Six And One-Eighth: The Natural Shoulder’s Golden Ratio


Is there a mathematical formula for the natural shoulder? Indeed, there just might be.

The discovery came about on Monday when Richard Press and I had lunch together and then sauntered over to J. Press. I told him some new fall sportcoats looked distinctly different from recent Press offerings. The shoulder was more natural, the lapel narrower, and there are two buttons spaced apart on the cuff (nearly everything else from Press comes with three kissing buttons). These jackets, we were informed by a salesman, are made by Southwick and are priced at $1,350.


It turns out there is a surprising amount of variety in the cut of jackets currently available at J. Press, so when browsing the racks you’ll need to exercise care in selecting the one that’s right for you.

The new Southwick-made jackets occupy a middle ground between the stodgier, wide-lappeled and boxy-shouldered jackets in the main line, and the shrunken fashion novelties in the York Street collection. With a lapel of 3 1/4 inches and noticeable but not excessive waist shaping, the Southwick jackets are more in line with Polo Blue Label and represent a smart direction for the brand.

In contrast, the Canadian-made jackets in the store, reportedly by the S. Cohen factory, feature a straight waist but much boxier shoulders. So neither the Southwick nor the Cohen gives you the ideal Ivy League silhouette, though a combination of the two would.

We were joined by two veteran salesmen and longtime colleagues of Richard’s. I mentioned to them that some Chinese-made J. Press suits supposedly had the best shoulders in the store. What ensued was an exercise in tailoring geekery that had even me riveted.

I tried on the suit pictured below, which is priced at $795. It fit me well, and the shoulders have only the most minimal lining. However, when I asked why it didn’t have the rounded, sloping look of heyday-era jackets, Richard and the sales gents began pinching and pulling in various ways all around the shoulder and neck seams, explaining how the legendary house tailor Felix Samelson would have altered the shoulders to give them the classic natural-shoulder look.


It was then that one of the salesmen mentioned offhand that for decades there was a very specific measurement that dictated the J. Press shoulder. “Do you remember 6 1/8?” the gent asked Richard. Indeed he did, the trouble was neither could remember exactly where exactly the measurement applied.

They lay the jacket on a table and took a tape measure to it. They tried different spots, front and back, until finally the spot was located. It’s the seam along each shoulder, measured from under the collar to the sleeve seam. On a sample size 40, this point to point measurement would be 6 1/8, give or take a touch. As jacket size went up or down, this measurement moved in proportion. You could call it the natural shoulder’s Golden Ratio. Why, I asked, was it so important? “Because any more,” said one of the salesmen, “and you’ve got Air Force shoulders.”

We took a closer look at the measurement on the Chinese-made suit jacket that fit me so well, and sure enough it was exactly 6 1/8. The salesman, though he was admittedly only speculating, thought the factory had used an original J. Press pattern, whereas the Canadian and American factories J. Press employs use their own house pattern of an ostensibly natural-shouldered jacket. This would certainly explain the inconsistencies at J. Press in recent years.

Speaking of which, we quickly took the tape measure and applied it to other size 40 jackets in the store. It should come as no surprise that one of the boxier-looking jackets, which the salesman said was made by Martin Greenfield, measured 6 3/8, enough to significantly affect the jacket’s appearance. One of the new Southwick-made sportcoats came in a tad narrower, at 6 inches.

A few things to bear in mind before you go running off to measure every jacket in your closet. While the Chinese-made suit fit well and felt comfortable, it still didn’t have the rounded, sloping effect of jackets of yore, and would require the alterations that Richard and the salesmen felt would require a tailor to properly articulate. In other words, 6 1/8 isn’t the whole story. They did say, however, that jackets can be ironed in the sleeve and shoulder area to produce a more rounded line. I experimented with this, to moderate success, when I got home.

Next, recently wondered whether the sack suit can survive, considering its inventor offers only radically different, fashion-driven versions of it. But perhaps the real question is what will become of the American natural shoulder. The factory technicians who worked for decades making natural shouldered jackets, one of the J. Press salesmen quietly lamented, are all gone.

As for the jacket in the top image — whose shoulder measurement is precisely 6 1/8 — it’s one of Ralph Lauren’s recent updated sack jackets, made in Italy. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

22 Comments on "Six And One-Eighth: The Natural Shoulder’s Golden Ratio"

  1. interesting , especially the pressing comment as many of the CMT houses in America will (if you ask nicely ) “j.Press” the shoulders for a more rounded natural shoulder.

  2. A.E.W. Mason | October 2, 2013 at 5:45 pm |

    By the way, in response to a gentleman who asked, justifiably, why J. Press “gets a pass” from we old school types in view of “the York Street outrage,” I’d answer: Because J. Press still offers a full selection of items like those shown in this post.” Brooks Brothers does not, at least so far as I can determine.

