Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Shirt Rant

Shirt Rant
I have been lurking for a while in an mens internet clothing forum and it is an eye opener in many ways.
Since I am concerned in my day to day work with theatrical tailoring, most of the styling I deal with is more period than current. 
That isn't to say that I have had my head buried in the sands of style.
I have been watching the modern suit and it's changes.

How short can they make those jackets?  How narrow can they make the trousers? How ill fitting are most of these suits on your average guy?

It isn't limited to the suit either. The shirt, once a comfortable garment is now tightened and modified without consideration to the person wearing it or its function. Worse, it is marketed  as something you can custom order to your own measurements. Just fill in the handy chart. Now there are masses of guys who have been measuring themselves (a bad idea) and sending in orders for slimmer and slimmer fitting shirts only to find they cannot bend their arms or wonder why there is still some excess fabric not plastered to their bodies.
On the plus side, the trend of the suit and learning about fit and clothes that go beyond a pair of sweats or jeans and a t-shirt is commendable.
But, these guys have little idea how a garment should fit, no idea of the limitations of fit especially in the online MTM business, yet they order anyway only to bemoan the ill fitting product they receive in the mail. They just don't know what they don't know. If you know what I mean.

I have been tempted to put in my two cents when I see things like this, but I just don't think I have the time to try to explain and enlighten the masses. Heck, I can barely find enough time these days to post on my own blog! 

So, shirts:
A shirt is a washable garment to wear next to the skin that, historically speaking,  that acts as a buffer between the body with its oils and perspiration and the more expensive and less washable over garment.
It provides both coverage and style. 
A shirt should have ease through the body. (A shirt is not a fitted bodice)
How much ease? Well a close fitting jacket is typically 4" larger than the chest measurement overall, so a shirt should have more ease than that. I have seen drafts with as little as 6" of ease total to 10 or 12" and more of ease.
The depth of the shirt armhole is generally lowered to allow for an easier fit. 

The rule is:
The smaller a garment gets, and the less ease it has, the  more it needs to be shaped to follow the three dimensionality of the body.

The shirt has limitations in fit.
 The fit is achieved through the seams and occasionally, vertical darts in the body. The front of a shirt is straight. The neck point therefore is much closer to the CF line than a jacket neck point is. In a jacket, the shifting of the neck point away from the CF is basically creating a dart in the front. This, among other things, allows the armhole to be closed down in size, and be shaped more like the body it is on. 
Simplistically speaking, in a shirt, some of the armhole size at the front  is reduced by sloping the shoulder  but there is a limit to how much can be taken out before it causes a problem fitting the actual shoulder. Surplus fabric could be taken out below the pecs by a vertical dart, but unless there is a dart or a seam going either into the armhole or up through a front yoke or bib front,  a shirt will naturally have some excess fabric in the front armhole.

This is generally not a problem until you start reducing the chest ease excessively, and raising the armhole.

The centre back of the shirt is cut on the straight. There is usually a yoke that allows for some shaping in the back over the blades. The armhole can be reduced in the back by shaping the yoke seam, as well as by some slope of the shoulder. There is a limit to the amount of fitting and armhole reduction here as well, because in men, the upper back is often more developed than the chest. There is also a range of motion that must be accommodated . Movement of the arms is generally forward, expanding the muscles of the back, and this needs to be allowed for.
A shirt will naturally drape off the upper back and the fabric will not sit sucked up against the body at waist level.
A shirt can have vertical darts under the blades to reduce excess fabric in the body and provide a cleaner fit. I have read over and over the advice to just take in the side seams. This is not going to do it, especially if you have prominent blades or a developed upper back.

The last seams available for shaping on a shirt are the side seams.  You can use them to reduce from the circumference of the chest to the size at the waist but again, only to a certain degree. You have to increase back out over the hip though. If the hip is too tight, the shirt will naturally ride up and blouse out at the waist.

