"Drape" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the menswear sphere -- sometimes without meaning. Whatever drape is, it seems to be positive and is sought after. Something about how the fabric hangs from the wearer. Kind of confusing, to be honest.
Perhaps that is because the full impact of the word drape is lost without understanding its opposite. For what is light without dark; good without evil; drape without cling?
The short of it is that when a fabric "drapes" over your body, it hangs without distress, so as to smooth over your contours. Heavier fabrics tend to achieve this better than lighter fabrics. And in the case of jackets, this is also an argument for canvased garments over their deconstructed counterparts.
Comparing the jackets above, notice that the structured jacket on the left boasts a smoother surface largely devoid of the wrinkles and bunching afflicting the jacket on the right.
There are several reasons for this: the first of which refer to the jackets material and interlining. A heavier wool hangs more smoothly than cotton, and canvas interlining reinforces the jackets shape.
Conversely the unstructured cotton jacket on the right behaves much like a sweater in the way that it catches and bunches along the wearers body.
The other half of the equation is determined by how full or trim their jackets are cut.
Both jackets in the picture above are made from wool and sport a canvas interlining. Yet the one on the left drapes while the one on the right clings. Even when a jackets materials and construction accommodate drape, clothes that fit too snugly will not comply.
Clinginess and bagginess -- neither of which are flattering -- are on opposite ends of the fit spectrum. There is a surprisingly generous space between those extremes within which drape can be achieved. For instance:
Notice that the man on the left is sporting much trimmer contours than the man on the right. Even so, both of their jackets drape handsomely, affording shape and smoothness in equal parts. Both are valid approaches and will suit different men based on their messaging -- whether they seek to appear classic or contemporary; physically fit or mentally fastidious. In either case, the key is in choosing a jacket with the right fabric/construction and cutting it to fit with some room to hang.
These principles apply to trousers as well: both the heft of fabric and fullness of fit determines whether it drapes or clings.
Here is another example of wool draping where cotton may cling, even though the cotton chinos are cut fuller. Both pants fit snugly at the waist and have ample room to hang from the body, but it so happens that cotton is at times less cooperative.
That isn't to pick on cotton -- chinos are fantastic -- but that particular fabric is clingier in nature. Drape can be achieved with cotton, it's a bit more challenging and requires a greater degree of heft and fullness. That's why cotton is typically favored for casual pants while wool is more common in dressier trousers.
Yet as with jackets, even wool trousers cling when fitted too tightly. Such is the plight of all too many Instagram influencers...
And while we're throwing shade, it must be noted that many so-called classical sartorialists are propagators (read: perpetrators) of overly-long trousers: another fit-fail that ruins the potential for drape.
For drape is characterized by fabric hanging smoothly to create clean, unbroken lines. Excessive length is the downfall of properly fitting trousers, as it results in fabric pooling atop ones shoes. Weight rested atop the shoes is antithetical to hanging, and consequently anathema to drape, since it distorts the trousers overall contour.
At the end of the day, drape is an effect created by fabric fitting the body close enough to express shape, but not so close that it clings. Though it's all too often treated as a meaningless buzzword, drape is the coveted culmination of multiple fit points and fabric considerations that is nothing short of exquisite when achieved.
So if you happen to be a budding menswear enthusiast who is a little perplexed by the concept of drape, hopefully this framework will make it easier to understand, appreciate, and orchestrate in your own tailored garments.
As an aside, the term "drape" as a result of fit and fabric is related to yet different from "The British Drape Suit" -- a topic of its own!