Reilly, Ace of Spies: A Notch-Lapel Dinner Jacket
Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly, shrewd British agent and anti-Bolshevik
St. Petersburg, Russia, October 1910, and
London, November 1918
Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
– “Dreadnoughts and Doublecrosses” (Episode 6), dir. Jim Goddard, aired 10/5/1983
– “After Moscow”(Episode 9), dir. Martin Campbell, aired 10/26/1983
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller
Reilly: Ace of Spies fictionalizes the exploits of Russian-born spy Sidney Reilly, often cited as a real-life basis for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. While the showrunners must have been cognizant of the need to place their suave British secret agent in a tuxedo, the series’ narrative also coincided with the rise of the dinner jacket over the first quarter of the 20th century.
These waning years of the Edwardian era ushered in a relaxed dress code for men, evident through the rise of the lounge suit over the frock coat by day and the dinner jacket eclipsing full evening dress by night.
“Dreadnoughts and Doublecrosses”, the’ sixth episode, concludes a two-parter highlighting Reilly’s activities in pre-revolution St. Petersburg. The year is 1910, and Reilly – ever the opportunist – seizes the moment to enrich himself while serving his country against a dangerous backdrop of battleships, mistresses, and trigger-happy Russians. The beginning of the two-parter found Reilly attending a formal ball in full white tie, but his more private evening escapades are conducted in a black notch-lapel dinner jacket.
The notch-lapel dinner jacket makes its next appearance in the aptly titled ninth episode “After Moscow”, set in November 1918 following Reilly’s return from a Russia plunged into violent revolution. The signing of the armistice to end World War I calls for a party, where comrades like the fiery Boris Savinkov join Reilly and his courtesan companion Alexandra the Plugger (Lindsay Duncan) to celebrate… and to plot the overthrow of Lenin’s Bolshevik government in Russia.
The notch-lapel dinner jacket is a style that has sadly descended primarily into the domain of rental tuxedoes rather than continuing the tradition of its classic origins. Even modern style icons like George Clooney seem to have fallen prey to the “rental-style” dinner jacket with its standard notch lapel and two- or three-button front… essentially no more than a black suit jacket with silk accents. It’s this type of jacket that will be doling out by the dozens this weekend as American high schoolers head to prom. (I was one of said students 11 years ago this month when I wore a two-button notch-lapel rental jacket that was surely the pride of my local Tuxedo Junction.)
Despite the reasonable distaste that sartorial purists have for the notch-lapel dinner jacket, it’s worth noting that the “step-collar” has been an alternative option on dinner jackets since their genesis at the turn of the 20th century with shifting tides of popularity in the 1920s and 1960s (by no less than Sean Connery’s James Bond!) until it was standardized in the following decades as the cheap, easy-to-make, rental option with its multiple buttons and unspectacular fit.
What do you think? Do sartorial experts need to reclaim the potential elegance of a classic notch-lapel dinner jacket or should it remain in the domain of less tasteful tux-for-hire shops?
What’d He Wear?
When Sidney Reilly makes his first appearance in a dinner jacket, it is for dinner in a St. Petersburg restaurant with his friend and lawyer. In 1910, when this scene is set, the dinner jacket was making headway thanks to the loosened restrictions of Edwardian culture. The relative newness of the black tie dress code meant details like lapels, buttons, and proper accoutrements were in constant flux. The notch lapel, or “step collar,” struggled to find a place among early dinner jackets with a flash of popularity during the roaring twenties before it essentially vanished in 1930, not reappearing until the need for a less formal dinner jacket emerged during the relaxation of men’s dress codes in the ’60s.
Reilly’s black wool dinner jacket is single-breasted with a single-button closure. The notch lapels have black silk facings and a buttonhole through the left lapel, though he wears no accoutrement other than a white pocket square in his welted breast pocket.
The size, shape, and low gorge of the notch lapels denote it as a garment more contemporary to the 1980s than its Edwardian setting. However, the dinner jacket is finished with otherwise timeless details like straight jetted hip pockets, three-button cuffs, and a ventless back. Both the single button on the front and the three buttons on the cuffs are covered in black silk to echo the lapel facings.
The sleeveheads are roped and the jacket is tailored with a shaped fit, consistent with the fitted profile that was popular throughout the 1910s.
For this first appearance of black tie in “Dreadnoughts and Crosses”, Reilly wears a very straight and slim black bow tie shaped with such lack of curvature that it resembles merely a black neck band if one squints. This style of straight neckwear can be found on many photos of men sporting both black tie and white tie ensembles during this era.
Reilly’s waistcoat in 1910 Russia during “Dreadnoughts and Doublecrosses” is white brocade silk with a low, V-shaped opening only slightly higher than the buttoning point of the dinner jacket. The full-bellied shawl collar rolls to the top of a single-breasted front with three self-covered buttons.
