It’s getting to be that time of year when many of us have the opportunity to take inspiration from James Bond’s evening wear. Black tie, Bond’s signature look, is the most formal evening dress code still widely worn today, since white tie is quite rare and is moving towards costume territory. Black tie necessitates wearing a dinner suit (Tuxedo) or a dinner jacket.
What separates a dinner suit from a regular lounge suit (business suit), and why is it more formal? If we understand the ‘why’ behind the customs, it can help us wear the clothes better.
The Differences Between a Suit and a Dinner Suit
At its most rudimentary, a dinner suit is a black lounge suit with shiny lapel facing (usually silk satin) on the jacket and a shiny stripe down the outseams of the trousers. If you remove the shiny trimmings you get a perfectly good suit, albeit a very dressy black suit. But on the other hand, putting these trimmings on any ordinary black suit won’t necessarily get you a good dinner suit, or at least not a traditional one.
The traditional dinner suit is black or midnight blue with silk lapel facings in black or a matching midnight blue and has jetted pockets without flaps. A single-breasted dinner jacket should have only one button on the front. For double-breasted, the traditional dinner jacket fastens with one button and has two show buttons, but other arrangements are also acceptable. Most traditionally, dinner jackets have no rear vents, but double vents are approriate.
The trousers with a dinner jacket match the jacket, have a silk stripe or braid down each outseam, should be supported with braces or side adjusters and have plain hems. Pleats or no pleats are equally acceptable.
A suit is not limited to any of these details or colours. It doesn’t have silk facings, but it can have any other details found on a dinner suit. The only other thing a dinner jacket can have that a suit jacket generally would not have is a shawl collar.
Suits and dinner suits can both be cut the same way. Any school of tailoring can work just as well for a dinner suit as it can for a suit, though some people prefer their dinner suits to have a more structured silhouette.
Why is a Dinner Suit More Formal?
The dinner suits is only marginally more formal than the lounge suit. They started with a purpose: to eat dinner in. This special purpose makes the garment more formal, but it came about when dressing for dinner was a regular occurrence and was not meant for special occasions. That’s what white tie was for. The dinner suit is a lounge suit meant for the evening. For James Bond, putting on a dinner suit or a dinner jacket is still an ordinary practice. It’s nothing special for him, and it’s one reason he wears it so well.
What makes a dinner suit more formal than a regular suit? It’s not about simplicity, as is commonly repeated. It’s about being more decorative, more delicate and less utilitarian. The simplicity in black tie applies primarily to the usual black-and-white colour scheme, though there are ways to successfully break from that. There are ways to change up the colours for the more advanced dresser, though the bow tie should stay black.
The lapel facings—the dinner jacket’s defining detail—discredit the theory that black tie is about simplicity. This alone makes the dinner jacket more complicated than a suit jacket. Dinner suits are about being decorative. There are other decorative features like the trouser stripe or braid. Most dinner jackets today have covered buttons, which are more decorative than plastic or horn buttons, which are also classic options. Some dinner jackets also have silk-trimmed pocket jets, but while they are acceptable they aren’t traditional.
The single-button fastening of the single-breasted dinner jacket is equally about decorativeness as it is about simplicity. It’s about showing off the dress shirt’s decorative front, and compared to the tradition button-three jacket, the dinner jacket doesn’t need to be buttoned for warmth or to keep out the wind outdoors. It only has one button because additional buttons remind us of the practical origins of jackets with more buttons (even if our suits today are designed for only fastening one button).
More complex and more decorative is the link-button fastening. This gives the jacket a symmetrical front by showing one button on either side of the fastening at the waist thanks to two buttons connected with a long shank.
Double-breasted dinner jackets need at least two buttons on the front for visual symmetry, and they often need more buttons for improved visual balance, depending on the height of the fastening button.
The notched lapel is sometimes considered inappropriate for black tie because it’s not formal enough or special enough. Many people prefer peaked lapels or a shawl collar. Throughout the long history of the dinner jacket, notched lapels have periodically have been fashionable for dinner jackets. The notched lapel can be said to be inappropriate for a dinner jacket because it’s too ordinary. The notched lapel, when classically proportioned, can be folded up and fastened, so it has that utilitarian origin and thus is less decorative than peaked lapels or the shawl collar.
However, the shawl collar could even be considered less formal than the suit’s standard notched lapels. It’s the most relaxed collar, coming from garments worn inside the house like the smoking jacket and dressing gown. Yet the shawl collar is more decorative than notched lapels.
Dinner jackets traditionally do not have vents, not because of simplicity but because vents were historically typically used on sports jackets or sportier suits. Suits did not commonly have vents until after World War II (though lounge suits have been made with vents since the dawn of the lounge suit). Because the typical suit jacket is now vented, it means that the dinner jacket can also have vents. Double vents are dressier than single vents and are thus more appropriate for dinner jackets.
Dinner jackets lack other details like pocket flaps, hacking pockets, ticket pockets and swelled edges because those are sporty and utilitarian details. They can be used for decoration, which could in theory make them appropriate for dinner jackets, but their utilitarian origins are why dinner jackets do not have them. The special details on a dinner jacket are delicate and decorative rather than function-driven. Hacking pockets, for example, were invented for ease of access on horseback, and flaps were invented to prevent items from falling out of the pockets. These purposes are useless on dinner jackets. Vents were invented for horseback, but they also help the jacket drape neatly when sitting down, so they have a use in a dinner jacket.
