What Is an “Unstructured” Suit?

November 18th, 2015

Back in the day a suit was a power uniform. It was meant to convey size, strength, wealth, and a conservative “play by the rules” lifestyle. This is why men in the 1920s-1950s wore jackets with thick shoulder pads, weighty linings, and stiff chest canvasses. It was a mentality of bigger, stronger, better.  

As menswear trended more causal through the 1970s-1990s, suits were worn less and less. The “company man” aesthetic was replaced by the rebellious and free spirit nature of youth. Jeans and t-shirts became the defacto American outfit and the concept of “business casual” started to confuse the ideologies of classic menswear. 

It’s 2015 and for the past five years we’ve been experiencing a resurgence of classic tailoring, but the style of the suit (mainly how it’s made) has changed quite a bit. Today’s gentleman doesn’t want to feel restricted or weighed-down by his clothes. He wants to appear elegant, but not stiff. Smart, but not stuffy. Mature, but not out of touch.  

The combination of a casual lifestyle and a yearning for professionalism has created a new breed of tailoring, lead by the “unstructured” or “unconstructed” suit. If you’ve been anywhere near menswear lately, you’ve probably come across one of these terms.

So what does it mean? Here we break it down into three basic elements of jacket making: 

The Lining


A lining serves a few purposes:

1. It adds physical weight to the jacket.

2. It insulates the jacket, making it warmer (but also inhibiting the fabric’s natural ability to breathe and regulate body temperature).

3. It protects the seam edges on the inside from fraying. This is why it’s easier to make a fully-lined jacket; it’s the rug that covers the mess of sewing. If the seams are exposed they have to be piped individually so that the edges won’t fray. This takes significantly more time and hand work.

4. It provides a slippery surface that allows the jacket to fall into it’s natural position on the body. 

While jackets are being made with less and less lining, even fully unstructured garments still have some bemberg. A little lining at the upper back and shoulder makes the jacket much easier to slip on and off without having to manually adjust the position of the fabric, which would otherwise stick to your shirt/sweater. This is the same reason why sleeves are almost always lined.  


The Chest Canvas


A chest canvas serves the following purposes:

1. It provides physical weight to the jacket. 

2. It allows a tailor to manipulate the roll of the lapels.

3. It keeps the chest plate clean, with no bubbling or wrinkling. This is what makes a suit so powerful and flattering on a man: the clean, shaped chest lines. 

4. It molds to the shape of the wearer’s chest over time. The heat of your body will eventually mold the shape of the canvas, making the garment fit you better and better over time.

A quality unstructured jacket should still have some chest canvas, it should just be made from a thinner, lighter, and more flexible material. In my opinion it should also be a half-canvas jacket rather than a full canvas, in order to make the overall garment lighter and more flexible. 

The Shoulder Pads


Shoulder pads serve the following purposes:

1. They add size and dimension to the jacket. Think “strong shoulder”. 

2. They keep the fabric that wraps around the shoulders from wrinkling. Similar to the effect of the chest canvas, the shoulder pads create a clean fabric drape around the upper body. 

An unstructured jacket usually has very small shoulder pads, or none at all. In some cases a small piece of canvas is used in their place. Hence the term “soft shoulder” or “natural shoulder”. At the bespoke level, shoulder padding is often used to balance out any asymmetrical angles of the client’s shoulders. Of course, this can only be done properly through fittings with your tailor

Unstructured Jacket Advantages

  1. The garment is lighter in physical weight, less restricting and more comfortable due greater range of motion.
  2. The garment breathes better, unlocking the ability of natural fabrics to breathe and regulate body temperature.
  3. The garment is more versatile; the suit is easier to pair with casual attire and the jacket can double as a sport coat.
  4. The garment has a more natural silhouette, creates less of a “strictly corporate” sensibility
  5. The garment is easier and cheaper for tailors to alter; they don’t need to remove and re-attach the lining to access seams.
  6. The garment is easier to fold and pack for traveling.
  7. The garment can be cut slimmer, which can be more flattering for slim-fit wearers

Have questions about suit construction? Check out our Menswear 101 section and use the comments section below for specifics.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Yours in style,

Dan Trepanier

Photography by Alex Crawford.

  • Miguel

    Excellent article, lots of information.

  • Radix Hidayat

    Very nice article! One thing that questions me for quite a long time, though: is is usual for unstructured suit to have chest canvas?

  • Daniel Allen

    Great article! I like to read about the why’s of a garment. I’ll be coming back for inspiration! I’ll be writing about jackets in a few months over at stylezero2stylehero.wordpress.com

  • TO

    Great pics. Is everything shown here the standards guts from the collection? Novice readers may benefit from the clarification that the first picture doesn’t have a lining (visible).

    I don’t know why that ugly striped pattern became the standard for sleeve lining. I much prefer a monochromatic/matching color. And there always seems to be extra sleeve lining so that it “bunches” a bit at the wrist when you slide your arm through. Why is that?

    • tommyjohn_45

      Yes! Can’t stand the bunching of excess sleeve lining.

    • AdamE

      There has got to be a way to cover the seams on the inside of the sleeve, and dispense with the lining… That’s one of my biggest pet peeves on many blazers!

      • TO

        AdamE I’m not sure what you mean by “dispense with the lining”-?