Dressed to Undress

James Bond has a reputation for being well-dressed. He is equally notorious for his tendency to undress. His many encounters with Bond girls require speedy and easy undressing, and hand-to-hand combat often occurs with shirts removed or cuffs rolled up. The costume designers for the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) recognised the peculiar needs of the Bond character, and designed his wardrobe accordingly [1].

The Cocktail Cuff (a.k.a. the Bond Cuff) was, legend has it, developed by Savile Row tailors for Sean Connery in his role in Dr. No [2]. Bond continued to wear cocktail cuffs when Roger Moore adopted the James Bond role in 1973. Bond’s lifestyle required cuffs that could be quickly unbuttoned, so that the sleeves could be rolled up for hand-to-hand combat, or the whole shirt swiftly removed for romantic encounters.

Bond cuffs

Cocktail cuffs, as worn in From Russia With Love (1962), were designed to allow quick removal of the shirt for combat and love scenes.

Bond is just one example of screen characters who dress to undress. Charlie Chaplain’s first performance of a failed trouser button was reportedly an accident that he later incorporated into his show [3]. He began to select trousers with intentionally baggy waistbands so that they would fall to the floor with comedic timing. This kind of slapstick undressing established the idea that costume can be designed to enable smooth and swift undressing on screen. Other examples range from comedic wardrobe malfunctions  (see Barbara Windsor’s performance in Carry On Camping, 1969) to erotic striptease (as in True Lies, see below).

Wardrobe designer Marlene Stewart was tasked with designing a dress for Jamie Lee Curtis’s striptease in True Lies (1994). Curtis’ character, Helen Tasker, is a frustrated housewife, conned by her husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger) into believing that she is working undercover for the CIA. The ruse requires her to plant a bug in a hotel room, after gaining access to the room dressed as a prostitute. Helen performs a two-part striptease: one the corridor in front of a mirror; and the other in the hotel room for her husband.

Having been instructed to dress ‘sexy’ for her undercover mission, Helen (Curtis) dresses in the most provocative dress in her wardrobe. At the hotel, when she is made aware that she must present herself as a prostitute, she realises that her housewife’s interpretation of ‘sexy’ is inappropriately conservative. In front of a mirror, she rips the sleeves, collar and hem from her dress, so that only the low-cut, skintight body remains. This prelude to the main event is not strictly a striptease. It is not a performance, but rather a preparation. The act of undressing is entirely functional. Aware that she is being watched by no one but herself, Helen’s movements are sharp and awkward. She makes no attempt at erotic performance.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). Helen frustratedly rips away her collar, cuffs and hem, so that her dress may appear more appropriate for her role as a false prostitute.

The second part of Helen’s striptease has an entirely different character. This part of the striptease is performed for the male gaze. She is awkward at first, demonstrating her discomfort in the role, but she soon gets into character and removes her dress with the sensuousness demanded by her as-yet unnamed observer. The dim lighting and close-up shots help to transform Helen’s gestures into an erotic act.

Costume designer, Marlene Stewart, was tasked with creating this dress so that it could be transformed from conservative to risqué after a few simple adjustments. Once Helen has removed the decorative trim, the garment is pared down to a simple little black dress. The design contrasts two different interpretations of the LBD. The first, suitable for a middle-aged housewife, has enough frills to detract attention from the wearer. The second is so minimalist that the viewer is invited to look beyond the dress to the body beneath.

Helen's second striptease has an entirely different character. This time, she is performing for the male gaze.

Helen’s second striptease has an entirely different character. This time, she is performing for the male gaze.

James Bond and Helen Tasker are both costumed with the aim of enabling an act of undressing that is ‘in-character’. Bond must remove his shirt without becoming frustrated with fiddly buttons, maintaining his cool demeanour. Helen must perform two styles of undressing, each of which is associated with a different part of her dress. Neither example would have suited the unfastening solutions employed by strippers (velcro breakaway seams, for example), requiring the costume designers to conceal their intentions behind innovative design.

For more discussion of James Bond’s wardrobe, I highly recommend this excellent online resource: The Suits of James Bond.

[1] Burton, Llewella (2014), ‘Bond Undressed: Fashioning a Lifestyle in the James Bond Films’, paper presented at Subverting Fashion, St. Mary’s University, London, 11 July 2014.
[2] Spaiser, Matt (2010-2012), ‘Cocktail Cuffs’The Suits of James Bond.
[3] Merton, Paul (2009), Silent Comedy, London: Random House, p. 23.


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