The stripe or braid that adorns the outseam of the trousers is a decorative detail used to dress up the seam. It turns a necessary seam into a decorative one.
The trousers do not fasten with a belt because, although belts can be decorative, they are the least refined method of trouser support. They are unnecessarily bulky. The trouser waistband for black tie is traditionally covered with a waistcoat or cummerbund to hide the functional part of the trousers—along with the functional tabs of the braces or the side adjusters—and to decorate it. A belt would leave an unsightly bulge under the waistcoat or cummerbund.
James Bond frequently does away with waist-coverings, but a good fit with a low button stance on the jacket and a high rise on the trousers can ensure that the waistband stays hidden without the covering as long as the jacket stays closed. Bond usually leaves his jackets closed when seated. Some people like a decorative silk waistband on the trousers to make up for the lack of a waist-covering. While this is not traditional, it follows with other decorative black tie customs.
The dinner suit’s material is traditionally fancier than that of an ordinary lounge suit. While it’s common to find plain-weave worsted wool for dinner suits, the classic material is wool barrathea, which is a worsted fabric with a subtly pebbled look. A post-World War II alternative is a wool-and-mohair cloth, which gives the suit a luxurious sheen. Silk is sometimes used for a fancier look.
Ivory and Velvet Dinner Jackets
Contrasting dinner jackets, such as ivory for warm weather and coloured velvets for cooler weather, follow the same customs as the black and midnight blue dinner jackets but are paired with black or midnight blue trousers.
The only difference is that these jackets traditionally lack silk facings and have self facings (in the same fabric as the rest of the jacket). Today facings are typical for these dinner jackets, but as long as they follow the rest of the black tie customs, the facings are not necessary to identify them as dinner jackets. Dinner suits need silk facings to set them apart from a black suit, but facings on contrasting dinner jackets can add another level of detail that may cause difficulties in pairing accessories.
These non-matching dinner jackets most commonly have a shawl collar—or sometimes peaked lapels—to help identify it as a dinner jacket. Notched lapels are best avoided with these jackets because they can make them look more like sports coats at a glance.
Some people may worry that dinner jacket without facings resembles a sports coat, but if the jacket doesn’t look sporty it won’t be confused. When made of smooth wool, a smooth mohair or silk blend, lustrous silk or velvet, it won’t look sporty enough to look like a sports coat. If it has the proper dinner jacket details, it will look dressy enough to not be confused as a sports coat. Linen was once popular for ivory dinner jackets, but because they usually had shawl collars they always looked like a dinner jacket despite the sportier cloth.
The accessories for the dinner jacket also are meant to be decorative. The shirt’s defining feature is its fancy front, either with a marcella bib or a pleated bib. James Bond has often done away with the decorative front, but such shirts are in a fancier fabric to make up for the plain front.
Evening shirts can be made of standard cotton poplin, but often the shirt is made of a fancier or more delicate material. Fancy white-on-white patterns with texture or a satin stripe may be used. Delicate cotton voile is one of the most classic fabrics for evening shirts. And silk is both a fancy and a delicate classic material for evening shirts.
The evening shirt’s collar isn’t special. It started out with the same stiff, stand-up collar that men wore with lounge suits in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. By the 1930s, men started wearing shirts with the soft turn-down collars that they were pairing with their suits. Bond never wears a stand-up or wing collar with his dinner suits, and wearing a turn-down collar like Bond looks more natural and less costume-like today.
Traditionally, the shirt has no visible buttons, hiding the functional parts. The classic front takes decorative studs, and after World War II men started wearing shirts with fly fronts to hide the buttons. However, showing shirt buttons is acceptable too. The buttons should be mother of pearl so they look decorative in addition to functional.
The cuffs are double cuffs with cufflinks, never buttoned barrel cuffs. This is another level of decorative complexity rather than simplicity. Cocktail cuffs, while not traditional, are acceptable as they are fancy cuffs thanks to a purely decorative turnback.
The bow tie is the simplest part of the black tie dress code, being solid and needing to match or complement the texture of the lapels. While bow ties are more decorative than they are functional (scarves can be a functional type of neckwear, for example), the simplicity removes a decorative element from the bow tie. Bond occasionally wears diamond-point bow ties, which add a subtle complexity to the bow tie.
The traditional black tie shoes are both simple and decorative. The classic examples are oxfords, pumps and slippers, all in black patent leather. Patent leather is a fancier type of leather than basic calf leather. The classic laces on the oxford are silk ribbon to add a decorative element to a functional part of the shoe. Pumps usually have a decorative silk bow and slippers sometimes have a decorative silk strap. The sole is thin leather and is frequently black leather rather than natural tan leather, so even the sole is decorated.
Shoes for black tie usually have a plain toe, which is the most simple design. Cap toes have historically been acceptable as well, and there’s not reason why they shouldn’t be as they are not a casual style. Brogueing (perforations) are not acceptable for black tie because it is a sporty detail. The same goes for thick soles. Moccasin toes are also unacceptable for their casual nature.
A modern alternative is a plain black calf wholecut, which Daniel Craig’s James Bond has made popular for black tie. While it is not a traditional shoe for black tie, it has an elegant simplicity that works well with a dinner jacket. However, it lacks the traditionally decorative elements that evening shoes are supposed to have.