Making Excuses for Licence to Kill’s Wardrobe


People often try to explain to me why the wardrobe in Licence to Kill is different from and not up to the usual standards of James Bond’s previous wardrobes. The reasons include Bond’s unusual circumstances and his anger at what happened to Felix. While his circumstances factored into some wardrobe decisions, there is little to suggest that the different kind of story and Bond’s angry mindset is responsible for most of costume designer Jodie Tillen’s fashionably full-fitting late-1980s choices. As usual, Bond’s costumes are designed based on a combination of story, character, setting and contemporary fashions.

Bond’s style until Licence to Kill was defined by its strong British identity. British suits and British shirts defined his look. Even his sportswear was frequently British. Roger Moore broke away from the British look with Italian suits in two films and Italian shoes in most or all of his films, but he never left the British sartorial mentality behind. Until Dalton came along, most of Bond’s clothes were bespoke. Timothy Dalton’s clothes in The Living Daylights featured ready-to-wear English suits that resembled Sean Connery’s classic English style with a gentle update for the 1980s with fuller fits, larger shoulders and medium-width lapels. The style still followed Bond tradition. Licence to Kill‘s costume, by contrast, was mostly purchased in America and consists of American and Italian clothes and a Spanish-style Teba jacket. Some of the clothes were even made for Dalton.

I often hear the excuse that Bond’s emergency situation on Licence to Kill forced him to purchase ready-to-wear clothes on the go. However, a simple look at the story does not provide much room for this reasoning. The film beings with Bond in Key West, with Bond dressed to attend Felix Leiter’s wedding. Travelling for church wedding wasn’t likely spur of the moment, so Bond would have been able to pack appropriate clothes for Key West.

The wedding attire matches throughout the wedding party, as is typical for American weddings, so it was presumably hired locally. The morning dress looks like typical hired American wedding attire in the 1980s rather than the more sophisticated British-style morning dress from A View to a Kill. My father dressed similarly to Felix for his wedding earlier in the 1980s. The wedding attire in Licence to Kill looks plebeian compared to both Bond’s own morning suit in A View to a Kill and to what Bond was known for wearing. There is a reason for this outfit not being up to Bond’s usual standards: Felix, Della or Sharkey must have picked out the clothes at the hire shop. The result is too realistic for the glamourous Bond series, but realism is to be applauded in a darker film like Licence to Kill.

After the wedding, Bond wears his own clothes that he brought for both his stay in Key West and his subsequent planned mission to Istanbul. Bond’s own style throughout the film is defined by the first two outfits he wears after the wedding: the oversized nailhead suit and the oversized navy Teba jacket with a full-cut dark two-pocket shirt and full-cut triple-reverse-pleat trousers. Bond’s wardrobe has a consistent identity based on these two outfits and strays little from the styles established in these two looks. Almost all of his looks throughout the film can be explained as clothes he brought with him for either Key West or Istanbul, especially since the styles are consistent. Licence to Kill shows one of the most realistic examples of how Bond would pack for a trip, and he travels with a large suitcase that is able to fit the film’s entire wardrobe, save for the hired morning dress. He even re-wears clothes throughout the film, a realistic element missing from many Bond films.

When Bond puts on his nailhead suit to get on a plane for Istanbul before he knows that anything has gone amiss, he is back at work dressing for a mission in a suit he brought with him from home. He should be dressing similarly to how Sean Connery dressed when Bond went to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, but he has taken a much different approach. His classic British suit has been replaced with an oversized American interpretation of contemporary Italian fashions. His blue shirt looks like a typical American ready-to-wear shirt of the era, with an oversized fit, an under-proportioned collar and, worst of all, a breast pocket.

For the first time, Bond is not wearing a tie with his dark worsted suit. This is not a pale-coloured suit intended to be worn without a tie in the tropics, it’s a business suit for Bond’s mission in Istanbul. It would have been the perfect time for a Fleming-esque black silk knitted tie to go with the Fleming-esque black loafers. While many men would wait until they arrive at their destination to don their tie, Bond isn’t going to put on his tie in the lavatory at the last minute. His tie is never an afterthought, and he always puts it on when he gets dressed. The heat in Key West shouldn’t be an excuse since Bond wore a tie in India just a few years earlier. (A different actor doesn’t mean it’s a different character). When he finds out Sanchez has escaped, this is the moment when he could have loosened or removed his tie. It would have demonstrated a dramatic character moment. Yet he already looks stressed out when it should be business as usual.

The lack of a tie with a suit at the end of the film is also out of character for Bond, but considering his circumstances and his different mindset, this time it could marginally be excused to follow the story and character. However, since there are many men wearing ties in that scene, Bond should also be wearing a tie because that’s how the character wears his suits. Just because he’s not on a mission doesn’t mean he would drop the tie. Giselle Gauthier of Nouveau Vintage said, ‘By having two classic worsted city suits and not showing them with ties, he isn’t recognizable as James Bond.’ Though Bond may want to look like one of the main bad guys are not wearing ties, Heller is wearing a tie, so Bond could have too. A tie would not have looked out of place in this scene. A tie could have added some additional drama to the conveyor belt scene and offered a moment to get rid of the tie. If they wanted to make a statement about the tie, they could have had the processing machine shred the tie before shredding Dario.

