The Paul Stuart Variation: Classic American Style
This short article is intended to make a start towards revitalizing the reputation and perception of an often under-appreciated pillar of classic American menswear style: the “Updated American” suit and jacket silhouette.
I intend to collect in one place as much information as can be gathered by an interested layman on the Updated American style, using published books, articles, and internet searches. I have included photos to help illustrate my points and make comparisons.
This article came about as a reaction to the generally held opinion among internet denizens—and some writers—that the only true classic American style is the “traditional” Ivy League style. In my view, the Updated American style is as genuinely and legitimately American as the Ivy League style, reflected in the fact that it has become for all intents and purposes the standard American style for most American men. Whether readers agree or disagree with my statements and assertions, or can prove me wrong on one or more counts, is incidental to my purpose although welcome, since it means this essay will have got people thinking.
JACKET SILHOUETTES & STYLES
Before reviewing the Updated American style in detail, it is worthwhile to first review some background material to add context.
Anyone who has read the current literature on men’s clothing, or visited websites, forums, and blogs devoted to men’s clothing, will have seen used the term “silhouette” applied to the specialized shape and details of suits and jackets. Opinions differ on the number of categories of jacket style, but the table below attempts to summarize these categories.
|British or Savile Row||UK||(Savile Row)||padded||high waist|
|Ivy League (Sack Suit)||US||early 1900s (Brooks & Press)||natural||boxy, no darts|
|Continental or Italian||Italy||1950s (Brioni, Cardin)||broad, padded||significant suppression|
|Updated American||US||1954 (Stuart)||lightly padded||slight suppression, darts|
|Athletic**||US||lightly padded||fuller cut|
|Drape/Blade***||UK||1930s (Scholte)||wide, lightly padded||significant suppression|
|Neapolitan***||Italy||natural, lightly padded|
|Equestrian/Hacking***||UK||(Savile Row)||padded||suppression, flared skirt|
* Approximate date of popularization and/or earliest adoption, with the name of the designer or firm that is generally held to be responsible (if applicable).
** Andy Gilchrist makes this distinction in his CD-ROM, although other writers give it no mention.
*** Antongiavanni is the only major writer who makes these silhouette distinctions.
The three earliest suit and jacket styles—from an American perspective—are the Ivy League, Savile Row, and Continental. The suit and jackets worn by American men today have been developed from these three basic styles and designers and fashion houses continue to reach back to them for grounding.
Readers will observe that most of these suit and jacket styles originated decades ago. Do they still exist? What’s the standard today?
According to Garrick Anderson1, in the 1950s differences between the three basic suit and jacket styles were generally apparent but in intervening decades distinctions have become blurred, with British firms now making American styles and American firms now making Italian styles. This is echoed by Flusser who notes:
Today such references have lost all practical meaning. The last thirty years of global fashion have transcended national boundaries and cross-pollinated indigenous tastes to such a degree that those standard suit silhouettes have been completely unhinged from their former territorial or tailoring moorings2.
He’s right of course. Men’s suit and jackets are pretty much all the same today, except those from the major fashion labels and designers. For most men in America, a jacket is a jacket and this means a garment which is a melange of the three original styles, the Ivy League, Savile Row, and Continental. Even present-day examples of the pure styles, such as the sack suits available from Brooks Brothers and J Press, have been slightly modified over time and today more closely resemble other styles than in the past3.
But which suit and jacket styles can be considered classic American? Only two have sufficient historical provenance to be labeled genuine American classics: the Ivy League style and the Updated American style.
L to R: George Bush in a sack suit, William Clark in an Updated American suit (source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
The Ivy League Style
Introduced to America by Brooks Brothers in 18954, the American Sack Suit is a variation of earlier Victorian-era lounge suits. In its purest and most correct form, the sack suit is single-breasted with two or three buttons, centre vent at the rear, natural shoulders, and has little or no shaping around the waist (no darts, the vertical seams on the front of the jacket reaching upwards from the hip pockets).
Sack suits first gained popularity among Ivy League students in the 1920s5 but remained an insider style until after World War II and a fashion cycle that made it widely popular in America for over a decade. Long after the style had been a marker of America’s academic elites, the so-called Ivy League Look became an “everyman” style of middle-class aspiration from the mid-1950s through 19676.
