The Fashion History of Men's Suits: 2 Great Tailoring Traditions - British vs. Italian suits
The suit has been the king of men’s wear for centuries, and it is likely to remain so. The evolution of the suit from military uniform in eighteenth-century Europe to a standard item for every occasion is fascinating, as it mirrors broader changes in society.
Men’s suits are traditionally said to belong to one of two great tailoring traditions: British or Italian. But what are the hallmarks of each tradition? And where do American styles factor into it all?
A brief history of the Italian suit
The roots of today's Neapolitan tailoring stretch back to the Brotherhood for Jacket Makers and Tailors, founded in Naples around 700 years ago. The members were among the first to create ready-to-wear men's garments; they manufactured clothes that made their way across Europe all the way up into Russia over a period spanning centuries.
The Neapolitan suit is the unique standout in men's fashion, and it starts at the shoulders. Unlike British suits which are padded to give a more natural look, they keep things simple with unpadded sleeves that have an element of spalla camicia (a "shirt shoulder" detail). The reason you can find this style on Italian-made garments is that these details speak for themselves as being uniquely casual when compared to English formality.
Vincenzo Attolini is credited with a game-changing invention while employed at Gennaro ‘Bebè’ Rubinacci's British-inspired London House. The suits made by Neapolitan tailors up until this point resembled those being created on Savile Row or in Rome. An apprentice of Morziello, Vincenzo was the first to use what we now call trademark Neapolitan tailoring methods for his creations and not only did he change how everyone else viewed suit design but also revolutionized all future fashion trends as well!
Realising that he could create an unstructured, unlined, unpadded suit (which may be favoured amongst the population of Napoli, who have to put up with high temperatures and altitudes) - Attolini created something to suit (mind the pun) this need. In the end, creating what would be the basis for Neapolitan tailoring and the emergence of brands such as Kiton and Cesare Attolini.
As Vincenzo Attolini’s grandson later stated, his grandfather “created a suit like a second skin” - which at the time (when compared to the dominant English style) was incredibly forward-thinking. Although not a huge initial success, Neapolitan tailoring has come to dominate large sections of the market.
A brief history of The English suit
The English suit is the most traditional and common style of the business suit. Western tailoring began in 19th-century London, but it was Beau Brummell who laid the groundwork for today’s modern suit during 1820 by removing excess ornamentation from menswear and replacing frills with sober simplicity. By eliminating brocaded silks, fussy lace cuffs, embroidered slippers ̓high heels o bright colours,' he replaced them with a dark blue coat that matched his white shirt while wearing a buff vest to tone down any hint of frivolity.
The British suit is identifiable by its stiff military influences. It often features a padded shoulder, heavy canvassing, and waist suppression in order to accentuate the body of those who wear it. The best fit for this kind of ensemble is slender men because these suits give them an authoritative look that other styles cannot achieve as well-especially slim ones like James Bond!
The British suit is known for its appropriateness in the workplace and subservience to authority, yet it never looks "over-the-top". It's always conservative and understated.
The modern-day suit is the culmination of centuries worth of experimentation and innovation. From flap pockets to double rear vents, tailoring continues today as an art form that transcends trends or fashion cycles; it has been established for its practicality in all manner of occupations from riding a horse on long journeys through rural countrysides to travelling by train with quick access to tickets at hand.
Comparing a British and Italian suit - Which is actually better?
The answer to this question is an absolute classic: it depends.
After almost 3 years of living in Italy (I’m originally from Northern England) I can comfortably say that the same suit that I wore for my brother’s wedding (English style tailoring) would be the death of me in the sweltering Italian sun.
Let’s say you want to go to a wedding in hot temperatures, can you really imagine yourself wearing a thick English-style suit? Or would you rather be wearing something so light and tight that it could be called a second skin?
On the other hand, if you’re wanting to go to a formal occasion in cold weather, you will most likely also have to buy yourself an overcoat if you’re wearing an Italian style suit. They are incredibly thin, and would not withstand harsh cold and wet weather conditions particularly well.
It also depends on whether you’re comfortable with your physique or not.
If you are a little bit self-conscious, then a British suit will help hide those extra rolls of fat you got this summer from shovelling pizza and BBQ’d sausages down your throat.
If, on the other hand, you’re confident in your own skin - you really can’t beat an Italian suit. It hugs your body perfectly (once you’ve got a clear understanding of the rather complicated drop system) and will show your physique much more closely than a British suit.
British style suits are often too formal for some situations, whereas an Italian suit (without a necktie) can be worn in pretty much any situation.
You can also match styles, for example, you can wear a pair of Italian dress shoes with a British suit. An Italian suit is perfect for men with a long torso, which is why it's a very popular style in Asia.
An Italian suit also works well for shorter people. as they often give an appearance of height (and pinstripes are very popular, which also makes people seem taller) - So if you're wondering which type of suit to buy, if you're shorter or have a longer torso, then an Italian cut suit is perfect.