The Fit ‘Round The Shoulders

Yesterday I took in a service at Trinity Church here in Newport. It was founded in 1698 and I got to sit in the pew that was used by George Washington. More interesting for us here were the few old WASPy types who were dressed in coat and tie. Each wore a tweed sportcoat (I’d oped for a blazer for my first coat-and-tie occasion since moving), and the immense age of the garments was quite evident. Each seemed to be permanently pulled apart in the vent area. But there was something else I noticed: each jacket fit the men perfectly in the shoulder area. That’s a testament not only to their keeping their physique, but for knowing that this is the crucial fit area, even when wearing something with functional elbow patches and a draft in the rear.

It made me think of that relevant passage from Paul Fussell’s book “Class.” The remarks, though delivered irreverently, are sound advice:

Upper-middle clothes… lean to the soft, textured, wooly, nubby. Ultimately, the difference implies a difference between city and country, or labor and leisure, where country betokens not decrepit dairy farms and bad schools but estates and horse-leisure. Thus the popularity among the upper-middle class (and the would-be upper-middle class, like members of Ivy university faculties) of the tweed jacket. Country leisure is what it implies, not daily wage slavery in the city.

The tweed jacket is indispensable to the upper-middle-class trick of layering. A man signals that he’s classy if, outdoors, he comes on in a tweed jacket, with vest or sweater (or two), shirt, tie, long wool scarf, and overcoat or raincoat. An analogy is with the upper-class house, which has lots of different rooms for different purposes. Wearing one shirt over another — Oxford-cloth button-down over a turtleneck, for example — is upper-middle-class, and the shirt worn underneath can ever be a dress shirt (solid color is best) with its own collar, a usage I’ve seen in warm weather on Madison Avenue in the upper eighties.

[Later, on the matter of prole gape]:

here I will reject all accusations that I am favoring the rich over the poor.  The distinction I’m pointing too is not one between the tailored clothes of the fortunate and the store clothes of the others, for if you try you can get a perfectly fitting suit collar off the rack, or at least have it altered to fit snugly.  The difference is in recognizing it as a class signal and not recognizing it as such.  You’ve got to know that, as Douglas Sutherland says in An English Gentleman, almost the most important criterion in a suit worth wearing at all is “that it should fit well around the shoulders.”

Pictured, incidentally, is Jack Lemmon with well fitting shoulders. He may have picked that up at Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard. — CC

17 Comments on "The Fit ‘Round The Shoulders"

  1. Welcome to New England, CC, home of Yankee frugality.

    Like the British aristocracy, New Englanders love items of clothing that are decades old and are mended, repaired, and have patches all over them.

    If you are ever in Boston, make sure you visit Charles Street and Beacon Hill.

  2. Did any of these WASPy types exhibit the regional affectation, ” the Boston Cracked
    Shoe”, as identified by Tom wolf?

  3. One of the best things about the Northeast–New England, in particular: Tweed. I just commissioned a dark navy (solid) Cheviot twill. A steep, plump twill that may, by comparison/contrast, render the Press “Reefer” miniscule. There are (still) plenty of weavers who will weave short runs (three to six metres) of tweed. Two among my favorites:

    http://www.woveninthebone.com

    https://www.selkirkweavingcompany.co.uk

    It’s a good time for fogeys.

  4. Guessing you’ll see a lot more Old School Ivy in Newport than Charleston, CC. Since the South has been violated by all manner of ‘updated traditional.’ Good on you.

  5. Charlottesville | December 9, 2019 at 2:58 pm |

    Christian — Trinity looks like a very beautiful church judging from their website. Glad that there are at least a few tweedy old guys around in keeping with the Olde New England atmosphere. I noticed no tweeds at my church yesterday morning, at least at the 7:45 service, but I spotted a triple-patch flannel blazer, and I was in a navy chalk-stripe suit.

    The picture of Jack Lemmon is great as well. White OCBD and repp tie for me today too, but with a gray sack suit rather than brown tweed. Alas, my hair and physiognomy don’t match his. I wonder where Mr. Lemmon shopped? Brooks did very good shoulders before the current era, but no doubt that was fairly standard in the heyday.

