Sheer Elegance: The Voile Shirt

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It takes both a bold and elegant man to wear a shirt made of voile. That man sounds like James Bond.

Alan Flusser defines voile in his book Dressing the Man as, “Woven from fine hand twisted yarns with reverse twist warp threads, this plain fabric is lightweight, cool, and dry.” The combination of fine yarns and twist gives voile its semi-sheer characteristics. Because it is so fine, voile can be a very dressy cloth and is perfect for evening wear. But the same qualities mean that it excels in hot weather, and it can make up well into any style of shirt.

Voile is typically woven in a plain weave like poplin is, either of cotton or silk, but the high twist of the yarns means that sheer is a mandatory characteristic of voile, while poplin is only sheer in lighter weights. Voile may also be woven in a twill weave, using the same high-twist yarns that make the more ordinary plain-weave voile. Voile has a soft hand, and the high twist of the yarns helps it to wrinkle less than fine poplins and ordinary twills.

A close-up of a cotton voile pleated dress shirt from Frank Foster. Pleats are on the left side and a single, sheer layer is on the right side. Photo by Janna Levin.

The voile shirt is uncommon for men because men generally do not like their shirts to be sheer. For the many men complaining that thin poplin is too sheer, wearing voile would be a non-starter. This is an unfortunate attitude because there is nothing wrong with men wearing sheer shirtings, though they may be too revealing in conservative business settings, especially if one is not wearing a jacket over the shirt. In warm weather and in more formal environments, a fine, sheer shirt can be most desirable. However, it takes more confidence than the average man has to wear a voile shirt, which is certainly no problem for James Bond.

Roger Moore wears a cream voile dress shirt from Frank Foster to beat the heat and humidity in Thailand in The Man with the Golden Gun

Voile is French for “veil”, and it got that name because it is sheer like the materials used for a wedding veil. Voile is often used for curtains because its sheer nature gently diffuses light through while blocking the view of onlookers from the outside. It is also used for bed canopies.

Black tie shirting is James Bond’s primary use for voile. He wears many dress shirts made of voile over the course of the series. Because voile is sheer, the front is often doubled with extra fabric to prevent the visible parts of the shirt from being see-through. When dressing in black tie, the jacket is meant to stay on at all times, so the sheer parts of voile dress shirts (Tuxedo shirts) would not be seen when the shirt has an extra layer of fabric in front. The collar and cuff are already double-layered and have an interfacing. The extra fabric in front for a dress shirt is traditionally achieved in two manners, a marcella bib and pleats.

Daniel Craig wears a white marcella-trimmed dress shirt with a voile body and sleeves in Skyfall

The more formal front for a dress shirt is the marcella bib, which adds a layer of thick, pique cotton to the front of the shirt. The collar and cuffs are also made of the same marcella cotton as the bib, but not the body and sleeves. The body and sleeves of of a marcella shirt are most typically made in cotton poplin, but they may also be made in cotton voile. James Bond’s marcella-front dress shirts in Tomorrow Never Dies and Skyfall, made by Turnbull & Asser for Pierce Brosnan and by Tom Ford for Daniel Craig, respectively, are made with a voile body and sleeves. In Skyfall, the airy voile is comfortable in the warm weather of Macau.

Roger Moore wears a white pleated voile shirt made by Frank Foster in A View to a Kill

For a more relaxed black tie shirt, a pleated shirt may be entirely made of voile, either cotton or silk. Pleats in the front of a voile shirt create an opaque front, while the rest of the body is still sheer. James Bond wears pleated voile dress shirts made by Lanvin in cotton for Sean Connery in Dr. No and by Frank Foster for Roger Moore in silk for The Man with the Golden Gun and in cotton for Moonraker and A View to a Kill. Roger Moore wears his pleated voile shirts all in warm locales.

Turnbull & Asser made a pleated cotton voile twill dress shirt for Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Voile twill, in contrast to the usual plain-weave voile, has more body but still is slightly sheer. Despite wearing this shirt inside a cold ice palace, the texture of the cotton voile twill was chosen for its elegant look rather than its airy properties.