By 1918, World War I had so relaxed sartorial conventions that the full evening dress of white tie and tails was now relegated solely to the most formal events, promoting the dinner jacket to a gentleman’s standard eveningwear.
Though it’s now unfortunately a common practice at weddings and proms today, removing one’s dinner jacket in polite company was still a condemned practice 100 years ago. Luckily for Reilly, he’s in the less-than-polite company of his anti-Bolshevik associates (and Bolshevik assassin Adamson) when he slides out of his jacket for an impromptu conference in his kitchen.
The exposure reveals more of Reilly’s shirt and new black waistcoat in the scene. His white formal shirt has a stiff, detachable collar with short wings, two small silver-trimmed black-faced studs in the starched front bib, and squared single cuffs worn with plain, rounded-corner cuff links. Naturally, his bow tie is black but in a slightly curvier butterfly (thistle) shape. (Unfortunately, it’s a pre-tied bow tie with visible clasps.)
Reilly’s black waistcoat is a significant departure both from his white waistcoat in the earlier Russia-set scenes as well as actual fashions of the era. According to the august Black Tie Guide, dinner jackets were more commonly worn with black waistcoats before World War I and white waistcoats became the norm after the war. The reasoning can be linked to the shifting dress codes. As black tie became the de facto formal evening wear option, the formality of the white waistcoat was borrowed from the white tie dress code to increase the tuxedo’s prestige without sacrificing its comfort.
Like its predecessor, the black formal single-breasted waistcoat has a low V-shaped opening, though a narrower shawl collar. The full back is finished in black satin with an adjustable strap to cinch the fit around his waist.
Reilly doesn’t break any new ground with his black formal trousers with side pockets positioned along the black silk side stripes. The bottoms are plain-hemmed in accordance with standard black tie style.
Reilly’s shoes are black patent leather oxford shoes, worn with black dress socks.
Prior to World War I, men generally preferred traditional pocket watches while wristwatches remained within the female-oriented fashion domain. World War I changed the timekeeping game for gents, as officers and enlisted men returning from the front retained the efficiency of wearing easily synchronized timepieces on their wrists.
The Cartier Tank watch, Louis Cartier’s seminal wristwatch, sealed the pocket watch’s fate. With a design inspired by the new Renault tanks, the square-cased Cartier Tank entered full production following the war and soon became the watch of choice for men of elegance and sophistication like Rudolph Valentino, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant.
Cartier’s watch wouldn’t have been available to Sidney Reilly yet in 1918, but Sam Neill’s character certainly wears a gold tank watch with a white square dial on a dark leather strap.
Reilly’s formal outerwear is only seen with this jacket during the 1910 sequence in Russia during “Dreadnoughts and Doublecrosses”, where he appears to be wearing a black wool Chesterfield coat with a single-breasted, three-button covered fly front and notch lapels with black silk facings. He completes the look with a black homburg and a white dress scarf, likely cashmere.
What to Imbibe
What else but champagne for a celebration? Especially for something as momentous as the armistice, Reilly breaks out the Moët for a party at his swank London pad.
One hundred years after Reilly was popping bottles at his armistice party, Moët & Chandon remains a popular and prestigious champagne, producing approximately 28,000,000 bottles annually.
The French winery’s origins can be traced back to 1743, midway during Louis XV’s reign which saw an increased demand for sparkling wine. Wine trader Claude Moët smelled the potential and became the first vintner in the Champagne wine region to exclusively produce sparkling wine, becoming one of the few wine merchants accredited to serve the royal court. Its best-selling variety, featured here in Reilly: Ace of Spies among many other TV shows and films, is the dry and deep Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial.
How to Get the Look
Like any dashing British secret agent should, Sidney Reilly (Sam Neill) finds ample opportunities to dine, drink, and entertain while wearing impeccable black tie, including this notch-lapel dinner jacket worn with classic elements like a detachable wing collar shirt and shawl-collar waistcoat.
- Black wool single-button dinner jacket with silk-faced notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, silk-covered 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White (or black) single-breasted formal waistcoat with shawl collar and low, V-shaped opening
- Black wool pleated formal trousers with silk side braiding, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White formal shirt with detachable short-wing collar, starched front, and single cuffs
- Black shirt studs with silver trim
- Plain cuff links with rounded corners
- Black bow tie
- Black patent leather oxford shoes
- Black dress socks
- Black wool single-breasted Chesterfield coat with silk-faced notch lapels and three-button covered-fly front
- Black homburg
- White cashmere dress scarf
- Gold tank watch with white square dial on dark leather strap
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Check out the series.
I’ve run rings around you, Basil.