I mull that over, I believe The Gap did that very thing with jeans. Brooks, Gap, evrything that rises (or falls) must converge I suppose.

  27. Well, the spendy European ex-pat (if that is a significant part of BB’s demographic) is going to move on to something else in a year or two, for one. If you have also lost your core consumer trying to appeal to the SEEPs, then you’re really fucked.

  28. Real old-time sack suits are almost impossible to find outside of MTM or custom. Even J. Press and O’Connell’s offer only a few vested suits, and the vests are all wrong (too short, five buttons instead of six, two pockets instead of four). You can get a three-piece sack suit from Southwick today, but maybe not next year, and probably not in two or three years, when Brooks Brothers will use up Southwick’s capacity to make “Own Make” Justin Bieber pimp-punk jumpsuit knockoffs (with an Italian flair, of course).

    If I ever buy another suit, which is unlikely, it will be a custom double-breasted vested navy-blue chalk stripe in doe-soft flannel, with white piping on the vest, high-backed button-fly trousers lined to the knee with Sea Island cotton, and two small hidden pockets, one for the key to the custom 1875 Russian Reindeer attache case that I will have made at Swaine Adeney, and another for the true chamois cloth (meaning chamois from a little Swiss chamois, not from a sheep) I will carry to retain the polish on my cordovan oxfords, which will be made by Lobb of the rarest Scottish kern cordovan known to man, available only from an almost-depleted pre-World War II stock that J & E Sedgwick keeps in its vault at perfect humidity. I say this with great certainty because I have two suits and I wear them only to weddings, funerals, and my annual trip to a restaurant that has tablecloths.

  29. @Henry:

    Amen! Especially paragraphs three and four.

    Not that long ago in the scheme of things, anything–no exaggeration–you bought at BB would be CORRECT. You could walk into the store blindfolded and just grab stuff. And you would look great!

    Now, this new jacket shown here: not so bad, compared to the other girly stuff we’ve just seen. I could live with it. But not if it’s made in China. I just couldn’t do it.

  30. I didn’t initially mind the “slim” trend of the mid-2000s as I’m 6 ft tall, 165 lbs and was glad to see the roomy trends of the 80s and 90s give way to tailored clothes.

    However, as with all things fashion, a cartoonish extreme takes hold. Waists became too low, pants too tight and short. Jackets became short and too tight…ties super skinny. But, the good news is that the trend is at its zenith and soon to wrap.

    Fashion is always a step ahead of the consumer, so by the time a company like Brooks Brothers catches on…the fad is wrapping. We’re now in the first 1/2 of the 2010s, so the second part should contain a new approach. Surely, it’ll be a little more traditional, probably roomier and Brooks will adapt accordingly by 2025.

    Fashion tends to reflect the times: lean times feature lean clothes and times of plenty offer pleats and extra fabric. The problem is that Brooks should offer a more consistent product. They are American style, personified by legacy if not catalog. Having some consistency will improve their reputation and eventually, their bottom-line. However, that’ll require leadership interested in long term thinking.

  31. DFS said: “when Brooks Brothers will use up Southwick’s capacity to make “Own Make” Justin Bieber pimp-punk jumpsuit knockoffs (with an Italian flair, of course)”.

    Is the same old story from Brioni’s time in 1950s.
    The Italian stuff exported is not the same that Italian customers buy,but a more exaggerated version of the fashion trend of the time.
    In 80s very few in Italy carried the monstrous Armani version of bold look.
    Today very few wear in pee wee Herman style.

  32. Wearing a suit today is often about vanity. Unfortunately, that is not what the sack suit was designed for. A tailored suit will always flatter a person better than a sack suit will. It is only when wearing a suit is about something else besides flattery, besides vanity, that the sack has a chance.

  33. I think the sack suit will survive, but as a rarity. And by “sack suit” I mean the natural, sloped-shouldered, undarted, three-button jacket with plain front trousers, made in a roomy, traditional fit. I don’t know of any segment of society today in which the sack is the standard style of attire. But I’d be pleased if someone would tell me I’m wrong.

    By the way, the jacket at the top of this post is too structured to be considered a true, traditional sack jacket. Look at how square the shoulder silhouette is. It also lacks the soft drape of a fine sack jacket. It looks as if its almost “standing” on its own off the man’s body rather than gently draping it.