George Lazenby wears a white ruffled-front voile dress shirt from Frank Foster in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Since the late 1960s, the dress shirt with a ruffled front has been in and out of fashion. Frank Foster made a ruffled-front shirt of cotton voile for George Lazenby to wear in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which the voile ruffles adorn the front like a gathered veil. These ruffles, like pleats, make the front opaque.

For maximum airflow, Roger Moore wears a white plain voile dress shirt from Frank Foster in Octopussy

On two occasions in hot weather, James Bond wears plain dress shirts with only a single layer of voile in front. These shirts are sheer in front to best deal with dressing up in hot weather, but the gentle texture of voile alone still looks elegant. The two shirts are made by Frank Foster for Roger Moore to wear with his midnight blue dinner suit in Egypt in The Spy Who Loved Me and to wear with his ivory dinner jacket in India in Octopussy. The shirt in The Spy Who Loved Me has black mother-of-pearl buttons, including large buttons on the “Lapidus” tab cuffs, to make it fancier. The shirt in Octopussy has only double cuffs (French cuffs) to set it apart from the style of Bond’s regular shirts in the film. The placket on the front of both these shirts is emphasised because it is an opaque double layer while the rest of the front is semi-sheer.

Roger Moore wears a sky blue cotton voile shirt with his grey rope stripe suit in Octopussy

The plain voile shirt is also acceptable with suits in warm weather, where it can be very much needed. Often this shirt would be made with a double layer in front so that the parts of the shirt that show with a jacket are are opaque, but the rest of the shirt still would be airy under the jacket. However, Frank Foster prefers to make Roger Moore’s voile shirts with only a single layer in front, even for business wear. In Octopussy, Moore wears a sky blue cotton voile shirt with his grey rope stripe suit, and A View to a Kill, Moore wears such a shirt in cream with his tan gabardine suit in San Francisco.

A View to a Kill Tan Suit
Roger Moore wears a cream cotton voile shirt with his tan gabardine suit in A View to a Kill

In The Man with the Golden Gun, James Bond wears a cream cotton voile shirt for casual wear to withstand the heat and humidity of Bangkok. Though James Bond most often wears voile for his most formal shirts, it is a versatile cloth that can be made into a shirt of any level of formality. This shirt has a double-layer front, which would ordinarily be unnecessary in a casual shirt and undesirable in such weather. In this case, the double layer is to ensure that the “superfluous papila”—or third nipple—that James Bond is wearing to pretend he is Scaramanga is concealed under the shirt and can be revealed at the ideal moment.

Roger Moore wears a cream casual shirt with a double-layer front made of cotton voile in The Man with the Golden Gun

36 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you!
    Indeed a nice shirting which I would associate primarily with the Southern European countries (south of Italy, f.i.)
    And is there any chance that – in the near future – we will see another “bold and elegant man” presenting himself in his bespoke Frank Foster cotton voile shirt?

    Best,
    Renard

  2. Bold and elegant? This certianly is not daniel craig. I was hoping spectre would have been his last outing as bond.

  3. Great article. I wish voile shirtings were more common off the rack. I could certainly use some here in the Southwest!

    Are the collar and cuffs typically made of voile too, or another shirting like poplin?

    • The entire shirt (body, sleeves, collar, cuffs) is made of voile, with the exception of the marcella shirt where the collar and cuffs are made of marcella (but in some cases will match the body and sleeves instead). You can’t combine poplin and voile because they are too similar and will look mismatched.

  4. Matt,

    Along those lines, which would you say is a better fabric for a formal shirt? Poplin or Voile? Or is it up to personal preference?

      • When people can see your undershirt that indicates mad men. If you are going for that, that buy a can of pomade and get off this blog.

      • Fleming’s Bond wore an undershirt, if memory serves.

