Not all suits share the same level of formality. The formality of a suit is determined primarily by the suit’s cloth but also by the colour, the number of pieces, the cut and the amount of structure. This article breaks down the elements that do and do not affect the formality of a suit.
Pieces and Buttons, Single and Double-Breasted
A three-piece suit is more formal than a two-piece suit, but not by very much. There is never an occasion when a three piece suit would be appropriate when a two-piece would not. The same can be said about double-breasted suits. During the post-World War II era that James Bond has existed, three-piece and double-breasted suits have been more dandy alternatives to the standard single-breasted two-piece suit as opposed to more formal than the single-breasted two-piece suit. In the prewar era, the three-piece single-breasted suit was seen as slightly more formal than a two-piece double-breasted suit, which was slightly more formal or equal to the two-piece single-breasted suit. But today when the vast majority of suits are two-piece and single-breasted, a three-piece suit or double-breasted suit does not change the formality of a suit.
The number of buttons does not affect the formality of a suit. A button one suit may be seen as slightly more formal than a button two or button three suit since it more closely resembles a dinner jacket or a morning coat, but it is more of a dandy detail than a formal one. A three-button jacket with a lapel that rolls over the top button may often look more relaxed and less formal than jacket that have more functional buttons, but this style is most often employed on jackets with more relaxed cuts.
Peaked lapels (also called double-breasted lapels) are often said to make a suit more formal, but they are also more of a dandy touch than a more formal one. Some may find them to be more appropriate on more formal suits, but history and Tom Ford disagree with that.
The cut of a suit has an effect on a suit’s formality. A Savile Row military suit with it’s powerful straight shoulders and strong chest is one of the most formal suit cuts. Tom Ford’s standard highly structured cut and Brioni’s built-up Roman cut are based on this look and are also very formal. The softer English drape cut, such as the cut Anderson & Sheppard is known for, looks less formal, but in practice it is not treated less formally.
Even softer cuts that use little or no shoulder padding and softer structure, such as the cuts employed by Neapolitan tailors and Brunello Cucinelli, look even less formal and may look better as a linen suit than as a dinner suit. In practice these suits can be worn the same way as more structured suits but will look more relaxed. The American Ivy League sack suit also has a less formal look because of the natural-shaped shoulders and the straight, undarted front. Suits with these more relaxed cuts are often detailed with more casual points such as swelled edges, patch pockets and lapels that roll over the top button.
The cloth a suit is made of is the primary indicator of a suit’s formality. I’ve split suits into three categories from most to least formal.
1. The Most Formal Suits
These suits are best worn for formal business and board meetings, weddings, evening affairs and other important occasions.
A suit made of a dark mohair mix (mohair woven with wool, cashmere or silk) is one of the most formal suits one could possible wear. Daniel Craig’s midnight blue mohair-blend suit in Qunatum of Solace (pictured above) is one of the most formal suit of the series. Dark mohair-blend suits in navy, charcoal grey and black are all very dressy suits that are better worn for a fancy evening occasion than for business because the sheen of mohair may appear too flashy for most business occasions outside of the entertainment industry. This is the ideal suit for an occasion that does not have a black tie dress code but feels like it could. The sheen of this suit brings it to a level of formality above a fine worsted.
A dark, smooth silk and worsted wool blend is also close in formality to a suit in a mohair blend because they are similarly shiny.
A dark solid suit or dark solid suit with a simple pinstripe in worsted wool is also at the top of suit formality. These are also the most common suits, though such basics only make up a small number of James Bond’s suits. Such a suit may be in a plain weave, an even twill weave or a herringbone weave, like George Lazenby’s navy suit from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (pictured above). Navy and charcoal are the standard colours for such a suit and are the ordinary suits that most people will wear for formal business, interviews and just about any occasion that people need a suit for. A black suit is more somber, but not more formal. Dark brown is slightly less formal and much less conventional. Fancier stripes are slightly lower in formality.
Slightly less formal than the solid and striped worsteds are dark semi-solid worsteds, like birdseye, nailhead, pinhead, herringbone and pick-and-pick (sharkskin). Such suits are made up of two or more colours but still look dark overall. Pierce Brosnan’s navy birdseye suit from GoldenEye (pictured above) is an example of such a suit. From a distance, these suits look indistinguishable from a solid worsted and therefore are approximately the same level of formality.
2. Less Formal Business and Daytime Affairs
Some of the most creative suits fall into this second category, where suits have more texture and more patterns. Most of these can still be worn for business and for special occasions, just not for the most formal business and social occasions.
A dark solid or chalk stripe flannel suit, a favourite of the early Bonds, is a step down in formality from the dark solid worsteds. The fuzzy, soft texture of woollen flannel makes it less formal than a dark worsted. Chalk stripes have little effect on the formality versus a solid. A worsted flannel suit is a little more formal than a woollen flannel suit because it has less nap. Sean Connery’s dark grey flannel suit in Thunderball (pictured above) is less formal than a dark worsted, despite it being a three-piece suit. A lighter grey flannel, another Bond favourite, is slightly less formal than a dark grey.
