Non-White Shirts for Black Tie

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Part of the elegance and formality of black tie come from the contrast and balance of black and white in the outfit. However, even traditional black tie is not always pure black and white. Dinner suits (Tuxedos) can be midnight blue—which is still more black than it is blue—and warm-weather dinner jackets are typically off-white instead of pure white, with burma (a shade of beige) being an historical option as well. So if dinner jackets don’t need to be pure black and white and may be subtly blue or off-white, why can’t dress shirts (Tuxedo shirts) be subtly blue or off-white?

Sometimes even James Bond breaks from tradition and experiments with the colour of his dress shirts for a softer look, a more flattering look or a more fun look. For these situations Bond chooses a cream or light blue shirt.

Cream shirts are an inconspicuous alternative to white. Under artificial light, the difference between cream and white is very subtle, similar to how black and midnight blue are hardly distinguishable. On someone with a warm skin tone, like Roger Moore, cream can look less obviously not white since the overall tone of the shirt matches the warm tone of the person’s skin. You may not have even noticed that three of Moore’s dress shirts are cream instead of white. Pure white shirts can look harsh on someone with a warm skin tone, while cream is more flattering. On the other hand, cream would not be flattering on someone with a cool skin tone, like Sean Connery.

Roger Moore wears cream dress shirts on three occasions, in The Man with the Golden Gun, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. He wears them with an off-white silk dinner jacket, a black dinner suit and midnight blue dinner suit, respectively. With the cream dinner jacket, it matches better than a white shirt would and makes the dinner jacket look more white because there is no pure white shirt to contrast with it. With the black and midnight blue dinner suits, the cream shirt still provides an elegant contrast that better flatters Moore’s skin tone than a white shirt does. Another reason for Moore’s cream dress shirts is that they may look better on film than a pure white shirt does.

The cream dress shirt is less formal than a white shirt is. It is best worn with less formal variations of black tie and for less formal occasions. Roger Moore’s cream dinner jacket, notched lapel dinner jacket and double breasted dinner jacket are all less formal than a single-breasted, peaked-lapel dinner jacket, and thus they make his choices for cream shirts more appropriate. He also wears his cream shirts for intimate dinners, never for grand events. That isn’t to say that they couldn’t work for grander events for more adventurous men.

Unlike with cream, even the lightest blue shirts are noticeably blue. Light blue shirts are best with the least formal variations of black tie, and that is to say even less formal variations than what the cream shirt can handle. Like the cream shirt, the light blue shirt is best for intimate dinners, but it can be difficult to wear with traditional dinner jackets. It’s most at home with smoking jackets and velvet dinner jackets. It can also be worn as part of “creative black tie”. If wearing a blue shirt with “creative black tie”, the blue shirt should be the limit of creativity involved to keep the outfit tasteful.

Sean Connery wears a light blue dress shirt with his navy velvet dinner jacket in Diamonds Are Forever for an intimate dinner aboard a cruise ship, showing the light blue dress shirt’s ideal use. Here he is only dressing for himself and his guest on his private terrace, which means he is in control of the dress code.

Cream and light blue are the most formal shirt colours for business after white, so naturally they would be the first choice for a dress shirt after white. A pink shirt, while less Bondian, could fulfil the same role as a light blue shirt. Darker shirts would lose the spirit of black tie since they would lack the necessary contrast.

These non-white shirts need to stand apart from business shirts, so it is necessary that they have aspects that identify them as dress shirts. But since they are less formal dress shirts they need to be the soft style rather than the stiff. This means they need a soft turndown collar rather than a starched wing collar, and a soft front (pleated or plain) rather than a stiff marcella (pique) front. All of Bond’s cream and blue dress shirts have spread collars. For all of Moore’s examples, the shirts have a pleated front to identify them as dress shirts. Connery’s light blue shirt has a plain front, so it is like an ordinary shirt in the details, but it is made of silk so it is more special. The same could work for a cream shirt. All of these shirts have mother-of-pearl buttons down the front, since studs would be too formal for a non-white shirt. A covered placket could also be appropriate for a non-white dress shirt. The cuffs on these shirts are either cocktail cuffs or double cuffs (French cuffs). Barrel cuffs would be too pedestrian for such a shirt.

