What is a Neapolitan shoulder? The tailors of Naples have become famous over the last ten years, in part because the rise in popularity of brands like Kiton. Many writers wax poetic about the famous shoulder/sleevehead. But what do they mean?
There are three things that can distinguish a Naples-made or Naples-inspired coat shoulder. The first is a lack of padding. The second is a pleated sleevehead. And the third is what the Neapolitans call the spalla camicia, or “shirt shoulder.”
Now, sometimes this latter is confused with the Neapolitan shoulder. But this is a mistake. The spalla camicia is a detail that is a specialty of Neapolitan tailors, but it is not in itself the necessary and sufficient criterion for a Neapolitan shoulder. Some Neapolitan coats are made with it, some aren’t. Some tailors like to do it, some don’t. There is a general belief—not universally shared—that the spalla camicia is only proper on odd jackets and informal suits.
Most Neapolitan coats are characterized by minimal or even zero padding. This in itself is controversial. Many people really hate the look of sloping, rounded shoulders. Some tailors hate to make it because it so hard to fit. Padded shoulders give a coat structure. The tailor can affix a great deal of cloth to the pad and hang the rest therefrom. It solves a lot of thorny problems. Unpadded shoulders have to be measured in increments of 8ths or even 16ths. There is no margin for error.
This is why the true Neapolitan shoulder is almost never seen ready-to-wear. RTW patterns are very exacting. They are developed over time with a great deal of care. They are designed to fit as many men as possible with minimal alterations. We tend to be dismissive of RTW clothing on the forums, and I can see why; it has many, many shortcomings. But some acknowledgement should be made of the complexity and difficulty inherent in designing a RTW pattern that fits men across a range of sizes yet looks similar in silhouette no matter what the size. It’s harder than we think. Doing that reliably requires a shoulderpad. Which is why Kiton and Borrelli and Isaia and most Neapolitan RTW suits sold in the US (with the exception of La Vera) are padded.
But back to the real thing. There is no pad. There might, or might not, be some wadding at the edge of the sleevehead, on the shoulder side. This depends on the tailor, on his judgment of the client’s needs, and the client’s preferences. Either way, the overall effect is most sloped, soft, and rounded.
The second hallmark is the pleated sleevehead. But actually, “pleated” is a slightly misleading term, since “pleat” implies a careful and precise folding. But that is not the case with a Neapolitan shoulder. Rather, the upper sleeve is deliberately cut much larger than the (typically very small) armscye. That excess cloth or fullness is then fed into the scye as the sleeve is hand-set into the body of the coat. This CANNOT be done by machine. Sewing machines can efficiently sew two pieces of the cloth together along edges of equal length. This is why even the very best bench tailors typically sew center backseams and the like by machine, even if they sew the rest of the coat almost completely by hand.


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  2. Nicholas Antongiovanni, The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style


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