Tailoring in Motion: The “Action Back” Jacket

June 23rd, 2015

There was a time when men only wore tailored clothing. There wasn’t much in the way of mass production, and even “ready to wear” items were mostly hand-made, boutique style. Back then guys wore tailoredwear for just about everything, from the boardroom to the tennis club. That’s why if you go for an early morning jog on the upper east side of Central Park, you’re sure to see a couple elderly gentleman out running in shetland sweaters and oxford shirts.

Since tailors back then weren’t working with stretch cloth, and pure wool was the closest thing they had to a “performance fabric”, they learned to engineer a comfortable range of motion into their jackets. The “action back” (which comes in a few different variations) became popular for anyone who needed to move freely and quickly in their jackets – from soldiers on the front lines to ballroom dancers keeping proper form.

As I’ve written many times, tailoring is rooted in history and moves very slowly. Today, for example, we still wear garments that are shaped and constructed using these age-old “action back” techniques.

Here are three back styles that were developed long ago to provide shape to a man’s jacket, without restricting his range of motion.

The Darted Half Belt



This vintage jacket that Will scored at the RoseBowl Flea Market is handmade and has some incredible detailing.

The back here is treated with a half belt, which pulls the side seams together to create suppression and shape at the waist. The back also has a prominent dart on each side of the belt; this serves to further take-in the fabric beneath the belt (creating additional suppression), while also creating fullness above the belt (for the lats/blades) and below the belt (for the hips/walking motion).

Here the jacket’s vent also begins at the bottom of the belt, allowing plenty of allowance should Will need to break-out into a full sprint with his jacket closed.


The Inverted Box Pleat



Angel’s custom-made olive cashmere overcoat also has some old-school detailing across the back.

First, the belt is adjustable with buttons (allowing for increased or decreased suppression). Second, rather than darts at the sides, he has pleats. These allow him maximum range of motion across the back – which is necessary for Angel because he’s a muscular guy who often crosses his arms and talks with his hands. Third, the center back seem of his jacket is made with an inverted box pleat. As you can see in the photo below (where he’s slightly hunched), this gives him an added 1-2 inches of room where he needs it most – across the upper shoulders blades.

Details like this allow a tailor to cut a very slim and flattering garment (even on a bigger guy) without sacrificing comfort or jeopardizing the integrity of the cloth.


The Bi-Swing Back



For you extreme movers and shakers who can’t sacrifice any range of motion – think ballroom dancers, golfers, rifle shooters, violin players, etc – there is the bi-swing back, as shown here on Ethan Wong‘s vintage jacket.

Again we see the belted back and the darting to create suppression around the midsection. The key feature here is the vertical pleat on each side of the back, just behind the armholes. Essentially the jacket has an additional length of fabric tucked under the back panel, which is revealed and extended only when Ethan reaches out with his arms. This was a detail often seen on British shooting jackets, and a very popular feature on odd jackets in the ’30s (which is where this vintage piece comes from).

Interestingly, the bi-swing style became popular because it was used on US military jackets before the break-out of WWII. Shortly into the war the military stopped producing this style of jacket in order to cut costs and conserve fabric.


That’s all for today – just a little history and a little tailoring lingo.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Yours in style,

Dan Trepanier

Photography by Alex Crawford.

  • pwlsax

    The bi-swing is a neat look but has to fit just right, including at the waistline. Otherwise the belting will ride up and the shoulder gussets will pop open and bunch, as illustrated in this LIFE magazine shot from 1939.

    The shirred back, with multiple smaller pleats over the belting, was a more flattering style for different body types. NBC’s chief cameraman found it a comfortable choice for studio work in this 1938 photo.

  • TO

    The tailor I go to in Toronto has a son that just got back from England and he brought a piece he created for the ‘golden shears’ competition on Savile row and apparently made the finals. It’s beautiful and has a bi-swing back and half belt with very old-world hunting jacket details. I got to try it on, very cool.

  • Ali Naaseh

    I used to have a leather motorcycle jacket with a bi-swing back, and I hated it. Anytime I went above 30mph, the wind would catch in the pleats, and the entire back of the jacket would fill up with air. Lost a lot of speed and energy to the extra drag it created.

    • TO


  • facelessghost

    You can find the bi-swing back on these sport coats from Duluth Trading Co., designed for the working man who has to dress up from time to time:



  • http://www.streetxsprezza.wordpress.com Ethan W.

    Loving this post! You guys should see some of the crazy belted backs I’ve seen, with some even combining all of the above features! What sucks is that today, most belt-backs (or action backs) are only found on overcoats. Bring them back for suits and blazers; put the sport back in sportcoat!

    For any of you who want some, there are cheaper ones from the 60’s and 70’s that turn up on eBay from time to time!

  • JoeFromTexas

    The detail and engineering that goes into old military jackets never ceases to amaze. I would love to hear about the thought process that went into Angels jacket (and am interested to see what it looks like buttoned up). Simon Crompton went into detail when writing about his peacoat he had made on permanent style.