After he skips his scheduled flight to Istanbul, almost all of the clothes he wears in the film are a variation on the Key West suit or the Teba with the two-pocket shirt and reverse-pleat trousers. The Teba is a decent outfit for Bond, only let down by the sloppy fit. While this look first appears after Bond has extended his stay in Key West, he most likely brought it with him. It’s unlikely Bond would have travelled to Key West without any casual outfits. Though Bond is on leave and not on a mission when he first wears the Teba, Bond’s style is part of his identity and he would dress equally neatly when not at work. The early Portugal scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service show an example of how Bond dresses on holiday, with the same British style and attention to detail (albeit with a bit more flamboyance due to late 1960s trends).

For Key West, Bond travelled fairly lightly, with only the Teba, a few pairs of trousers and a few casual shirts. The trousers could also have been worn for Bond’s mission to Istanbul, as they’re not specifically for hot weather. The day after his flight he again wears the Teba, but with a white shirt and khaki trousers in the same style as the darker clothes he wore earlier. Even though Bond would not have been planning on staying long in Key West, he would always have multiple changes of clothes because he needs to be prepared for anything. He’s wears more clothes in the same style in Isthmus. There’s effectively no change in his casual look when the action moves to Isthmus. He had little reason to buy more clothes during the course of the film, apart from the blue t-shirt disguise and some of the diving equipment, which are specific to his needs. Otherwise, Bond isn’t the kind of person who goes shopping for new clothes simply because he sets out to get revenge.

The dinner jacket and suit Bond wears at the end of the film were probably intended for Bond’s Istanbul mission. Bond always travels with multiple suits and a dinner jacket, and they don’t look like the kind he would have packed for Key West. Though they aren’t cut like Bond’s usual suits, the styles matche the suit he wears to the Key West airport, so there’s nothing to suggest that Bond’s change in sartorial style in Licence to Kill means that he bought suits on the go. He definitely brought these with him. He would have had ties packed as well.

Bond also did not lose his luggage on his way from Key West to Isthmus City. The same attache case and suitcase that he carries at Key West International Airport are also visible when Bond arrives at his Isthmus City hotel suite.

The black suitcase on the right is the same suitcase that Bond carries to the airport in Key West. The trousers may also be the same pair that he wears at the Ocean Exotica warehouse.

The film’s ‘Bond on the loose’ theme may have factored into the choice to have Bond go without a tie with both suits, though it still doesn’t make sense with the first suit. It may have something to do with Timothy Dalton being less comfortable in a tie, hence his loosened ties in The Living Daylights. Otherwise, none of the wardrobe choices were made to match the film’s darker tone. The clothes aren’t darker-coloured than usual for Bond. Dalton even said in a 1989 interview with Garth Pearce that Jodie Tillen wanted to put him in pastels, and that the choice to wear a lot of dark blue was his because he thought it was more appropriate for the naval character.

The main reason for Bond’s style divergence in Licence to Kill is the same reason why George Lazenby’s Bond wears frilly dress shirts, why Roger Moore’s Bond wears flared trousers or why Daniel Craig’s Bond wears too-tight suits. These disparities with classic Bond style are all because of fashion trends. Bond may have lost his military neatness in Licence to Kill, but it was due to fashion and not Bond’s frame of mind. Bond didn’t need to buy quick alternatives to his bespoke suits on this mission—he’s wearing new custom suits that follow the latest trends. Licence to Kill‘s wardrobe may be the most significant departure from Bond’s usual look to date, but it is supposed to be Bond’s own style.

While the clothes don’t look impressive on screen, none of the clothes in the film are cheap. On close examination the clothes appear to be luxurious. The dinner suit is particularly extravagant. Unlike many of Connery’s and Moore’s clothes that have an exclusive look, many of Dalton’s styles from Licence to Kill were commonly found in both luxury and mainstream brands.

If you like in your own headcanon, the only explanation in the story for this change in Bond’s look is that his luggage was lost on the way to Key West, and he had to purchase a new wardrobe in Key West. But without a line in the film to explain this, it’s a stretch to use this as a true explanation. It also doesn’t follow the intent of the costume designer, which was to dress the character in her own interpretation of the character. It’s an American interpretation using the resources easily available to a North American-based production after being normalised to a decade of 1980s fashions. These are the main circumstances that resulted in a different look for Bond. This intent, however, was for Bond to dress as Bond. Had Felix and Della had their happy honeymoon and had Bond made it to Istanbul as planned, he’d have worn many of the same clothes.


  1. If there’s gonna be excuses (since that’s today’s topic), I’ve got a better one: after already being fed up with his job previously (“stuff my orders” in The Living Daylights), which manifests here in his willingness to go rogue, Bond is disillusioned with his life, has a “questioning himself and his priorities” crisis (can you call it midlife crisis if he’s perpetually 40-something?), and lets his usually high standards slip in the process, hence the more relaxed, off-the-rack wardrobe. This may well be Bond’s version of wearing sweatpants and a wifebeater at home while he’s going through his “what’s the point anyway?” phase.

