Sidney Reilly’s Edwardian Charcoal Striped Suit
Sam Neill as Sigmund Rosenblum, later renamed “Sidney Reilly” upon his entry into the British Secret Service
London, Spring 1901
Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
Episode: “An Affair with a Married Woman” (Episode 1)
Air Date: September 5, 1983
Director: Jim Goddard
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller
The first episode of Reilly: Ace of Spies, “An Affair With A Married Woman”, is a crash course on the early life and origins of the legend of Sidney Reilly. I say “legend” because he was a notorious embellisher (liar) and the details of his life are murky at best. We slowly learn more throughout the episodes, but this extra-length opening episode establishes the series’ world where Reilly – née Rosenblum – was a trusted agent of the British Secret Service in 1901, eight years before it was actually founded! While on a mission in Baku, he met the young wife of an elderly and uptight minister and seduced her to escape captivity. Thus, “An Affair With A Married Woman”.
The fun doesn’t end there, as the wife – Margaret – is back in London a few months later, having endured physical and emotional suffering for her hand in Reilly’s escape from the angry Russkies. Her husband, too, is upset about her indiscretions and is bedridden. He dies by the end of the episode, with a certain note of ambiguity regarding Margaret’s role in his demise. In real life, this was a much more clear-cut case of murder involving both Margaret and Reilly.
Russian adventure aside, the first episode gets many facts generally correct. The only major differences are Reilly’s role with the government and the circumstances under which he met Margaret, who would become his future wife. At this time, Reilly was likely a simple informant for Special Branch, working for legendary superintendent William Melville who would go on to form the British Secret Service a few years later. His boss in the show, “Commander Cummings”, is based on Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who was actually working on boom defenses on the River Hamble at this time. In 1909, when Melville’s Secret Service expanded to include a domestic (MI5) and a foreign (MI6) section, Smith-Cumming was chosen to lead the foreign section.
What’d He Wear?
As April turns to May in London, Reilly phases out his gray suit and overcoat and begins wearing only a striped sack suit around town. The sack suit was gaining much popularity at the time and was a sign of progressive youth at a time when many of the elder Londoners (or more Churchill-like citizens) were still sporting frock coats and top hats.
Reilly’s flannel three-piece suit is striped charcoal and would be a perfectly respectable business suit with its sharp stripes, strong cut, and conservative attitude. It is likely a suit that the real Reilly would have worn with similarities to the dark three-piece he sports in an early photo of him during his London years.
The ventless suit jacket has notch lapels and a 4-button front which, like many jackets of the era, could be worn with only the first button fastened. The short-welted breast pocket slants slightly inward toward the center of the coat and is embellished with a black folded pocketsquare. Both hip pockets and the ticket pocket have wide flaps with sharp edges. Two small horn buttons on each cuff mimic the larger buttons on the front of the coat.
The suit’s waistcoat is high-fastening, befitting for most vests of the era. It is well-fitted and hugs Neill’s athletic frame with six buttons down the front, ending at a notched base which is worn closed. The notch lapels match those on the jacket. The vest only has two pockets, with Reilly wearing his silver pocketwatch in his left pocket, suspended via silver chain to a shield-shaped fob through the vest’s fifth buttonhole.
Reilly’s suit trousers were very typical of 1901 styles with a medium rise, flat front, straight fly, and cuffed bottoms. They likely match his lighter gray suit with a frogmouth rear for suspenders, but we never see this in the episode.
Reilly also sticks with his standard shirt-and-tie combo. The shirt is a white dress shirt with French cuffs, adorned with a pair of rectangular silver cuff links that shine both light and dark depending on the natural light and the angle from which they’re seen. Reilly fits his shirt with a white detachable club collar, secured in place with a gold collar stud.
The necktie is also the same, a Reservoir Dogs standard issue narrow black necktie, tied in a small and tight four-in-hand knot. He wears it both with and without his pearl stickpin.
In keeping with his gray and black business motif established by Reilly in London, his shoes are black leather cap-toe oxfords, worn with a pair of black socks.
Reilly wears this suit sans overcoat, as the flannel is heavy enough to keep Reilly comfortable as the London spring air makes way for the warmer summer air.
However, as he is still a gentleman, he wears his black homburg and black leather gloves whenever greeting or escorting women… or when going to meet his assumed death at the hands of arms dealer Basil Zaharov.
