Style Knowledge: Shoulder Construction

As you’ve been shopping around or digging into your favorite style blog or fashion magazine, you’ve probably noticed a few buzzwords or technical terms that keep popping up. The term “soft” (or "Neapolitan-style") shoulder is something you’re probably seeing a lot of places when it comes to suiting or blazers. It’s for good reason too, it’s an extremely popular style of jacket design and construction these days. But what the hell is it? Why is it important? Why is soft good? Can I get fries with that? All good questions my friend (and yes, of course, you can get fries with that), and while it may seem like a trend, it’s actually a vital component of one of the world’s great tailoring traditions.

But let’s back up for a second...

For the most part, the art of tailoring isn't subject to the ever-shifting trends and changes that dominate most of the fashion industry (sorry, no dice on those short-sleeved hoodies), but it is highly regional, just like the cuisine from any great food culture. Suiting design and nuances can vary greatly from country to country, tailor to tailor, and just like every nonna has her own bolognese recipe, tailors have specific details that make up a country or region’s signature style, particularly within the context of the look and construction of the shoulder and sleeve head of a suit jacket or blazer.

Within English suiting tradition, a very strong, structured shoulder design with strong padding predominates. It’s one that works well with not only the classic patterns and beefy fabrics common in English tailoring tradition but just seems to make sense when you think about a bunch of formal British chaps sitting around a wood-paneled hunting lodge enjoying a pint. Alternatively, Italian suiting tradition is much different. The relaxed, effortlessly stylish vibe that we often associate with Italian culture in general, is felt distinctly in their suiting traditions, specifically within the storied tailoring traditions of Naples. To many, the Neapolitan school of tailoring is the peak of craftsmanship and design and when you see the relaxed, elegant proportions of a well-made Italian jacket, it’s easy to see why. Regardless, the soft, Neapolitan-style shoulder is perhaps the most recognizable element of the tailoring tradition and is now an extremely popular feature on suits and blazers everywhere.

While specifics can vary from tailor to tailor, generally-speaking the Neapolitan-style shoulder is defined primarily by its very small and thin shoulder pad, or sometimes no shoulder pad at all. This type of shoulder lends itself to the more casual style of tailoring that is common in Naples (blazers are also often finished with more casual patch-style pockets to match the relaxed shoulder), and a slightly more relaxed fit. As you can imagine, this vibe matches the suave, carefree image you probably associate with those stylish gents peacocking at Pitti or strolling across a picturesque piazza in Florence. The highly traditional Neapolitan shoulder style can, but not always, also have a slight puckering of material at the shoulder and sleeve head called “spalla camica”, or "shirt shoulder".  While it may appear sloppy or improperly constructed to the untrained eye, to many it’s actually a highly covetable detail that not only shows that it’s a handmade garment but also gives the jacket a dose of imperfection (or sprezzatura) that many love about Italian-style garments.

As formal dress gets more informal and casual dressing gets more dressy, the popularity of the soft shoulder makes sense. We’re dressing up our casual clothes more often and can appreciate a less formal, less stuffy look when we’re getting dressed up. The look and comfort factor of a lightly-padded, well-fitting blazer is infinitely stylish in casual situations, whether with denim on the weekend or dressed up midweek with chinos. Not to mention, men have come to appreciate the more unique, rakish style of our Italian brethren as they seek to elevate their work week suiting and formal attire. In the end, I’m sure we can all agree that looking a bit more like a stylish Italian is something we all can strive for.