  6. There’s a grain of truth to this but much of it seems off the mark. Certainly most of the tailored clothing sold in this genre after WWII was upper-middle quality level by London or Italian tailoring standards, but it was worn at various times by different groups including some beyond the upper-middle class who probably mostly only knew the general look or feel of the clothes they were sold rather than technical details about tailoring. They didn’t care enough or want to spend the money or didn’t want to be perceived as wearing expensive clothes or in some cases wanted to fit into certain groups where going down in quality carried certain sociological implications they desired. The people who built much of the ivy league in its 20th c. form were products of the gilded age and they were very much measuring themselves against old world standards without necessarily wanting to live in it, and some were very much American progressives. But country fabrics on college campuses I think stems largely from the actual American upper classes generations beforehand, and the tailors catering to their tastes. Some of them were the kind of people who thought Harvard should retain an architecture more appropriate for New England or America or institutions with puritan history, and others (re)built Princeton, Yale, and Duke in the 1930s in a spirit much closer to the gilded age–a kind of fantasy world created with new industrial money that took forms from the (very) old world and put them on steroids. What resulted was not necessarily ugly, as in Yale’s old campus, but it was obviously anachronistic to pour acid on buildings to try to make them look medieval in a country scarcely at that point a few decades more than a century old and without a European past. So in a sense much of the ivy league itself, or the side of it that leans the most towards these tendencies, was stylistically mostly an older and much more tasteful version of Ralph Lauren’s project, as is much of what most of the tailors were up to, because that’s what they thought their customers wanted or would buy. Or so I speculate. But as early as the mid-19th c. Brooks is already mass-market relative to Savile Row. (I say this as no great fan or champion of the latter but merely as an observation.) The quality was good enough so why be fussy? The idea of going for the best was not really the point. They were clothes.

  7. ^To clarify, the north side of high street; the rest of it is older by a generation or two.

  8. That’s a damn fine tweed and a nice shoulder; you should get some guys together and chain themselves to 346 until they make it.

  9. @ Charlottesville. Thanks for “Olde New England.”
    I think it was (the great) Stephen Fry who observed that certain New England towns/cultures were actually a good bit more traditional than (even!) aristocratic England.

    And Matthew — this must rank as one of the more insightful reflections posted:
    “Some of them were the kind of people who thought Harvard should retain an architecture more appropriate for New England or America or institutions with puritan history, and others (re)built Princeton, Yale, and Duke in the 1930s in a spirit much closer to the gilded age–a kind of fantasy world created with new industrial money that took forms from the (very) old world and put them on steroids. What resulted was not necessarily ugly, as in Yale’s old campus, but it was obviously anachronistic to pour acid on buildings to try to make them look medieval in a country scarcely at that point a few decades more than a century old and without a European past. So in a sense much of the ivy league itself, or the side of it that leans the most towards these tendencies, was stylistically mostly an older and much more tasteful version of Ralph Lauren’s project.”

    How true it is. Whereas intentionally ‘aged Neo Gothic’ (see: Duke) can feel like an overdone, nouveau-ish salute to England general and Oxbridge more specifically, there’s something about the older Virginia and New England colleges that’s just, well, more genuine–authentically American. Simple-yet-elegant brick Federal and Colonial buildings. A red brick Cape Cod may be the architectural equivalent to the tweed-OCBD-flannels-penny loafers combo.

  10. Charlottesville | December 9, 2019 at 5:16 pm |

    S.E. – Certainly no argument from me re the older buildings at UVA and W&L vs. Duke. However, some of the newer stuff, with the notable exception of the Darden School of Business and a few others, ranges from blah to downright awful. W&L Law School, my alma mater, is an example of the latter style.

  11. It’s not perfect but you could maybe do a spectrum, with Princeton at one end and Harvard or Brown at the other, perhaps correlating very imperfectly with Brooks on the Princeton end and Chipp on the Brown end in the sense of least English traditional or stuffy, though the novelty side of Chipp is very animal house and Brown is the opposite of that. And Princeton historically most like the St Grottlesex schools and Brown the most American progressive/reformed.

  12. Cuff Shooter | December 9, 2019 at 10:57 pm |

    What exactly causes jackets to be “permanently pulled apart in the vent area”? I have seen this on a few vintage pieces but was never sure as to the cause. My best guess was that the previous owner’s derrière was too wide for the jacket, but that seems like it would have been a very odd fit error in an era where men tended to wear their jackets less form-fitting than today’s.

  13. It’s so true. For all the “custom” shops out there, I personally have experienced less risk so to speak finding the perfect shoulder off-the-rack, then having everything else altered. That being said, I haven’t had a true English made suit yet!

  14. The importance of collar & shoulder fit was one of the first things I learned about clothes. As an adolescent I was lucky to already have “my” salesman, Mr. Horace Flowers, and he took the time to point out what was going to look good in real life wear as opposed to right-now-in-the-shop-mirror.

  15. ChemicalBank'70 | December 10, 2019 at 7:32 am |

    CC: Thank you for a terrific, insightful post. I will be wearing my 25 year-old brown herringbone Harris tweed jacket to church on Christmas morning.

    Please note Mr. Lemmon’s OCBD, the length of the collar points, the gentle roll. Why oh why can’t any present-day maker simply make the exact same shirt?

  16. Henry Hardcastle | December 10, 2019 at 11:40 am |

    Hard to believe that we wore such narrow ties and tied such miniscule knots. From today’s perspective, they detract from the jacket.

  17. Endicott Peabody, the renowned Rector of Groton, once described a trip to Newport and Trinity Newport as a visit to “Swelldom.” My dictionary defines a “Swell” thusly: A fashionable person of high social position.

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