  34. I agree.

    If, during the Heyday, the jacket (suit) you describe was ubiquitous, then we may say that, these days, it’s an anomaly.

    Which, I think, is why some have taken to it. It’s a throwback, but it’s unique.

  35. But isn’t the sack suit a better fit for today’s supersized Americans than more structured British or Italian styles?

  36. @AEW,

    The jacket on the top is a tweed, almost all tweed jackets feel like a coat of armor, not sure how you get a proper tweed jacket to drape, maybe it will get a little broken in overtime, but not out of the gate.

  37. Yes, that is a tweed jacket. Probably a heavy Harris. But the problem isn’t the cloth, it’s the contruction, including but not limited to the shoulder padding.

    No, not true. Plenty of tweeds do not feel like “a suit of armor,” most especially lambswool and shetland. Harris is scratchy, but not terribly heavy (usually around 14-15 oz.). Some of my favorite tweed jackets are Cheviot: natural, round shoulders.

    It’s not the cloth. It’s the construction.

  38. Even your first example, from Brooks Bros Japan has squarish built-up shoulders.
    Reminds me of what J.Press was peddling a few years ago and may still be- I haven’t
    been in the store in five years. Compare with the shoulder line on Steeve McQueen, the
    Wiffenpoofs, or for that matter, my recent purchases of Neapolitan clothing, or the Chipp
    clothing I used to wear.

  39. While I agree that all of the Browne stuff is ridiculous there are a lot more choices out there compared to 5 years ago. We need to wear clothes that flatter our own proportions and I don’t think a true sack suit flatters anyone. Oh and how is JPress getting a pass? Just go to their website and click on the York Street collection. I looks like they hired Browne’s evile twin brother.

  40. It’s the Brooks Brothers that never was, and always will be.

  41. LOL forever at trying to say that the reason that McQueen looks more “masculine” than the soft-eyed 20-something because of the waistline of his coat. Like, I’m sorry, you put anybody next to Stevsie and they’re going to be the less masculine of the pair — no matter what clothes they have on.

  42. Yes, we plead guilty to visual rhetoric.

  43. Malvernlink | October 4, 2013 at 3:22 pm |

    @ Ryan

    It is not required to click on the York Street collection. Besides O’Connells, J. Press is the only other store which offers a wide selection of Ivy League style clothing. If you know of anywhere else in the USA, please let us know.

  44. @Malvernlink

    As a native Baltimorean, I must recommend Eddie Jacobs in Baltimore, MD. They’re a trad heyday holdover and currently reside in the oldest continuously-used shopping center in the US. They have a small, but devoted customer base of conservative professional types and local prep school alums. I’m the latter, and learned about the store two years ago before I left for college from a teacher of mine. For years, they were located in the Bank of America building on Light Street and did quite well, but moved to their current location in the tradly neighborhood of Roland Park when all the financial firms on Light disappeared seemingly overnight. My father still curses that day! The house-brand jackets are better priced and quality than J. Press’. To this day, they sell well-made, affordable sack jackets and suits. Both Press and Jacobs use Southwick for higher end merch, but Jacobs’ lower-priced sportcoats and suits don’t have the lineman shoulders that Pressclusive does. If you stop by, be sure to pick up one of their signature crossed tennis racket ties, and then have lunch at their neighbor, Petit Louis. It’ll make for a great afternoon.

  45. Marc Chevalier | February 25, 2014 at 1:11 pm |

    Hello Chris! Long time no see. Your website is superb.

    As usual, when I want what Brooks Brothers no longer offers, vintage saves the day. What other choice do I have? This is as good as it gets:

    Keep the faith,
    Marc C.

  46. Marc Chevalier | February 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm |

    P.S.: “Cable Car Clothiers” of Robert Kirk, Ltd. still offers extremely classic three-piece suits. The vests do have six buttons and four pockets. Expensive as can be, but meets all possible standards:

  47. Marc Chevalier | February 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm |

    P.S.: “Cable Car Clothiers” of Robert Kirk, Ltd. still offers extremely classic three-piece suits. The vests do have six buttons and four pockets. Expensive as can be, but meets all possible standards. To wit:

  48. Great to hear from you, Marc, it’s indeed been ages.

  49. My gosh, Cable Car’s still clanking around! I got their catalogs so long ago they used to feature broad high-roll lapels and Optimo Panama hats.

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