(originally written for MyTuxedoCatalog.com)
For many men James Bond personifies the ultimate male. While plenty of action heroes are skilled with fast cars and lethal force, only Bond balances these primal traits with civilized tastes and seductive charm. Thanks to the iconic depiction of the character sporting a deadly handgun and elegant tuxedo, young men dressing for a formal occasion commonly fantasize about channeling the legendary super spy. Sadly though, the resulting outfits invariably fall short of expectations and are more likely to suggest a license to serve liquor than a license to kill.
Such men may attribute their sartorial failure to the lack of 007’s salary or his Hollywood stylist but in fact neither is necessary. All that’s required to pull off the Bond look is knowledge of the rules of classic black tie, the tuxedo interpretation preferred by sophisticated men everywhere. For those unfamiliar with the rules, this two-part article will highlight the most fundamental distinctions between formal waiters and secret agents.
We begin with the foundation of black tie: the tuxedo (or “dinner jacket” in British spy parlance).
Over the past decade contemporary tuxedos have been increasingly styled to resemble business suits more than formal suits as young men become increasingly unfamiliar with the latter. To the casual observer the two may appear to be interchangeable, but Bond knows better; as his lovely Casino Royale accomplice Vesper Lynd so aptly summarized, “There are dinner jackets and dinner jackets.”
The differences arise from the garments’ original purposes. The everyday suit was originally known as a lounge suit in reference to its role as easy-fitting clothing for leisurely pursuits in the countryside. Its purpose was simply to be pragmatic. The original tuxedo, on the other hand, was known as a dinner suit because it was worn for informal dining and socializing among upper class gentlemen. Although less grand than the otherwise obligatory tailcoat, it nonetheless had to be elegant enough to be accepted as evening wear, society’s most formal type of clothing.
The most obvious indicator of the suits’ differing pedigrees is their lapels. Ordinary single-breasted jackets typically have plain notched lapels while tuxedo jackets traditionally feature dégagé shawl collars or stately peak lapels, both faced in lustrous silk. Another significant differentiation is the way the classic tuxedo jacket is cut to feature just one button whereas ordinary suits will have two or three. This variation allows a deep “V” of white shirt to remain visible when the tuxedo jacket is buttoned, ensuring maximum contrast of black and white tones, maximum exposure of the formal shirt’s decorative front and the impression of wide shoulders and a narrow waist. (This is also why traditional evening waistcoats are cut much lower than ordinary suit vests.)
A less apparent difference is the impact of the jacket buttons and trouser side seams on a tuxedo being covered with the same facing used for the lapels. This sartorial trick is borrowed from military dress uniforms as a way of concealing a garment’s unsightly working parts in the same manner that studs replace a shirt’s ordinary buttons and a waistcoat or cummerbund hides a trouser’s waistband. For similar reasons the pocket openings on a proper tuxedo are finished with understated trim rather than being cluttered with pocket flaps, and the back of the jacket is unbroken rather than being split in half by a vent. The end result is a more streamlined and therefore sophisticated suit and, in the case of the trouser braids, an illusion of longer legs and thus taller height.
One trait shared by both styles of suits is the essential need for a proper fit. Bond always looks his best by ensuring his jacket is neither draping him like a tent nor constraining him like sausage casing, his sleeves are just short enough to expose a band of shirt cuff (which extends no further than the bottom of his palm) and his trouser legs are just long enough to cover his socks rather than bunching on top of his shoes. He also knows to use suspenders to keep his trousers perfectly positioned at his waist throughout a long evening of high-stakes gambling and high-speed car chases.