Licence to Dress for the 1980s
James Bond: Timothy Dalton
Director: John Glen
Costume designer: Jodie Tillen
Tailoring: Stefano Ricci and Universal Studios tailor shop
Licence to Kill was a big shakeup from The Living Daylights. Though Timothy Dalton and director John Glen both returned again, the film’s production moved from Pinewood Studios in the UK to Mexico and the United States. American Jodie Tillen was hired as the costume designer, and her modern American sensibilities took the costumes in a new direction.
Bond’s wardrobe in the previous four films never delved deeply into the fashions of the 1980s. Alongside the relaxed trendy fashions was a revival of more traditional styles in the 1980s, and until Licence to Kill Bond had followed this revival. However, in Licence to Kill James Bond dressed as much for the 1980s as Roger Moore had dressed for the 1970s.
Both 1970s and 1980s fashion trends are about excess, but in different ways. The 1970s was about stylistic excess while the 1980s was more about clothes being oversized for a slouchier, relaxed look. Neither trend partiuclarly speaks to the character of James Bond, but Bond also needs to look current. The original versions of the character were never overly concerned with fashion trends, and while Bond appreciates luxury, he’s not a man of excess.
While Jodie Tillen did a good job of making James Bond look current to the late 1980s, it was a tremendous departure from what Bond wore before. To me, it looks like Bond lost his luggage filled with his usual English bespoke clothes when travelling to Key West and had to purchase new clothes in America.
For the film’s pre-title sequence, Bond is outfitted in morning dress as the best man at Felix Leiter’s wedding. The morning dress lacks the sophistication of his similar outfit in A View to a Kill, but this is because he’s attending an American wedding with hired clothes. And since Bond was travelling overseas to this wedding, it’s unlikely he had any say in selecting the wedding attire. Felix, his bride Della or Sharkey would be to blame.
The morning dress that Bond wears was very typical for American weddings in the 1980s, thus the costume choice is perfect for the occasion and setting. But it’s too ordinary for costume in a Bond film. A wedding in Bond film needs to look a little more glamourous and particularly not like a typical middle class American wedding. The pleated-front wing-collar shirt, the clip-on cravat—with a visible hook—and a morning coat and waistcoat in clashing shades of grey are disappointing. However, the light grey top hat from London’s Lock & Co. is an item worthy of Bond.
Bond has the look of luxury in his dinner suit in Licence to Kill. The excess is on display with not only a very full fit but also with the large shoulders, the wide low-gorge lapels and details like a fancy silk braid down the trouser legs.
According to an auction at Christie’s in 2022, a Stefano Ricci dinner suit was purchased for Timothy Dalton at Battaglia in Beverly Hills, and it served as the model for four other dinner suits that would be made for Timothy Dalton. According to an interview that Peter Brooker conducted with Jodie Tillen for our book From Tailors with Love: An Evolution of Menswear Through the Bond Films, the tailoring for Dalton was done at the Universal Studios tailor shop. They would likely be the ones who made the four other dinner suits.
The dinner suit loses some points for the excessively low button stance and for having two buttons on the front. Tradition says that a single-breasted dinner jacket should have only one button, and James Bond has taken on the responsibility of keeping black tie traditions alive. He makes this mistake again in Spectre. The gorge is also extremely low, and like the button stance gives this dinner suit a distinctly dated 1980s style.
While wing-collar dress shirts were very trendy in the late 1980s, Tillen made a good choice by putting Bond in his standard turn-down collar shirt. The shirt takes black onyx studs, which marks the first time Bond wears studs and the only time Bond wears black studs, but it’s a traditional style so I don’t find it objectionable.
The narrow batwing bow tie that Sean Connery wears in his 1960s Bond films makes a welcome return. This is the second time Bond wears a cummerbund, and like the first in Diamonds Are Forever it again serves to conceal a gadget. Incorporating Bond’s gear into his clothes is a superb way to costume him. Stylishly classic white moire silk braces, likely made by Albert Thurston, make their first appearance on James Bond.
Lounge Suits and Jackets
The Universal Studios tailor shop made two suits for Timothy Dalton in the same style as the dinner suit. The suits appear to be well made, but the style is a fashionable one of the era. While it’s as trendy as Roger Moore’s wide-lapelled, flared-trouser suits, the fit doesn’t have the care that would be appropriate for a fastidious naval man like James Bond. The full cut, wide shoulders, low gorge and low button stance are taken to the extremes. The trousers have triple reverse pleats for extra fullness.
This amounts to suits that do not drape neatly and suits that do not move well with the body. While the suits don’t look so good, they aren’t entirely unflattering on Timothy Dalton. Dalton’s slight build benefits from wearing fuller clothes. However, the extreme fullness makes the character look sloppy. Sloppiness doesn’t work for Bond.