The cream and blue dress shirts may certainly seem a bit peacock or 1970s, but the ideas behind wearing these more creative shirts for black tie are timeless. With creative black tie becoming more mainstream and helping to keep black tie alive in some form, Bond’s creative shirts are still relative today and can provide inspiration.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Matt!

    I like those “aberrations” from traditional black tie style. And especially silk shirts make a nice accomplishment to both “normal” black tie and less formal evening attire as f. i. velvet dinner jackets. Silk’s natural colour is cream and I think in “former times” those shirts were quite often worn with dinner jackets. They are without any doubt more comfortable to wear than those stiff marcella “bip” formal shirts. And they are a true “Bondian” item because the literary Bond even wears silk shirts with his usual lounge suits.

    You didn’t refer to those self-striped shirts Bond wears from time to time (Connery in “TB”, Moore in FYEO) – shouldn’t they be included?

    Best,
    Renard

  2. Navy velvet ….a horrible a choice along with a horrible film with the exception of plenty o toole of course. You mentioned that the notch lapel is outdated, which I would have to disagree with if the lapel is worn in small dinner situations then it makes the person a bit more aproachable.However when should you wear a peak lapel as opposed to a shawl lapel? Does the lapel matter when choosing a shirt color?

    • The shawl collar is for the more intimate situations like small dinners and casinos. Peaked lapels are for big events, like Carver’s party in Tomorrow Never Dies. But ultimately, they are interchangeable.

    • I agree that the notch lapel is outdated because it harkens back to a more formal era where a man could more easily justify owning multiple dinner suits. Now, I can’t imagine anyone outside of the most elite social circles having a need for more than one dinner suit given how infrequently a dress code requires them. I fall well-outside that group, and I purchased a shawl collar dinner suit because I felt it would best be able to accommodate less-formal and more-formal affairs. I really like the idea of using a non-white shirt to further differentiate the standard look.

  3. I’m old enough to remember a passing trend for blood red evening shirts. I have a vague recollection of my dad (who wore a dinner jacket a few times each year) owning one but don’t recall him actually wearing it and don’t have photographic evidence.
    This would have been during the seventies of course, when stylistic norms – even for the uniform code of black tie – were being stretched close to breaking point. Take a look at the inaugural party in the film ‘The Towering Inferno’ (1974) – all of the male party guests are in some form of black tie but the variety on display is thankfully a thing of the past!

    • Shawl collars on dinner jackets are not to be recommended for men with rather round face contours but for those with angled ones (the former being well-advised to choose the peaked lapelled version). That’s perhaps even more important than the dinner situation.

  4. Matt, with regard to pink shirts, do you find that they are more flattering for a certain complexion? I wear one occasionally with suits or a navy blazer, but I’m not sure it favors me.

    • Pink shirts can look good on many different skin tones. It can make a difference if the pinks is more towards salmon or more towards lilac. Moore and Lazenby can both wear pink well, and they have very different complexions.

    • I think I look better in lilac than salmon, so that makes sense. Maybe I’ll try something in-between. Thanks.

  5. Matt,

    What is cool and warm skin tones in this regard? Where do blond, pale Scandinavians fit in?

    Thanks,
    S

    • Warm skin tones have golden undertones while cool skin tones have pink undertones. Blond Scandinavians (like Britt Ekland) tend to be warm.

  6. Matt, you mentionned cream shirts not being flattering on people with a skin complexion similar to Connery. Yet he wore much more cream/ecru shirts than white shirts with a lounge suit as Bond. So why ? Is it because it looks bad on him ‘in real life’ but good onscreen ? Or do you distinguish cream from white and ecru ?
    I also thought Connery looked better in cream shirts than Brosnan. Yet they both have a winter complexion. Is it because Connery was much more tanned than Brosnan ?

    Thank you in advance for your answer, Matt.

    *** RIP Sir Roger, we will miss you for sure ***

    • Neither Connery nor Brosnan looked so great in cream and ecru shirts. I suspect he wore cream rather than white because it showed up better on screen. Connery’s tan helped him look better in cream, but it still wasn’t a great colour for him.

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