What about armholes and sleeves? Traditionally, shirt armholes were straighter than jacket or vest armholes and the  sleeves were cut with a flatter and wider sleeve crown. 
A shirt usually allowed the arms to be raised close to horizontal without pulling the sides up.
If the ease in the body is reduced, the armhole is both smaller and more shaped. When this is combined with an attempt to reduce the armhole size by other means, the sleeve is now in a dilemma. It still needs to be wide enough to encompass the arm and the expansion of the muscles in movement.  It still needs to allow for some raising of the arm so it still needs a relatively flatter crown to go into an increasingly un-shirtlike armhole. What happens then is that the sleeve looks strangely bunched up when in a resting position. If the sleeve shape is modified to be more like a fitted bodice, or jacket, you limit the easy raising of the arms. 
It just feels like a no win situation doesn't it? I don't think the MTM shirt sellers can really be totally blamed because they are just working with the numbers the well meaning customer inputs into the system. You just can't manipulate the pattern randomly either, it is much more complex than for example reducing the size at any one point. Perhaps they should be defining the fit parameters and what they can modify to an individual and maybe avoid the returns and remake requests they must get on a regular basis. 

My thanks to the anonymous photo donors for their willingness to ask for advice online. 

End of rant.


  1. Hi Terri,

    The word “fit” itself has many preconceived (psychological and physical) notions. On top of that you have trends and style that make it even more confusing.

    I found your rant very enlightening.


  2. I have been contemplating this very thing--where's the tipping point between fitted and over-fitted? And what are the important differences to a women's draft for the same style?

    Working with the winifred aldrich shirt draft for men, seems like armscye shape is fairly traditional, not too flat or fitted, but working with similarly styled patterns for women, oy, major scye curve-age, and major pulling when arms are lifted. It's not a ball gown, it's a shirt! The wearer would like to move her arms!

    I guess I find it reassuring that someone who's so knowledgeable has observed some of the same issues, cause I'm just a homebrew shirtmaker.

    Also, man, I think about shirtmaking Way. Too. Much.

  3. Many thanks for this delectable rant. After reading it, I went right back to your comments on neck point from a couple of years ago. Putting the two together, I think I finally understand the straight/crooked distinction. I have read many discussions of the matter on mens tailoring forums, and the more I read the less I seemed to understand. At points, the explanations become almost metaphysical! And many times, they are simply and abviously wrong. Now I get it.

    As for the contemprary slim shirt...blech!

  4. Well done, Terri!
    It is partly the lost knowledge how things should fit. And I think maybe part of it are the androgynous elements in fashion too. And last but not least the incomplete knowledge: They hear about "small armhole" and want this in shirts too.

    In woman's wear it is in this way: They want tight fitting garments without a bust dart.
    Same result.

  5. The theory is commendable and true, but there are other considerations. The shirt is no longer underwear for mopping up oils, sweat and providing a buffer between skin and waistcoat/coat. It is a garment in it's own right, sometimes worn without a jacket.

    Another consideration is that the OTR shirt, which for too long was little more than a collar attached to a parachute, and sleeves fit only for a gibbon, never made allowance for different body shapes. It's no wonder men lunged at the possibility of a shirt that might actually fit better than a tent.

    There is certainly a difference between a shirt that fits and a shirt that is too tight, but the shirt that fits is not represented by the fat-man shirts referred to as the 'classic' cut and certainly not by the definition of shirts from a 19th century perspective which were basically underwear.

    1. I think the stumbling block is the limitations of fit within the shirt as a whole.
      There is obviously a changing expectation by the consumer in many markets but there is also a disconnect between the consumer's demands and the manufacturers response, and the knowledge base of both parties from what I can see.

  6. Great post. Thank you for writing on this topic.

  7. Exciting Your writing and thanks for discussing. Some factor is very use complete and help full…

  8. Hi Terri, like your dissection of how a shirt should fit, and its limitations due to the human body.

    That said, could you post pictures (front, back and sides) of a proper fitting shirt (modern, not sack-like)? I've been trawling the interwebs (C&T, SF forums) and found nothing of the sort that the jacket/lounge coats have.

    1. When/if I run across one I will post it. Busy right now with a project