Today the Ivy League style or sack suit is available only from a few retailers such as J Press and Brooks Brothers. While J Press sells sack suits almost exclusively, Brooks Brothers usually offers only a few sack suits each season.
The Updated American Style
The Updated American style is considered a response to the introduction of shaped, padded, and stylish Italian suit and jacket styles to America, incorporating some European shaping and structure into the sack suit. The Updated American style takes the sack suit and adds darts for slight waist suppression and some shoulder padding to make the shoulders more prominent, but keeps the centre vent at the rear and sticks with a two button single-breasted configuration. While never approaching the shaping of the Savile Row or Continental styles, the Updated American nevertheless recognizes that most men can benefit from some improvement on nature.
According to Karlen & Sulavik:
A variation on the Sack is the so-called Updated American suit…[the] coat is slightly suppressed (tailored closely to the shape of the torso) and shoulders have more padding, imparting a slight ‘V-shape’ to the torso. Trousers are often pleated and cut full.7
But the best description of the Updated American style is found in Jackson:
This cut [the Updated American cut] is becoming the most popular style. Unlike the traditional Ivy League suit, the Updated American suit has a slightly suppressed waist with added vertical seams [darts] in the jacket to give shape and style. The lightly padded shoulders and crisper line are flattering to many body types. This cut also has a higher armhole and smaller waistline in proportion to the shoulders… It may have a single or double vent. Like the Ivy League cut, the pants hang straight from the knee, though the circumference of the pants legs is usually smaller than that of the Ivy League.8
Flusser credits the New York retail store Paul Stuart with introducing the Updated American style to American men in 19549. Located just around the corner from Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart offered men “an alternative to the overtly stylish menswear from Europe and the repetitious predictability of the Ivy League look”10. The Updated American style gained a boost when John F Kennedy, the popular new senator and later president, wore suits and jackets from Paul Stuart.
Here are Flusser’s comments:
The last or fourth type of suit style was a blend of American and English, Brooks Brothers and Savile Row. Long the staple of fine dressers, from Fred Astaire to Cary Grant, this Updated American suit combined the Row’s trademark smartness with the understated comfort of the sack suit. Introduced to the Gotham gent in the middle sixties by Madison Avenue retailer Paul Stuart, this shaped, two-button suit was later offered to the general public through the fashions of designer Ralph Lauren.
Featuring higher armholes and a smaller chest with darted fronts for a more shaped waist, the updated American suit’s longer rolled lapels opened the coat’s front to reveal more of the man’s furnishings while emphasizing his V-shaped torso. Whether Americanized by a center vent or anglicized with side vents, for several decades this soft-shoulder hybrid was the keynote of traditional American fashion, breathing fresh air into the East Coast Ivy League look.11
Thus the Updated American style is a slight modification of the Ivy League style, adding some shaping but maintaining the classic American profile of generously fitting jacket and full-cut pants.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the Updated American style does have its critics. Misleadingly, Antongiavanni suggests the Updated American style is somehow related to the Drape (or Blade) suit:
…most every ready-made suit found in [the United States] are attempts at compromise between the Drape and the Sack, a silhouette that has been termed the “Updated American”. It will have padded shoulders and a somewhat suppressed waist but large armholes and little drape.12
This is inaccurate since the Drape/Blade style was always a specialized suit and jacket silhouette which enjoyed popularity and accessibility only within a small, elite group of people13. As noted earlier in this article, the primary influences that led to the Updated American style were the traditional Ivy League sack suit and the Continental (or Italian) style.
Today, the Updated American style is available everywhere and from nearly everyone. Firms such as Brooks Brothers14, who originally popularized the Ivy League style, have done nearly as much to popularize the Updated American style by awarding it the conservative menswear seal of approval. Given its provenance, there is no escaping the fact that the Updated American suit and jacket style is as much a ‘true blue American’ classic as the Ivy League style and a wonderful complement—and alternative—to the sack suit. Americans are indeed lucky in having two genuinely American suit and jacket silhouettes from which to choose.