  3. True.

    The shoulder (point to point) measurement is reliable as a means of determining whether or not a jacket has “Air Force shoulders.”

    For a 40, I’d think an 18″ point to point suggests a narrow, natural shoulder.

  4. Fantastic post Chris.
    I indeed think that is one of most important post on Ivy league sack by ever.

    I believe that “Air force shoulder” come from 40s slang.
    In WW-II many USAAF officers wear uniforms and Ike jackets with significant padded shoulder (is a sketch in one old Danny Kaye movie on this).
    Afterwards,in 50s USAF new uniform coats (in blue and silver khaki) had not big shoulders,but the phrase remained in the slang.

  5. Thanks, Carmelo, and that’s a very interesting anecdote and your knowledge of menswear details is as impressive as always. I’d just assumed Air Force shoulders was a random remark; I didn’t know it was once in common usage. Do you remember the Danny Kaye movie?

  6. Gents,
    I still believe it’s a matter of padding.

  7. Precisely.

    Yet another good angle (“Golden Ratio”; I like. Clever) for yet another well written piece of investigative journalism. The problem, of course, the 6 1/8″ “rule” isn’t terribly reliable.

    We can guess that the Press jackets in question were known to have minimal padding, so it worked fine.

    But if a jacket is heavily padded and therefore “high” (think JFK’s later jackets), the look is narrow-shouldered but squared.

    As has been mentioned, the slope is as important as the shoulder point-to-point (seam to seam across the back).

    Still, a creative piece.

  8. And the Southwick-for-Press jackets do look great. A grand for Southwick tailoring and Gamekeeper Tweed (Robert Noble, maybe?) is a good deal.

  9. Boston Bean | October 3, 2013 at 8:45 am |

    How ironic it is that in a post about tradition, the tailor’s tape measure in the top photo is made in China, and lavender rather than traditional yellow.

  10. The tape measure is actually an unabashed shade of pink and is quite apropos, as only the Chinese-made jacket had the traditional measurement of 6 1/8.

  11. Cranky Yankee | October 3, 2013 at 9:38 am |

    Terrific piece. Thanks.

    One thing that I don’t understand, though, about my newer J. Press sport coats and suit jackets is the inconsistent spacing of the front buttons. The Magee jacket that you show on top is what I think of as the traditional and correct 5-1/8″ spacing for a sack with the top button hole completely visible above the fold. The second picture of the suit jacket spaces the buttons 4-1/2″ apart putting the middle button lower and the top one right in the fold.

    Can you or Richard Press help to explain this? Does it depend on the manufacturer? I really prefer the look on the Magee.

  12. Richard sez: “When I was at J. Press the Magee look was our standard.”

  13. Cranky Yankee | October 3, 2013 at 10:34 am |

    Thanks, Christian. I still don’t understand why all J. Press sacks don’t look like the Magee. I really wish that they would get their vendors to be consistent.

  14. Mitchell S. | October 3, 2013 at 11:01 am |

    @Christian: A quick Google search returned “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The 1947 film stars Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo:

  15. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to measure a Chinese jacket with a red tape? Actually the more trad tape is white, it matches the chalk. 😉

  16. This is all no-brainier stuff. When I buy new at Press, Tad takes care of it. When I buy new at Andover, Charlie tells me to STFU and makes his chalk marks. If I find something decent at Keezer’s, my tailor takes care of it. The joy of a good sack jacket is not so much about a mythic ratio as it is getting a drape you can actually live in.

  17. Malvernlink | October 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm |

    @ Drew

    At last, the voice of reason.

  18. I’m not sure how this is “no brainer” stuff, when Drew’s examples are a mixture of being taken care of by a salesman (I’m guessing), a tailor, and Charlie making chalk marks. Sounds like there’s some made-to-measure going on, and at least some tailoring tinkering.

    However, after starting out as custom clothiers, J. Press like much of the retail industry moved into RTW. And for this they had a jacket pattern, and one with specific ratios.

    I’d hardly call it mythic at all. It’s a simple matter of mathematics and measurements.

  19. My favorite part of this article is the fact that Brooks Brothers(which owns Southwick and produces BB & Southwick clothing in the same facilities) is essentially producing clothing for J. Press now. very interesting indeed.

  20. Great find with 6 1/8…………Your story is featured on Golden Ratio Updates

  21. Tad’s the house Tailor at Press in Cambridge. I can’t afford MTM. I always budget $100 for alterations no matter where I’m buying. Fussing with the shoulder fit and sleeve rotation are worth it, but it isn’t fussing I want to do, myself.

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