Of the many questions we get asked here at Leviner Wood Custom Tailors and Shirtmakers, none is as frequently brought up as those concerning the folds of cloth over the chest and shoulder blades of a suit coat, what we call “drape.”
Just to confuse the issue a bit more, there are drape cuts and coats cut with drape. The most famous drape cut was invented in the 1930’s by a man named Scholte at Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row. It’s most famous proponent was Fred Astaire, a man who knew how to move a suit. Before Scholte, if you wanted to get some extra room for movement out of your coat (for golf, shooting, riding, driving…), you would have had pleats or a bi-swing back built into your suit.
Scholte invented the cut after seeing how Guardsmen’s military overcoats made them look very athletic with strong shoulders and suppressed waists and lots of cloth. He replicated this look by building up the chest and shoulder blades of his coats. The look is very relaxed and soft compared with the strictly heavily padded and sharp lines of a jacket by Huntsman, say. The cut came to be known as the Drape Cut, the London Cut, and the London Blade. There is a very clear shot of drape across the chest in the photo of Bogie, above. Eventually, the drape cut was exaggerated into the zoot suit and the 80’s power suit. But in its true form, it is still a very elegant silhouette. Evidence of draping can be seen in the illustration below (from Gentlemen’s Gazette). It shows the small folds at the sleevehead, under the arms and the fullness at the chest tapering into the suppressed waist.
Today’s suits and sportcoats are all cut with some amount of drape across the shoulder blades — even the clean, slim cuts favored by the Italians. All coats have to have some fullness across the back to allow you to move your arms forward (to drive your car, reach for the keyboard, hail a cab, whatever.) The advantage to having your clothing made is that you can control the amount of drape, and therefore the amount of comfort, built into the coat. But take it all out and you would feel like you were wearing a straightjacket.
At least we think it’d be crazy. There is a method to our madness, after all.