Vitale Barberis Canonico


The English word suit derives from the Latin sequi, to follow, and indicates a chain in which every component is connected to the one before, in sequence, forming what we call in Italian a “completo”, something which cannot be broken. What we wear today is, in terms of both fashion and dimension, almost the same as what was codified in the 1930s, with only small modifications to its proportions. It covers 80% of our bodies and our choice of suit identifies who we are and what profession we have. It is the citizen’s uniform par excellence. A set of factors has definitively connected suits to the metropolitan world of business. The classics are: chalk stripes and Prince of Wales for the winter, pinstripes and light plains for the summer. The colour nuances are predominantly those of greys, browns and blues and the choice of colours is made according to three factors: profession, climate and the difference between day and night. It is important to be in sympathy with the surroundings and the context, whether work or leisure, and one’s lifestyle. And always with a tie.

The sleeve

Everything becomes clear when you see how the sleeve has been stitched. Whether the jacket is bespoke or off the peg. And in the first case, which school the person who tailored it belongs to. The height of fashion, even to the extent of almost becoming a caricature, is the so-called “mappina” sleeve, from the Neapolitan school, which is soft and has a series of tucks around the shoulder: it puffs out, like coffee into the coffee pot, in an intermittent and irregular way. Technically, it is firstly tacked on the inside and then folded back, so that it projects outwards to then fall softly and comfortably. Where the climate is colder and the rules are more formal, there is more internal padding to give the sleeve greater stiffness and cleaner lines. The upper sleeve must be roomy and not narrow as it goes down (like a chicken leg). It finishes with three or four cross-stitched or binary-stitched buttons (here it also depends on the country the jacket is made in). The most important thing is the armhole which should be perfectly-sized and circular in order to permit the arm to move independently of the rest of the jacket.


During the 1900s, jackets went from having four buttons to just one, depending on the length of the jackets and its intended use (more or less formal). And so the way of buttoning the jacket also changed. At the beginning of the 1900s, the top button was fastened in order to frame the tie and open the lower part of the jacket to display the waistcoat with the obligatory watch chain. And the two buttons on a sports jacket were also set high up and both were fastened. Little by little, as jackets got shorter and waistcoats were abandoned, the buttoning moved so far down as to hide the meeting point of the shirt, the belt and the wider part of the tie, which is without a doubt one of the least elegant and manageable parts of our clothing. In general, the upper of two buttons is fastened, or the central button or the first two of three (depending on how the lapel is cut and tailored). The positioning of the buttons to be fastened is fundamental to signal the waistline and to give the jacket its silhouette. In formal jackets, only one button please. But there is always room for extravagant exceptions, which should however remain such.


A sociological study some years ago posed the theory that there is an analogy between women’s skirt lengths and social wellbeing. We could also suggest that the same thing goes for lapels on jackets. In the 1960s, when growth and optimism were growing, lapels were narrow, while in the 1970s, a period of turbulence, social redefinition and affirmation of new demands, they became more assertive and dominant. A perfect lapel should be somewhere between 9 and 10 cm in a single-breasted jacket. But there are no strict rules except not to exaggerate. Everything should bear a relationship to the wearer and his physical figure. We should always be aware of the look of the entirety of what we wear, as Balzac maintained, and it should demonstrate unity, clarity and harmony. The hand-stitched buttonhole in its simplicity and precision enhances the whole jacket. It reminds us that a suit is a uniform and that, when jackets were worn only by the military, the buttonhole in the lapel served to fasten the jacket right up to the collar. Peaked lapels are only for double-breasted and suit jackets.


For many years, vents were either non-existent or extremely rare. Italy was the last country, at least amongst those amongst the Western fathers of haute couture, to accept vents. Right up to the 1990s, both single and double-breasted jackets were without them. In Anglo-Saxon countries, suit jackets normally have two very high vents which follow a very high, silhouetted waistline (giving the jacket the famous V shape which is known as the English drape). The single vent, which is less aesthetically pleasing, is always better in off-the-peg models all over the world. It is a relic from their origin as sports jackets, for horse-riding or hunting, or leisure pursuits in general. Nowadays, jackets without vents have completely disappeared. Only the dinner jacket remains.


