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.