Illustration: Kate Gibb; Photographs: Sal Traina/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (McQueen), Getty Images (Davis, Jagger)
The Double-Breasted Suit Is Back, and Shedding Its Stuffy Image
The double-breasted suit jacket is essential to the image of 1930s Warner Bros. gangsters, 1980s Salomon Brothers bankers, and, this season, everyone and his brother.
Or so it seems. At every turn, high-end designers, established suitmakers, and upstart tailor shops are doubling down on double-breasted suits and blazers. It’s a bold look: The overlapping front closure and multiple buttons strike the eye with a force that their single-breasted brethren can’t match. We live in interesting times that call for interesting clothes, and though it’s been out of style for some time, the double-breasted suit fits the cultural climate again. With its structure and extra folds of coverage, it amounts to a flashy form of armor.
We might begin, as fashion people so often do, by name-dropping Raf Simons, an innovative industry darling whose debut collection early this year for Calvin Klein Inc.’s 205 W39 NYC label included double-breasted wool blazers in dark green, glen plaid, and steel blue. Touted as taking cues from “classic Wall Street tailoring” and yet contemporary in their relative slimness, the garments featured six buttons in front (two of them functional) and peak lapels rakishly pointing to the natural lines of the shoulders.
Simons may be the buzziest among a crop of designers who recently started jobs at fashion houses and promptly sent DBs strutting down their newly inherited runways. His peers include Haider Ackermann, whose first collection as creative director at Berluti included a couple of eye-catching examples, and Ingo Wilts, the chief brand officer at Hugo Boss AG, who used DBs to amp up the wattage of the power suit. And in London, Stella McCartney’s first fall collection for men featured the cut prominently.
Then there’s Alessandro Sartori, whose debut collection for Ermenegildo Zegna Couture epitomized the ways designers are rethinking the DB suit to woo a generation disinclined to think about suits at all. “I consider them very stylish yet versatile,” Sartori says, eager to talk up a black number made from cotton jersey. “You can easily style it very dressy, or be cool with a black cashmere T-shirt and joggers.”
Stepping from fashion boutiques into more traditional premium men’s shops such as the Armoury and Thom Sweeney, you’ll discover a similar pattern. “When we started, it was very rare,” says Thom Whiddett, who co-founded Thom Sweeney 10 years ago. “It seemed to have a stigma as being old-fashioned.” Back then, about 1 in 30 of their custom orders was for a DB; now it’s more like 1 in 12. At the very least, double-breastedness is doing double the business these days.
In the 1920s and ’30s, single- and double-breasted suits “sold in almost equal measure,” according to the esteemed tailor and author Alan Flusser. His 2002 book, Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion, describes the DB, which is descended from the dress uniforms of naval officers, as “the driving force behind tailored menswear” in those decades. Following the examples of the silver screen and the British royal family, men rushed to embrace the sporty sweep of its long lapels and the dapperness of those bountiful buttons, though only in their lounging hours.
“Up until the 1940s, [DBs] were considered too casual to wear in a formal office environment,” says Patrick Johnson, of Australia’s P. Johnson Tailors, which does made-to-measure work in Sydney and New York and sells ready-to-wear suits, including a lightly structured DB in tropical wool, via Barneys New York and Mr Porter. “It wasn’t until the Duke of Windsor started to champion them that they started to become accepted in the workplace.”
Of course, the ’40s found many men abandoning the office for the battlefield, and the DB faded in prominence when World War II rationing made the extra fabric of the front flaps an impossible extravagance. After the war, the DB found a new place. Yes, a man could wear it to work—but probably not unless he was the boss. Its naval association with rank continued in the civilian sphere. Perhaps your father warned you against wearing one to a job interview, because it was too flashy. Or your first boss cussed you out loudly enough for the whole trading floor to hear when you had the temerity to dress above your station. The suit lacks a common touch—which is why it’s been avoided by every sitting U.S. president except Harry S. Truman, a onetime haberdasher and sometime dandy, and Bill Clinton, who left his Donna Karan DBs in the East Wing whenever he felt the heat of scandal.