Go Big or Go Home
Angered over the death of his prostitute mistress, Reilly spends much of the episode muckraking, even holding a gun on his own boss. Eventually, he discovers that the murder was committed by men employed by Zaharov, who would be both a friend and foe as the 20th century progresses. At this point, Zaharov sees Reilly as the potential for both. Knowing that he has been found out, Zaharov decides to give Reilly an acid test. No, not the Ken Kesey type.
Reilly is brought to a dark cemetery by night, where Zaharov’s men lead him down into a crypt. There, a fat dumbass is digging a large grave. Given the location and the fact that Zaharov is aiming a powerful (though slightly anachronistic) .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver at him, Reilly believes the worst. Zaharov further enforces this belief:
It is an unfortunate but inescapable fact that the best kept secrets are those that are kept by the dead, don’t you agree?
Like the best of Bond villains, Zaharov gets the greatest lines in the series. Despite Zaharov’s obvious threat, Reilly remains calm and stoic. He accepts Zaharov’s offer of a German white wine (“hock”), downing it with considerable badassery without breaking eye contact with his potential killer.
Reilly: You don’t own this place.
Zaharov: I lease it.
Reilly: By the year or by the body?
Zaharov: Gallows humor is the hallmark of the Jew.
If Reilly thought he had the upper hand, Zaharov just swatted him back down. The two continue their battle of wits, with Zaharov concluding that “such is the logic of the English that the last place they would think of to look for a corpse is in a graveyard.”
The Smith & Wesson is still aimed at Reilly. The fat dumbass tells Zaharov he is finished digging. Reilly is quickly losing time, but he doesn’t panic. To guys like Reilly, every second on earth is just another second of cheating death. Even as “his” coffin is being lowered into what he believes to be his grave, Reilly counters Zaharov’s attempts at intimidation.
Zaharov: How do you find all this?
Reilly: (shrugs) Bizarre?
Zaharov is now all business. Out of respect, he tells Reilly the circumstances of Rose’s death at the hands of an “overly excited” employee of his, eventually attributing it to “death by misadventure.” Zaharov then tells Reilly, for the sake of “decency”, to turn and face the wall. Reilly does so, putting down his wine glass. Expecting death, Reilly makes no pleads for mercy or half-assed plans for escape. He turns, expecting the last thing he sees to be the bust of a woman’s head in the niche of musty wall of a London crypt.
There is a BANG! Reilly realizes he hasn’t been shot and spins around. The fat dumbass who had been digging his grave lies dead inside. Zaharov then explains it… the fat dumbass had been Rose’s killer. Now both men are satisfied; Reilly has his revenge and Zaharov has a new ally for the turbulent times ahead.
How to Get the Look
Just because it looked good more than 100 years ago doesn’t mean it can’t look good now. In fact, quite the contrary! Reilly’s business suit has many styling cues that are still popular today, and you should certainly take nods from the suit to make the look your own.
- Charcoal striped flannel 3-piece sack suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 4-button jacket with notch lapels, welted slanted breast pocket, flapped hip and ticket pockets, ventless rear
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with notch lapels, hip pockets, and notched base
- Flat front trousers with a straight fly and cuffed bottoms
- White dress shirt with French double cuffs and a detachable white club collar, secured with a gold collar stud
- Thin black four-in-hand necktie
- Silver rectangular cuff links
- Pearl stickpin
- Black leather laced cap-toe oxfords
- Black dress socks
- Dulled silver pocketwatch, worn in vest pocket and attached to silver chain and silver shield-shaped fob
- Black folded pocketsquare
- Black homburg with black band
- Black leather gloves
Do Yourself A Favor And…
Buy the series. After five different posts about him, I would hope that your curiosity has been ignited and that you’ve gotten a chance to explore this series. A very wise fellow posted the whole series on YouTube, which is a blessing for when I’m not home and need a quick Reilly fix, but you should really support the show and get your own box set! Last I checked on Amazon, it was only $22!
This suit is only seen in the first episode, “An Affair with a Married Woman”. He spends the next two episodes in China and Germany wearing much more practical regional attire, which will eventually show up on this blog as well.
I just find it odd that a man who is in a position to buy respectability can be so miserly that he prefers to rent it.
very interesting article indeed, always been a fan of the traditional frock coat. http://www.henryherbert.com/morning-suit/