  2. This was very illuminating. It gives a whole new perspective on the costuming for the film. It is much realistic look at Bond’s choices while out traveling and suddenly his circumstances change. I would compare it to North by Northwest where Cary Grant is impeccably dressed in his suit until the CIA picks him up and he is held at the hospital – from then on he is wearing off the rack clothes.

  3. I think Dalton can be excused. He said that he was taking Bond back to the books, and there is a good argument to say that book Bond was not actually that fussed about clothes (apart from faddy details like disliking pyjamas and distrusting the Windsor knot). In the books, Bond is generally only ever dressed in a dark blue suit, or a golfing suit, or black tie. It might be argued that the Dalton approach is more realistic: he is less conspicuous in nondescript clothes, although that theory could be put to the test by driving round communist Czechoslovakia in an Aston Martin – inconspicuous, not!

    • Apart from the loafers, I don’t see any Fleming in this wardrobe. I hardly expect Fleming’s Bond to wear sloppy Italian-American high fashion. He was extremely fussy with how he dressed and liked to dress in luxurious clothes.

  4. Years ago I worked in an office that overlooked a Register Office (a place in England where you marry without a religious ceremony). One morning a colleague called me over and said look at this lot – the bride and groom were wearing Chelsea FC (soccer) polyester shirts and there was also a significant number of guests wearing jogging bottoms. That truly was plebeian wedding attire!

  5. Basically I agree with you, Matt: his style follows the sloppy, rough, loose and American-ish trends from 80s. Swartznegger, Stallone, Cruise, Van Damme, Ford, and so on…. For us, sartorially speaking, the hell on earth… But there’s one more reason, according to me: to break off from previous actors, and trying to introduce a new style. Just like Lazenby, Moore, Brosnan and Craig have attempted to do, too. To find their own Bond identity. Dalton was unlucky because he found himself in the worst decade…. Sartorially speaking

    • In America, menswear was split between two looks in the 1980s: the classically styled full cut clothes and the droopy oversized clothes. In The Living Daylights he wore the former style and in Licence to Kill he wore the latter. Through Dalton’s own choices the clothes in the former aren’t bespoke and unfortunately had shoulder padding ripped out. There were better options in fashion.

  6. This is just me and I know that I won’t win anybody over but in regard to a shirt’s breast pocket I find that it can be ‘ zhuzhed up’ if one embraces its utilitarian basis and bungs a button onto the it to emphasize it’s ‘office’ mien. Failing that, jam a biro or two in there, preferably varying colours, and you’ve got instant ‘geek chic’!

  7. I think it’s a fun distraction to look for logic and continuity behind the exposition of the Bond films so I enjoy the conversation about what Dalton/Bond would have had in his suitcase, ostensibly for Istanbul but then repurposed for his impromptu side track to Isthmus. (Was this the first time they used a fictional country in the canon? Why were they too shy to use ‘Panama’?). Anyway I find it slightly irksome that throughout the canon and especially during Craig’s tenure (allegedly more gritty and realistic, less gadgets and fantasy) millions are spent on location filming, costuming, stunts and special effects etc but there are often plot holes and flaws in logic and continuity that could have been resolved with a minimum of thought and expense.

    • San Monique in Live and Let Die is the first time Bond visits a fictional country. I feel the same way you do about Craig’s films. Their serious tone doesn’t match the nonsensical stories. The three Lewis Gilbert films, by contrast, successfully match the tone to the absurd stories.

    • Excellent comment! Historically in the Bond series, Richard Maibaum’s scripts were really good. He worked on Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and received sole script credit for the masterpiece On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dick also did an early draft of Diamonds Are Forever. In the 80’s, Michael G. Wilson’s and Richard Maibaum worked together as screenwriters and did a very good job. Licence Revoked (released as Licence to Kill), as an enlightening example, was a good script that Michael finished solo, as Dick was prevented due to a strike. After Michael G. Wilson focused more on his role as producer and Dick Maibaum sadly passad away in the early 90’s, the quality of the screenwriting went down the slippery slope. Some of the stories were less nonsensical than others. IMO, Bruce Feinstein did a fairly good job on GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Lies (released as Tomorrow Never Dies) and The World is Not Enough. The scripts of the Craig era, of course, leaves a lot to be desired…

    • Of course San Monique I had a feeling it had been done before thanks for jogging my memory.
      As to the other point it will be interesting to see if the new chapter in the canon includes logical consistency along with the obligatory intrigue, action, violence and special effects!
      There should be a clause before the signing of any contracts that script and costuming be proof read, reviewed and approved by Matt and the Bondsuits gang!

  8. Thanks for quoting me, bestie! :) That was honestly my biggest problem with the suits, ignoring the dated fit. It would have been the perfect opportunity to give him some wide knitted ties of the era to go along with the wide lapels, since the shoes were at least somewhat accurate to Bond’s portrayal in the novels.


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