The major landmarks of postwar DB design provide an object lesson in the nuances of menswear. It boiled down, first, to button stance, the most common being the “six on two,” or “6x2” (in which two of the six buttons close). While a small but proud number of stylish stalwarts have always kept at least one jacket of that type in their closet, the trend followers of the ’60s and ’70s favored either a psychedelic excess of pseudo-military buttons (designs currently having a revival in striking suits from Dries Van Noten and Ackermann’s Berluti) or, on rare occasions, the quirky minimalism of a 2x1, newly available from Zegna and from Ackermann’s other, eponymous line. (See our primer on five nontraditional double-breasted suits, and where to find them, here.)
Then, in the late ’70s, Giorgio Armani revamped the cut. “His early DBs, like the ones he designed for American Gigolo, have this sportiness and freshness to them,” Johnson says. “Armani’s cut is with a wider padded shoulder but with very little structure in the rest of the jacket. This enabled the jacket to drape from these soft padded shoulders very elegantly. He then exaggerated this drape by lowering the button stance and the lapel height, so everything is low and slouchy, very comfortable.”
These comfy Armani cuts—often featuring a buttoned-on-the-bottom 6x1 stance—inspired a craze that carried the DB through the excesses of the ’80s. Although Armani’s imitators were many, his detractors were passionate. As the late designer Hardy Amies is quoted in the Eric Musgrave book Sharp Suits: “I do not think a truly stylish Italian gentleman would wear the button placed so near his genitalia.”
The proliferation of DBs on the fall-winter 2017 runways proves that a pendulum has swung away from the skinny single-breasted suits popularized by Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne. But the designers’ influence remains. The relatively lean fit and narrow cut of the new DBs are a world away from the boxy suits that epitomized the style of the woebegone late 1980s and ’90s.
When it comes to modernizing the cut by reducing the width of the flap, the pacesetter is Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli, who began moving in that direction a decade ago; he refers to his jackets as “one-and-a-half-breasted” to signify their slender overlap. “I designed the one-and-a-half-breasted in order for the man to wear the jacket open,” he says. “If there is too much fabric, it can easily become baggy and lose its shape.” Zegna’s Sartori has picked up on both the trend and the terminology. “My new love is the one-and-a-half breast,” he says. “You can keep it open and still look cool and very fitted.”
“That’s a bad idea,” counters Flusser, author of Dressing the Man. “I know this is gonna sound old-fashioned, but they would have figured that out in the 1930s” if such cuts and styling helped anyone other than a man built like a model to look his best. “It calls attention to itself and serves no function,” he continues. “It looks like you ran out of fabric.”
The double-breasted suit is, sociologically and sartorially, subject to a litany of rules. It is also, therefore, a garment defined by irony, as its most iconic wearers are the kind of rule-breakers whose names turn up on all-time best-dressed lists. The Duke of Windsor played with standard ideas of coat length and button stance to trendsetting effect. Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli flouted tradition by mixing DBs with OCBDs—oxford-cloth button-down shirts, a style generally thought to clash, in its casualness, with such a jacket. Fred Astaire, according to conventional wisdom, was too short to look swell in one, and Winston Churchill too fat. These fellows were bold in their departures from the ordinary, a trait shared by recent DB adopters. Designers have placed a bet that many more men will join their nonconforming ranks.
You know something is up when even Thom Browne shows DBs for the fall. Granted, he’s done so with impractical surrealistic sculptures that have no commercial potential. But then, all DBs are impractical. Those exposed buttons on the front are a mere vestige of the garment’s military heritage—they expose how many details of all suits (lapels, buttonholes, cuff buttons of any sort) are simultaneously extraneous to the business of getting dressed and essential to the matter of being dressed well.
Also, all DBs are sculptural. The point is to create the illusion that a man cuts a figure like that of Michelangelo’s David, or at least unlike that of an average human male. “If the suit is cut smartly,” Flusser says, “it can do more for most men than a single-breasted garment can.”