COMPARING JACKET STYLES
To help illustrate the Updated American style and its similarities—and differences—with other suit and jacket styles, included below are photos of several jackets from various brands and various silhouettes. Care was taken to select jackets of similar sizes (each of the jackets depicted is approximately 42R or 42L) and to limit jacket types to two-button, single-breasted only15.
The American jackets in the photos below include a sack suit (from J Press) and two Updated American jackets (from Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart). Note how the Press and Paul Stuart jackets have nearly identically shaped natural shoulders, while the Brooks and Paul Stuart jackets both have noticeably less shoulder padding than the Press. There is little or no shaping of the waistlines, even on the Updated American jackets.
L to R: J Press, Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart
The photos below are close-up views of the Press and Paul Stuart jackets from the first comparison (above). Note the similarity in shoulders between the sack suit (Press) and the Updated American jacket (Paul Stuart).
L to R: J Press, Paul Stuart
The European jackets in the photos below include two Italian silhouette jackets (from Brioni and Zegna) plus a British jacket (from Burberrys). Note how each has much more pronounced shoulders (particularly the Brioni and Zegna) and more obviously shaped waistlines than the American jackets.
L to R: Brioni, Ermenegildo Zegna, Burberrys
Although comparing jackets in this manner is subject to discrepancies posed by age, fashion, and alterations, it does illustrate the basic differences between the three main suit and jacket styles. Since waistlines can be altered on any jacket, but shoulders are generally not alterable, the most significant variations are found in the shoulders: few if any differences separate the sack suit and Updated American shoulders, while a noticeable gap in shoulder shapes, padding, and styles separates the American jackets from the European jackets.
1 Karlen & Sulavik, The Indispensable Guide To Classic Men’s Clothing (New York: Tatra Press, 1999) pp. 6-7, quoting Garrick Anderson of Garrick Anderson Sartorial Ltd.
2 Alan Flusser, Dressing The Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) pp. 81-82. Flusser is easily one of the most knowledgeable experts on the history of men’s clothing, a reputation enhanced by the fact he is himself a successful designer and clothier.
3 Karlen & Sulavik (p. 9) quote Jarlath Mellett, a Brooks Brothers executive, who observes “The sack suit is a Brooks Brothers classic…But even classics which have been around for forty years don’t go untouched, and we make small changes to keep them modern”.
4 From the Brooks Brothers website (www.brooksbrothers.com): “1895 The Sack Suit: Brooks introduces the No. One sack suit. Regarded as the first genuinely American suit, and designed to fit all body types, the suit offers soft natural shoulders, a single-breasted jacket, and full, plain-front trousers”.
5 Nicholas Antongiavanni, The Suit (New York: HarperCollins, 2006) pp. 55-56.
6 Commonweal Magazine (August 9, 1957) offers a period comment: “…it was just the other day that we fell to musing on the triumph of the Ivy League style in fashions for men. Natural shoulders and narrow lapels, somber colors and dignified cut are the now ubiquitous hallmarks of the Ivy mode, and what used to be the special garb of a special breed of northeastern American is now accepted dress of John Doe all over the nation”.
7 Karlen & Sulavik (p. 7).
8 Carole Jackson, Color For Men (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984) p. 123.
9 Alan Flusser, Style And The Man (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) p. 293.
11 Flusser, Dressing The Man (p. 81-82).
12 Antongiavanni (p. 62). Antongiavanni is a well-known proponent of the English Drape or Blade suit, to the extent that he considers it the “cut of choice of the world’s best dressed men”, an exaggeration of the facts.
13 The Drape or Blade suit, or rather its creator, tailor Frederick Scholte, was made famous by the Duke of Windsor. Hollywood stars carried the style to America and wore it often—and were often photographed wearing it—but it was never commonly available to the public like the sack suit, for example.
14 Generations of Style (2003), the self-published Brooks Brothers retrospective book, describes the introduction of the No. 2 Suit: “This good-looking suit is a variation of our famous No. 1 model, and is designed for the considerable number of present and potential Brooks Brothers customers who have broader, squarer shoulders and fuller chest than average. Specifically, the two-button jacket is more suppressed at the waist and smaller over the hips…the trousers, too, are cut somewhat smaller in the waist and seat.”
15 The photos included in the comparisons are of jackets offered for sale on eBay. The J Press sack suit is the only exception to the two-button rule.