Bond’s two suits in the film are a charcoal pinhead and a dark blue pinhead. Both are in a tropical weight for comfort in the hot locales. The cloth choices are very Bondian and have some interest thanks to the pinhead pattern. The charcoal suit isn’t the most stylish choice for Key West, but Bond wears it because he’s supposed to be flying to Istanbul. The dark blue suit helps Bond fit in with the suited drug dealer at Franz Sanchez’s base.
Both suit choices work well for their respective purposes, but I feel that they are both too dark for the locations. Either suit could have been replaced with a mid grey suit to help Bond look better in his surroundings, not compromise the character and still make complete sense in the situations. The only benefit of the dark suits is that they match the dark tone of the film.
The shirts with the suits, in blue and white, respectively, are a disappointment. The collar points are too short and end up unflattering and lacking the presence Bond needs. The shirts have pockets, which make the shirts look cheap and too American for Bond. Bond otherwise never wears pockets on his shirts with suits.
Both suits are formal business suits that demand a tie, but Bond forgoes the tie. The tradition of the tie is very important to Bond, even today. If it’s too hot for him to wear a tie in Key West, it’s also too hot for him to be wearing a business suit that demands a tie. When he’s in his blue suit at Sanchez’s base, other men are wearing ties with their suits. There’s no reason for Bond to not be wearing a tie. A tie could have added more drama on the conveyor belt. In either case, it would have been reasonable for Bond to start the two suits with a tie only to see him remove his tie.
Bond wears black moccasins with his suits, a shoe that’s both very 1980s and very Fleming, making it an excellent choice.
Bond is dressed in suits for the most important moments in the film. The first suit comes when Bond discovers Felix Leiter after maimed and the second one takes Bond through the film’s climax. Bond wearing suit for the film’s climax is something we hadn’t previously seen in any of the more action-oriented finales. Tillen’s choices to put Bond in suits for the most important moments in the film is inspired. She understands how important the suit is to James Bond.
The casual attire is the strongest part of the wardrobe. The trendy oversized fits work better in the casual settings than they do in tailoring, but they still let down most of these looks. The trousers all have double or triple reverse pleats, which were in fashion at the time but are not as neatly tailored as we’d normally expect from Bond. The pocketed shirts and plethora of navy clothes succeed in giving the casual outfits a Fleming feel, albeit updated for America in the 1980s.
The casual wardrobe cleverly reuses clothes in various combinations in creating ten different outfits, bringing a realism to the wardrobe. Bond has packed his suitcase for Florida, and thankfully he’s able to wear the same clothes or the same kinds of clothes in Isthmus.
His first casual outfit introduces a lightweight navy Teba jacket that he would wear throughout a number of Key West scenes. The Teba is an unstructured Spanish jacket with aristocratic associations, so it’s not a bad choice for Bond. Bond’s jacket takes the place of a windcheater and looks more sophisticated. Like all of Bond’s clothes in the film, it is oversized and would look better if Dalton wore a smaller size. He pairs it with dark blue trousers and what appears to be a black shirt, though it’s difficult to know for sure if it’s black or dark navy because the scene is so dark. The all-dark look suits Bond and the scene, but the dark shirt clashes with the other blue clothes and would have been better replaced with one in a lighter shade of navy that matches the jacket and trousers.
The Teba returns for the next outfit for when Bond resigns for MI6. The shirt is replaced with a lightweight white shirt with two flapped patch pockets, and the trousers are replaced with khaki trousers. The shoes are navy espadrilles. This is one of the most wearable casual looks in the film and in a neater fit could look extremely Bondian and still look superb today. I can easily picture Fleming’s Bond wearing the shirt.
Next Bond wears a black wetsuit when he sneaks onto the Wavekrest and steals $5 million. This is a practical and Bondian outfit, and it stands out by being the only fitted look in the whole film. A baggy wetsuit just wouldn’t work, even in 1989.
When Bond breaks into Felix Leiter’s home, he combines two of his previous looks. He wears the navy Teba jacket with the dark blue trousers and the white shirt. The mixing and matching of different looks is a practical one, particularly when travelling. I find this to be the most inspiring aspect of the film’s wardrobe.
Bond wears a similar outfit of the navy Teba and dark blue trousers when meeting Pam Bouvier at the Barrelhead bar, but this time he wears a mid blue cotton broadcloth shirt with two patch pockets on the front. While this is a low-contrast look, it is far more successful than the dark shirt he wears with the same outfit earlier in the film.
When Bond arrives in Isthmus, he is wearing a dark navy shirt with two chest pockets. The yoke extends down the front to the pockets, where it acts like a large pocket flap that closes with buttons. Bond keeps a pair of sunglasses in his left breast pocket. He again wears dark blue trousers in a couple shades lighter than the shirt, which may be the same trousers as before. Without a jacket, the fullness of the shirt is overwhelming but adds to Dalton’s presence. In a neater fit, this would be a shirt that Ian Fleming and his Bond would wear.
Bond awakens in Sanchez’s home wearing a beautiful set of black striped pyjamas. These belong to Sanchez, so they’re undoubtedly high quality, but they also look superb on Timothy Dalton. This is one area where a full fit makes sense, but the fit is not overly full and is flattering on Dalton. The pyjamas are classically styled, making this one of the few outfits from the film that would still work well today unchanged.