        And I agree, the thin shirt with the tan skin underneath is not a good look on any man.

      • Actually Connery wore an undershirt (sleeveless one) in FRWL. You can see it when he dresses himself in the train. Probably because the weather was cold at that time in the setting. Yet, it is worth noticing. I would not be surprised if he wore one at other occasions. Maybe even with the evening shirt in Dr No actually.

      • I wear them in the winter and forgo them when the weather is warmer. It’s s comfort thing for me.

  5. An undershirt also would be visible. Perhaps choosing a voile shirting in a darker colour could be an alternative to prevent the see-through effect.

    • An crew-neck undershirt will not be visible under a jacket and tie. A darker colour won’t make it less see-through, but it may help it to blend in better with one’s skin tone.

  6. Under a jacket and tie – yes. But if you wear it without those (in an even more casual environment), then the sleeves would shine through.

    • The point of wearing a voile shirt is negated by wearing an undershirt anyway. The point being to wear something that feels like nothing, and wearing such a fine fabric feels fantastic against the skin. The see-through effect in front may be mitigated by having the shirt made with a double front.

      • I suppose so, though interestingly women would not see it that way. They have many garments made of voile or other sheer fabrics and regularly wear them with some sort of camisole underneath. But then, that’s also due to the double standards of… showing through.

      • Does skipping the undershirt not shorten the life of a voile shirt? I always wonder that when I see Bond putting his sheer shirt directly on his skin. I wear an undershirt every day of my life for no other reason than to keep my shirts as clean as possible. A very special shirt, like a custom-made voile shirt for black tie, seems like something you would want to protect.

      • An undershirt, particularly a sleeved undershirt, will certainly protect a shirt. But you sacrifice part of the reason for wearing such a fine shirt in doing so if you can’t feel it.

  7. Yes, a double front is perhaps the best solution.

    “to wear something that feels like nothing”
    -That’s how to define the ultimate luxury when it comes to fine summer shirts. The height would be a voile shirt made of pure silk.

  8. It’s worth noting that some white linen shirts have double flapped pockets in front. Perhaps it’s for style, but it helps me not feel as self-conscious. One could then have the convenience and comfort of a single-fronted voile shirt. Naturally, I’d only add pockets to a sport shirt, not so much one meant for wearing with a suit and tie such as Roger Moore’s.

  9. Because it is so fine, voile can be a very dressy cloth. Ok for business shirts, but aren’t formal shirts -I am talking about shirts for black or even white tie- supposed to be, the stiffer, the dressier ? Marcella bibs and starched bibs seemed to me to be the dressier evening shirts. That’s why I think voile although certainly beautiful should be reserved to hot climates. A all-voile evening shirt for a warm weather black tie ensemble, definitely yes. Otherwise I tend to find voile really out of place on Connery’s Dr No or Brosnan’s DAD evening shirts.

    • Voile is a traditional choice (along with poplin) for the body of a white tie shirt with a marcella bib, so it’s natural that when the bib was exchanged for pleats, the whole shirt would then be made of voile. The starched bibs are indeed the dressier evening shirts, but the pleated shirt—whether voile, poplin or silk—is meant to be a soft shirt.

  10. I actually was able to acquire a bespoke voile shirt from turnbull and asser. Yes it does feel fine, but you can bet the house I never took off my jacket, even to go to the lavatory.

  11. The very last shirt I bought from Frank Foster before he passed was a Voile Dress Shirt. Single fabric plain front, regular placket, usual spread low collar, cocktail cuffs with button downs, white mother of pearl buttons. It is the single most beautiful shirt I own.

    I was in touch with Mary recently, she and their daughter are still in business making shirts, I’m trying to decide on which formal shirt to order next, a silk one (same spec as above) in a beautiful fabric with a little arrow head motif that catches the light beautifully, or go for the full George Lazenby Voile with Ruffled front. I suspect it will be the ruffle – who else could make a shirt like that. Although if funds allow, it’ll obviously be both!

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