Balance is key to the shape of a suit. It is worth remembering that the next time you are commissioning something from the tailor, and adjusting the lapel width here, the jacket length there and demanding that the sleeve be that little bit shorter.
It can be tempting, when commissioning a bespoke suit for the first time – or indeed when going for something more adventurous after several navy SBs in the house cut – to tweak too many areas of the jacket’s natural lines. Modern suits tend to have jackets that are slightly shorter, in order to make them look more like a casual jacket, a reefer, Harrington or something similar. They also tend to have narrower lapels, because this somehow seems more youthful or edgy, and they often have shorter and narrower sleeves, which again seem to be sharper, sporty or ready for action.
A good jacket designed in this way will balance one modern element with another, so as not to throw off the look of the piece. Let me give you an example.
The waist button on a jacket – the top one on a two-button, middle on a three and only one on a one – is the fulcrum of the suit. It is the point that everything else relates to. That is why it ruins any design when the waist button is not fastened. Now consider the line that extends from this waist button to the edge of the shoulder. Draw a similar line from the button to the bottom-right of the jacket, around where the side seam finishes. If these two lengths are very different – if the top half of the jacket is a lot bigger than the bottom half – it will look inelegant and disharmonious. Even slightly ridiculous, like having sleeves two different lengths.
So, a jacket that is cut slightly shorter will also tend to have a waist button that is slightly higher. Look at all the short, ‘bum freezer’ jackets that the mods wore – they have three or even four button fronts, with the waist button naturally then that much higher. The top and the bottom balance.
The same goes for narrow lapels. Many bespoke suit makers would say that the width of a jacket’s lapel should be halfway across the forepart of the jacket – midway between the shirt to the sleeve. Indeed balance like this is something of a watchword at Savile Row tailors Henry Poole.
This doesn’t mean that your lapels have to be that wide, but it is one example of balance. Another would be that if you have narrower lapels, they would partner well with narrower trousers and a narrow tie. Look at the suits of the 1980s for balance found in the opposite direction: big lapels, big shoulders, big flares.
Sleeve length is far subtler. But there is a small point worth making. Often men focus too much on the amount of shirt cuff that will be displayed at the end of their sleeve. Better is to consider how that white dash of cotton balances with the length of your arm and hand. The jacket sleeve cannot be too short on a man with big hands. And the amount of shirt cuff should not be too big on a man with short arms. The first would look more gangly than needs be, the second shorter.
Balance does not create hard and fast rules. But it is always important to bear in mind.