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