Most ideas in men’s tailoring come from a history of one-part utility and another part aesthetics. The subject of pleats is no exception. It goes back as far as Ancient Egypt, when they were used as a decoration on the tunics of royalty. In Elizabethan times they created large frills on men’s collars. In their basic form, pleats are folds of excess fabric that are tacked down in place.
In more recent history, they come in many different variations across different garments in the cannon of classic menswear. A main reason why these folds exist in tailored clothing is to add functional room to a specific area of the body in certain postures. They also sometimes exist more purely for visual flair, indicating a high quality and attention to detail in the making of a garment. Looking past pleats’ negative image on baggy trousers in 80’s and 90’s however, they are actually quite visually pleasing on a garment that fits- from their use on shirts, to jackets to pants - as outlined below.
The most common type of pleats would have to be on trousers. Trouser pleats are placed in the front of the seat/thigh and expand when the wearer sits down, making this position more comfortable. There are two general categories that they fall under - forward, that by definition fold towards the fly of the trouser, and reverse, that fold towards the hip pockets of the trouser. The forward version has its roots in traditional British tailoring while the reverse version comes from Italian tailoring. From there, the acceptable number of pleats is either one or at a maximum two per side.
A single pleat is placed right above the trousers’ crease. The crease is another type of fold up the middle of the trouser leg from bottom to mid-thigh. It is a fold that is impermanent and that the wearer should keep ironed into the trousers. This particular placement continues where the crease terminates, creating one visually flattering continuous line up the leg. Another pleat, facing the same way as the single version, can be added farther out from the crease, towards the pocket, for additional comfort and visual interest. Any more than this is excessive and unnecessary.
Now that we have covered the most common pleats, many other placements and even types can be noted. The basic version, as noted, consists of a single fold, but there is also a type called a box pleat which itself contains two folds, or essentially the amalgamation of two adjacent outward facing folds. A reverse box pleat is the idea in reverse; two adjacent inward facing folds.
Dress shirts may feature pleats originating at the cuffs, at the shoulder, or across the upper back. Usually if they exist, there are several in these places. The upper back placement is the most functional, as you can imagine when reaching out to hug someone, these folds open up like an accordion to create more space across the shoulder blades. At least two total side pleats are recommended here if this is a ‘problem area’ for an individual, i.e. one notices restrictive pulling across the upper back when performing this ‘hugging’ motion. A central box version is common on the upper back of many off-the-rack shirts, but is not as effective at creating space in this motion compared to side versions. Shoulder pleats are more decorative than functional, but they can create more ease of movement at the shoulder as well. Pleats at the shirt’s cuffs are the most decorative of these examples.
Suit jackets, or blazers, can also have pleats. These can exist at the shoulder, like mentioned on dress shirts. On both the shirt and jacket shoulders, the origin of this placement comes from Italian tailoring and has become a very desired aesthetic among a subset of Italian tailoring enthusiasts, and is commonly called ‘shirring’. Any sewn on pockets on the jacket, called patch pockets, may feature inverted box pleats, which expand the pockets’ carrying capacity, and are an interesting, albeit casual, touch. Jackets can also feature an inverted box pleat at the center of the back, splitting open the center back seam. Or, they can have them behind the shoulders. These create what is called an “action back” jacket and really expand the range of motion for the wearer. These are also more sporty/casual touches to a tailored jacket and are rarer as they are hard for a tailor to construct. If the jacket has another uncommon feature, a built-in belt across the back, it might also have multiple folds above and below.
As you can see, there are many different possible pleats in tailored menswear ranging from very functional to more aesthetic in nature. If you experience tightness in any the positions this article covers, such as across the hips when sitting, or across the back when reaching your arms across your body, then hopefully you can at least consider what pleats can do for you in these instances.
Lastly, one pleat that is essential in a tailored gentleman’s wardrobe but is a choice every time he puts on this particular item, is a tie’s dimple. A tie dimple is essentially a reverse box pleat under the knot, hopefully which is a four-in-hand knot, created by the wearer. It is purely aesthetic in nature, with no basis in movement functionality. However, it is one of those small details that makes a gentleman’s look.
Written by Tim O'Hearn
Photography by Dany Dao
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim O'Hearn was born in Windsor, Ontario Canada. His grandfather - known by the family as "Bampa" - left quite an impression on him and quickly became his idol at an early age. Tim admired his Bampa for being outrageously humorous and extremely witty. But it was his great sense of style, especially his dressing sense, that made the greatest impact. Old pictures of his Bampa and Tim's own experience with the man had planted a seed in his mind that later grew into a strong interest- in men's clothing.
Self education became Tim's tool for exploring the world of menswear. Self expression in his outfits was fuelled by trips to thrift stores in small cities across Ontario for many years. He now has his eye on making his career in menswear, perhaps to get one step closer to understanding what made the image of his beloved Bampa so impactful. In one way, he believes his journey into understanding menswear, however, is just beginning. He uses what he has learned thus far in hopes of helping others dress better, and their best. Follow Tim's journey on Instagram: @menswear_explorer