How the double-breasted suit became a style staple

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 armour.

Classic contemporaries

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 epitomised 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."

Old fashioned back in fashion

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 one in 30 of their custom orders was for a DB; now it's more like one in 12. At the very least, double-breastedness is doing double the business these days.

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The proliferation of DBs on the fall-winter 2017 runways proves that a pendulum has swung away from the skinny single-breasted suits popularised 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 epitomised the style of the woebegone late 1980s and '90s.

Creating a modern cut

When it comes to modernising 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 Alan 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."

Defined by irony

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."

Bloomberg