On the menswear blogs and forums which declare the day’s sartorial wisdom, shoulder pads are the object of near-universal derision: dated artifacts of bellicose artifice which stand diametrically opposed to the unconstructed shoulders favored by free and easy Neapolitans. As with most such modish distinctions, there is a great deal of exaggeration, prejudice, and hubris at play here: How far we've come in 25 years!
Bespoke tailoring, however, is essentially an art of moderation -- tempering stylistic caprice just as it mitigates physical aberration -- and for working tailors like Rory Duffy, its primary expression is not the advancement of a particular style, but the framing of a particular individual. While it is a client’s prerogative to know what he wants, it is a tailor’s job to know what he needs, and more often than not, this involves a bit of padding at the shoulders.
This is not to say that Duffy advocates “built-up” shoulders for anyone. On the contrary, he favors as natural a shoulder as possible, by which he means true to an idealized form of the wearer’s own physique, whether square or sloped. As he employs them, shoulder pads are less load-bearing architecture than cosmetic spackle, invisibly smoothing cloth over the body’s irregularities while retaining its essential contours.
Like most men who’ve learned most of what they understand about fit in front of a mirror, I’ve always thought of shoulder pads (or the lack thereof) as something primarily affecting the front silhouette of a coat. Just looking at a pad’s shape, however, reveals that it’s doing most of its work where we tend not to notice it, at the back of the shoulder, where its long “wing” supports a cleaner back scye. Because he shapes his backs by hand -- shrinking them at the scye, stretching them at the blades, fulling in long seams at the shoulders -- Duffy is able to use a much thinner (¼”) pad than that generally found in RTW coats, which tend to require thicker pads to prevent excess unshaped cloth at the back scye from collapsing, but which give wearers that dreaded upholstered look in the trade.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his penchant for old-school techniques, Duffy prefers using ready-made pads. Although purists and trolls might howl, Duffy’s guiding principle has always been to use the best method for any procedure in his work, and his reasoning here is practical: the wadding in handmade pads tend to break down over time, leaving lumps in the hem. Duffy is, of course, well aware that clients who have sought out his brand of handcraft tailoring may prefer a handmade pad on principle, and he is happy to oblige them.