It was the best of ties, it was the worst of ties. Not all ways of wearing black tie (a dinner jacket/tuxedo) are equal, but the differences with regards to how James Bond wears black tie are actually about being more formal or less formal rather than being better or worse. A comparison of black tie from Tomorrow Never Dies and Thunderball places Bond’s most formal example up against one of his least formal.
Both the Brioni dinner suit from Tomorrow Never Dies and the Anthony Sinclair dinner suit from Thunderball are midnight blue, but even if one was black that wouldn’t change anything since black and midnight blue are equal in formality. Both dinner jackets have the same classic details of one button on the front, four buttons on the cuffs, jetted hip pockets and no rear vent. The most important difference is the type of lapels: the dinner jacket in Tomorrow Never Dies has peaked lapels while the dinner jacket in Thunderball has a shawl collar. Peaked lapels, particularly in the case of black tie, come from the evening tailcoat. The shawl collar is derived from the smoking jacket, which is ultimately a presentable piece of loungewear. As a result of the origins of these lapel styles, peaked lapels are more formal than the shawl collar. As for where notched lapels fit in, their mundane origins as part of the ordinary single-breasted jacket place them alongside the formality of the shawl collar.
The silhouettes of the two dinner jackets also marginally contribute to one being more formal than the other. The dinner jacket in Tomorrow Never Dies has straight, padded shoulders while the dinner jacket in Thunderball has soft shoulders without padding. The softer shoulders are more relaxed and less formal than the larger, stiffer shoulders are, but since both garments are structured overall there is not a huge difference.
One of the most significant elements that increases the formality of the dinner suit in Tomorrow Never Dies is the inclusion of a matching waistcoat, with the body of the waistcoat matching the midnight blue wool of the rest of the suit and the silk lapels matching the silk trimmings of the rest of the suit. This waistcoat is an unusual double-breasted five-button style with the buttons in a “V” configuration. Despite the unusual style of the waistcoat, any proper low-cut evening waistcoat that matches the suit would add the same formality to the dinner jacket. A white cotton marcella waistcoat from full evening dress (white tie) would be a step up in formality from the black waistcoat, though the white waistcoat has largely been out of favour with black tie since after its early days.
The outfit in Thunderball lacks any kind of waist-covering, whether it be a waistcoat or cummerbund. Though menswear historians consider the lack of waist-covering to be incorrect for black tie, it has been an acceptable practice since the 1960s. The waist-covering for black tie has largely been considered irrelevant in Britain since then.
A few words about waist-coverings with different dinner jacket styles: It’s commonly said that waistcoats better complement dinner jackets with peaked lapels and cummerbunds better complement dinner jackets with shawl collars. This is because waistcoats are more formal than cummerbunds and peaked lapels are more formal than shawl collars. Also, the typical waistcoat has a “V”-shaped opening that follows the shape of peaked lapels, and the rounded form of the cummerbund complements the rounded shape of the lapels. This isn’t to say that cummerbunds cannot be worn with jackets that have peaked lapels and that waistcoats can’t be worn with jackets that have shawl collars. Waistcoats with a U-shaped opening especially pair harmoniously with a shawl-collared dinner jacket, but they can also go well with a peaked-lapel dinner jacket.
No waist-covering is ever needed with a double-breasted jacket, since the double-breasted jacket stays fastened at all times. Though Bond wears a shawl-collared dinner jacket without a waist-covering in Thunderball, any type of single-breasted dinner jacket can also do without a waist-covering. It is important that the dress shirt complements the type of waist-covering.
Bond’s dress shirt in Tomorrow Never Dies is at the higher formality end of the spectrum of shirts for black tie. It has a spread collar, double cuffs to take cufflinks and a bib, all in stiff pique marcella cotton. The bib has no raised placket and fastens with mother-of-pearl studs. The only thing that would make this shirt more formal would be a stiff wing collar, but that largely fell out of favour in the 1930s when the turn-down collar became standard for black tie, thanks to the Prince of Wales. If one was to pair a white marcella waistcoat with a dinner jacket, a wing collar would be mandatory. But James Bond always wears a turn-down collar for black tie since a wing-collar for black tie is largely considered outdated, eccentric or in poor taste in Britain.