Pockets can be jetted or patch. The former normally have a flap that can also be tucked into the pocket, which is useful when attending more formal occasions where flaps are not accepted. Only in sports jackets may the flaps be bigger and more squared, in such a way as to fulfil their original role, namely of preventing things from falling out of your pockets. For some years, there has been a wide choice of patch pockets: square, round, saddlebag, with the opening either straight or curved, even worse if outlined by a double row of stitching. Trying to be unique often ends up being singular… Let’s leave patch pockets for informal occasions. Or for summer suits in the three classic “plains” such as gabardine, linen or cotton.


Today’s trousers owe practically everything to two personalities from British history: Edward VII and his grandson Edward VIII, who made the following features popular: turn-ups, the front pleat, the belt instead of braces and even the zip … The only thing that haute couture lovers justly still reject. Over the years, the height and width of trousers has changed many times. For example, with a waistcoat and braces, they come up to the navel, but with a belt, the waistline is lower because it needs to rest on the hips. Everything regarding trousers is organised around a rigid dichotomy: with braces or belt, with darts or not, Italian darts (facing outwards) or English darts (facing inwards), high waist or normal, vertical or horizontal pockets, tight or wide. There is no accounting for taste. The suggested height of the turn-up is 4.5 centimetres. The trouser legs should lightly touch the shoe with the slightest hint of a fold. They should never be skin tight; one sees too many aspiring ballet dancers around town. When seated, check whether the thighs feel too tight. And when you stand up, check whether the legs are caught on the calves or whether they slip down easily.

Grey suits

Grey is the colour of the metropolitan and city life. From formal to informal, grey is a constant in men’s wardrobes. Wearing a grey suit is a well-considered choice, the point of arrival for stylistic maturity. Leaving aside the various nuances of the colour itself, a grey suit could be made of sharkskin, flannel (more or less worsted, plain or chalk-striped) herringbone, houndstooth, overchecked, mohair, birds eye, or even Prince of Wales… In a day suit, grey is a required choice for the world of work (most popular amongst politicians and businessmen), because it symbolises personal affirmation and professional resoluteness. Gianni Agnelli, the former head of Fiat, practically always wore grey plain. In its assertive neutrality, grey underlines the details, such as the choice of shirt, tie and shoes. It is perfect for a day’s work when combined with a blue shirt and brown shoes, but you only need to put on a pair of black brogues and a white shirt for evening appointments.

Blue suits

Much loved by progressive politicians and dandies in the 1800s, blue suits were worn to overstep the rigid colour code of the period, and today blue is the colour of the Democrats, worn by everybody, including young people when they approach the world of men’s styles, but also by the most elegant of the elegant. It is the colour par excellence for the nautical world (naval uniforms are generally blue). It emanates a sense of calmness and reliability. If combined with the perfect choice of fabric, it enables the wearer to express his own sense of aesthetics. A suit made of blue flannel is a must-have in a gentleman’s wardrobe, double-breasted or three-piece. In summer, blue becomes brighter and lighter, thereby greatly widening the range of possible colours to choose from. In contrast to grey, blue is the ideal suit for evening appointments. A dinner suit in midnight blue is a thing of rare beauty.

Sharkskin suit

The Italian word for sharkskin “grisaglia” derives from the French word “gris” meaning grey. For many years, a sharkskin suit was the suit par excellence. The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford) always wore sharkskin with a white shirt and black tie, as did the heroes of the TV series “Mad Men”, set in the 1960s. Sharkskin is still a classic amongst connoisseurs and it needs very skilful processing. It is obtained from white and black yarns crossing each other to form a pattern from which emerges a unique, intermittent colour tone. On the surface of the fabric, there are minute ridges in opposite directions (from right to left) in contrast to a prunelle. It is at its best in single-breasted suits. Blue or bordeaux are the best colours for accessories. Shoes should be either dark brown or black, depending on the occasion. In Britain, it is often called pick & pick, whereas sharkskin is the more common name in the USA.