In a brief scene at the bank, Bond wears a khaki two-pocket shirt with khaki trousers, likely the same trousers that he wears in Key West. The tone-on-tone look is classically Bondian, and in khaki it recalls Roger Moore’s safari outfits. The khaki looks superb in this scene and gives a nice change of pace compared to the dark looks. I wish this outfit was used more.
To disguise himself amongst the henchmen aboard the Wavekrest, Bond wears a royal blue t-shirt and dark blue trousers, again possibly the same dark blue trousers that he wears earlier. Because it’s a disguise the outfit can be excused, but the oversized t-shirt is the most unflattering look of the film. The henchmen don’t wear t-shirts this big, so there was no reason Bond had to.
Bond changes out of the t-shirt and into dark button-front shirt with two pockets. This could possibly be the same shirt that he wears in the first casual outfit. He puts on a dark cap as a disguise when piloting a boat. This outfit is hardly seen and doesn’t make much impact.
Franz Sanchez, played by Robert Davi, is a beautifully costumed villain. He dresses deep into 1980s trends, and, unlike with Bond, the excess of the fashions perfectly suits the character. Jodie Tillen is most famous for establishing the style for Miami Vice in 1984, and Sanchez’s style has the most in common with the Miami Vice look, but he’s still dressed as his own character.
His white double-breasted dinner jacket with a black shirt marks him as the opposite of Bond and is appropriately flashy in its style. The pink shirt and grey trousers he wears at his villa look perfectly relaxed and stylish. His tan suit and blue shirt for the finale looks like something Pierce Brosnan’s Bond wore have worn for the same scene. Here it makes Sanchez stand out amongst everyone else, as a Bond villain should.
Well Done, James
If there’s one significant improvement over the clothes in The Living Daylights it’s that many of the clothes in Licence to Kill are better quality and made to standards more appropriate for the character of James Bond. They may not look like bespoke clothes from England, but they don’t look inexpensive either. Despite Bond being a civil servant, he spends a considerable amount of money on luxury items, including his clothes. While Ian Fleming wrote little detail about Bond’s clothes, he emphasized the quality material his clothes were made from. The dinner suit in Licence to Kill, while not in a completely traditional style, is up to Bond’s quality standards.
The wardrobe did well by putting Bond in dark blue frequently in the film. Dalton himself said that he said that Tillen tried to put him in pastels, but he requested that Bond wear navy. He also wears a bit of tan, grey and white in the film, which are all classically Bondian colours.
Not Perfected Yet
The fits are the biggest issue with costumes in Licence to Kill. Though the fits are on perfectly on trend for 1989, they are at odds with the character of James Bond. Fit should always come first, and when the fit isn’t good, it lets down everything else.
Bond doesn’t wear a necktie at all in this film. It would have been nice to see him wear one, even if he had to take it off for an action sequence—something he rarely does. By wearing dark worsted suits without a tie, the outfits look incomplete. This is the only film where Bond doesn’t wear a necktie—only a dress cravat and a bow tie. There was opportunity for the tie to make an appearance. A Fleming-esque black silk knitted would have been perfect with the Key West suit.
The lack of British styles in this film means that Bond doesn’t get a chance to dress fully as Bond. The wardrobe looks too American or Italian-American. Even when Roger Moore wore Italian suits for two films, he still wears British shirts, British uniforms and other British styles. Because Licence to Kill was made almost entirely in North America, it’s understandable why Bond dresses American. Sourcing English clothes in America was not easy at the time. Italian style was also much more popular than British style in America at the time, so that’s why Bond’s clothes have an Italian edge to them.
Licence to Kill has one of the more disappointing wardrobes of the Bond series. 1980s fashion trends can be held responsible for much of it, particularly the fit. The oversized fit of every outfit may have been popular at the time, but the fit isn’t right for James Bond.
While many of Bond’s outfits make sense in the context of the film—which is the most important aspect of successful costume design—some of them are too realistic and mundane. The costumes are appropriate for the typical action hero of the time, but they don’t look like James Bond outfits. That said, they don’t look entirely inappropriate for Bond either. The amount of navy blue throughout the wardrobe helps tremendously.
The morning dress and the oversized blue t-shirt are the weakest looks in the film, but there are logical explanations for both. Other than those two looks, nothing is terrible. The concepts are good for all of the outfits, but the execution lacks the classic Bond panache. Inspiration and aspiration have always been defining aspects of James Bond’s style, and Licence to Kill‘s wardrobe lacks these elements. This wardrobe is undoubtedly successful in updating Bond’s look for the times and in attiring him appropriately and realistically for all of his situations, but I ultimately find that it lacks the specific look that Bond needs.
Overall, I have found myself appreciating this wardrobe more in this reevaluation, but I find it difficult to get past the oversized fits and the lack of British styles.
Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Leave your comments below.