Because the type of dress shirt that Bond wears in Tomorrow Never Dies is on the more formal side of dress shirts, it goes well with the peaked lapel jacket and waistcoat. This shirt can also go perfectly fine with a shawl-collared dinner jacket, which is how Bond wears it in Skyfall. This type of shirt almost always requires a waist-covering (either a waistcoat or a cummerbund), not only to match the formality of the shirt but also to hide the buttons that follow under the three or four studs at the top. Pierce Brosnan wears a special shirt of this style in The World Is Not Enough that is made to take five studs, so no waist-covering is necessary. The problem with a shirt taking five studs is that most stud sets have only three or four studs.
Bond’s dress shirt in Thunderball, by contrast, is almost an ordinary shirt, which makes the outfit far less formal. It has a typical spread collar, it has cocktail cuffs rather than double cuffs, and there is no fancy front, just a placket. The shirt is special because its a white-on-white stripe, which is a more formal cloth than plain white. Bond does not wear studs or cufflinks with this shirt, and studs would be too dressy for this less formal shirt. Studs are not necessary for black tie, and they are unnecessary even for Bond’s typical soft black tie shirt with a pleated front, which sits in between the formality of the unadorned shirt in Thunderball and the marcella shirt in Tomorrow Never Dies.
The shirt in Thunderball being the least formal of all the varieties of dress shirts means that a waistcoat is too formal for it. Even a cummerbund may be too formal. This type of dress shirt came about at the same time the black tie waist-covering started to go away. The unadorned white-on-white dress shirt, however, can go well with any type of dinner jacket. Bond even wear a white-on-white dress shirt with his peaked-lapel dinner jacket in Casino Royale.
One of the most noticeable differences between the two outfits is Brosnan’s wide butterfly bow tie compared to Connery’s narrow batwing bow tie. In regards to everything else, the bow tie shape has little bearing on the formality of the outfit. The bow tie width is simply in proportion to the width of the lapels.
These variations on black tie are not entirely interchangeable. The more and less formal black tie outfits are worn for more and less formal occasions. Bond goes all out with black tie in Tomorrow Never Dies because he’s attending a grand party. In Thunderball he’s dressing less formally for a more low-key evening out at a casino in the Bahamas.
The black tie outfit in Tomorrow Never Dies is certainly the most formal of Bond’s black tie outfits, but there are other contenders besides Thunderball for the least formal of Bond’s black tie outfits:
- The navy velvet shawl-collar dinner jacket with a blue shirt in Diamonds Are Forever is certainly less formal than what Bond wears in Thunderball, but because it’s velvet, comparing it to the outfit in Tomorrow Never Dies is comparing apples and oranges.
- The double-breasted dinner suit in The Spy Who Loved Me is one of Bond’s least formal black tie outfits of the series because a double-breasted dinner jacket is less formal than its single-breasted counterpart, despite the peaked lapels on Bond’s double-breasted dinner jacket. Bond also wears it with a voile shirt that has no fancy front, and it has unusual “Lapidus” tab cuffs. The shirt has black mother-of-pearl buttons, not studs (which would be inappropriate on such a plain shirt).
- The ivory dinner jacket in Octopussy is part of another one of Bond’s least formal black tie outfits. Ivory dinner jackets are less formal than darker black and midnight blue suits, and this dinner jacket being linen even lessens the formality. Like in The Spy Who Loved Me, the voile shirt is less formal because it has a plain front, but it has traditional double cuffs to bring it up a level. Because ivory dinner jackets are less formal than darker dinner suits, they naturally pair better with the less formal of the black tie accessories. The marcella dress shirt from Tomorrow Never Dies would not only be too formal for an ivory dinner jacket, it would also be too warm.
In the end, I chose the dinner suit in Thunderball to compare to the dinner suit in Tomorrow Never Dies because it is the most apples to apples comparison, both being dark, single-breasted dinner suits.