A high-contrast semi-solid worsted like birdseye, nailhead, pinhead, herringbone or pick-and-pick (sharkskin) is less formal than a dark worsted. High contrast means something like black and white or dark grey and light grey. Typically these patterns are overall medium or light in colour, and the higher contrast gives them more texture. These traits lower the formality in comparison to a lower contrast fabric of the same pattern. Daniel Craig’s grey sharkskin suit in Skyfall is an example of a high-contrast semi-solid suit.
A dark suit in a low-contrast glen check, with or without an overlaid windowpane, in worsted wool or flannel is approximately the same formality as a high-contrast semi-solid suit. A larger pattern lowers the dressiness but the darker overall colour brings it back up, so it evens out. Daniel Craig’s glen check (or “Prince of Wales” check) suit in Skyfall (pictured above) is dark and the pattern has a low enough contrast that Bond looks appropriately dressed for the office.
A dark windowpane worsted wool suit falls in the same area of formality as the low-contrast glen check suit. A more subtle windowpane like in Pierce Brosnan’s charcoal worsted suit with a blue windowpane in GoldenEye (pictured above) is more formal than a suit with a bolder windowpane. A suit with a bold windowpane would likely be too sporty to wear to Q’s lab.
Dupioni silk is a luxurious and delicate fabric that makes for beautiful suits. The dupioni silk suit is rather difficult to place as far as formality goes, since in charcoal or navy it can be worn for fancy evening occasions while in light grey, brown and cream it looks rather sporty. This is one suit that becomes what you make of it. Sean Connery’s charcoal grey dupioni silk suit in From Russia with Love (pictured above) looks more like a dressy business suit (though it looks rather flashy for business), while Roger Moore’s light brown dupioni silk suit in The Spy Who Loved Me is decidedly sportier.
A fine high-contrast glen check like the suits that Sean Connery wears in Goldfinger (pictured above) and Diamonds Are Forever is slightly less formal than high-contrast semi-solids because of the larger overall pattern. But because this suit still looks like a semi-solid it is approximately the same level of formality as the other semi-solids.
A high-contrast Glen Urquhart check suit, with or without a windowpane, is a step down in formality from the finer more business-like glen check. With a bolder pattern, this version of the checked suit is sportier. George Lazenby’s black-and-white Glen Urquhart check suit with a blue overcheck in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (pictured above) is one of the best examples of the Glen Urquhart check suit in the Bond series.
The wool gabardine suit is a sporty suit often found in earth tones, but it is an appropriate business suit in warmer locales and for less formal business. Roger Moore wears a couple of these in his 1980s Bond films, including a tan suit in A View to a Kill (pictured above).
Cotton poplin is a lightweight suit that is one of the most comfortable options in hot weather. It is less formal than worsted wool suits, but it’s a useful suit to have when one has to dress up in hot and humid weather. It can be the only alternative to dressing down, but it’s an acceptable suit for dressing up in the heat. Roger Moore wears a tan cotton suit in India in Octopussy (pictured above) when he is dressing for the heat but still wants to look like a proper British businessman overseas.
3. Sports Suits
The sports suit is an informal daytime suit meant to either be hard-wearing, in the case of tweed, or relaxed and comfortable, as with linen and corduroy. This kind of suit is not meant for dressing up and today are most frequently worn in a soft construction to emphasise its casual use. These sports suits can be worn easily without a tie and instead with a rollneck jumper or an open-neck shirt. The jackets of these suits can all work well as odd jackets with contrasting trousers and are of the same level of formality as an odd jacket and trousers.
Fine tweeds like Donegal tweed make for elegant cool-weather country suits that have a more modern look. Roger Moore’s brown Donegal tweed suit in Moonraker (pictured above) is appropriate for fancier country activities. Fuzzier and chunkier tweeds are less formal by comparison and look more old-fashioned, though Bond has not worn such tweed suits.
Linen is a sportier suiting for warm weather. In grey and blue, linen has a modern and more formal look that is sometimes worn for business in hot climates. It can also work for fancier occasions in hot climates, but a fancy occasion in a tropical locale is rarely as formal as one in a temperate place. Daniel Craig’s light grey linen suit in Casino Royale (pictured above) gives him a sophisticated air while still looking casual.
In earth tones, linen is even more casual. Pierce Brosnan’s cream linen suit in The World Is Not Enough (pictured above) has patch pockets to emphasise a very informal look. It is a suit to wear for leisure rather than for dressing up. It is a suit for a man who truly wants to wear a suit, since a man in this suit will likely be surrounded by other men in t-shirts and shorts. Such a suit may also be worn to social events when others might be slightly wearing dressier suits.
There are cold-weather suits that may also be worn for leisure, like cotton corduroy and moleskin. James Bond has not worn casual cool-weather cotton suits.
Others may have different opinions as to what determines suit formality. What I wrote above is based on my experience, observations and research, though there are no rules about what might make one suit more formal than another.