Approaching the weekend, someone as popular as yourself probably has plenty of invitations to parties and dinners. Put off the typical “Autumn Man” look of a sweater and plaid shirt until next weekend and wow everyone with your white tie, much like…
Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly, birth name Shlomo Rosenblum, a Russian-born adventurer, war profiteer, and rumored British secret agent
St. Petersburg, Spring 1910
Ian Fleming, known worldwide for his creation of the literary James Bond, is quoted as once saying:
James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He’s not a Sidney Reilly, you know!
People may scratch their heads reading that today, but in his day, Reilly was a living legend. Born illegitimately in Odessa on March 24, 1873, Shlomo Rosenblum (or possibly Georgi Rosenblum) faked his death in Odessa harbor and traveled through Europe, getting a scant German education, killing and robbing an Italian anarchist in France, and arriving in England just before the turn of the century. In London, he opened the Ozone Preparations Company, peddling “miracle cures” (the London 1890s equivalent of the Old West’s “snake oil salesman”), where he met his first of many wives. After poisoning her husband, Rosenblum married her and used her English citizenship to reinvent himself as Sidney George Reilly.
Reilly began some government work as an informant to William Melville at Special Branch, but hardly the career of a “master spy” as he himself would often tell about. Instead, Reilly was a man without a country, adopting various identities as he traveled through the Far East, France, Germany, and Russia, finally finding himself in the United States during World War I. There, he sold munitions to both sides until volunteering with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps.
By this point, Reilly’s adventures had made him quite a man of the world. Using this to his advantage, he interviewed with Commander Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, alias “C”, head of the fledgling British Secret Service, or MI6, on March 15, 1918. Accepted for duty, Reilly was sent to Russia to gain intelligence that would help British ambassador Bruce Lockhart keep the Russians in war against the Germans.
Naturally, Reilly took matters into his own hands and began securing funds and manpower for a completely unauthorized operation that would overthrow (and possibly kill) Lenin. Unfortunately, the Latvians that had been so trusted by Reilly to assist him were actually working for the Cheka and reported the operation. Reilly gathered as much money as he could and split, adopting the identity of a Baltic German named Georg Bergmann as he traveled from Russia back to England in the autumn of 1918.
Reilly was eventually sent back to Russia with friend Captain George A. Hill the next year, but Reilly’s antics soon led to him becoming an embarrassment for MI6 and he was let go. However, he never gave up his dream of countering the Bolshevik revolution and, after seven years of fundraising and self-financed operations and plans, Reilly went back to Russia on his own accord to meet with The Trust, a supposedly anti-Bolshevik group looking for funds. The Trust was a front operation by the Cheka and Stalin ordered Reilly’s arrest. Under interrogation, Reilly disclosed few details and was executed on November 5, 1925.
Immediately, legends about Reilly grew from the tall tales he would tell. His mysterious death bolstered the legend and, in 1931, the London Evening Standard ran a serial called “Master Spy” about Reilly’s supposed efforts. Books were written, the most notable written by Lockhart’s son in the late 1960s, titled Ace of Spies. This book, which could be historical fiction at best (but still fascinating), was adapted in 1983 for a British miniseries, Reilly: Ace of Spies, starring Sam Neill. The miniseries, although based off of the fictional work, was brilliantly produced, with excellent writing, performances, and locations. Reilly: Ace of Spies helped cement Reilly’s reputation as the real-life precursor for James Bond.
In the fifth and sixth episodes of the series, titled “Dreadnoughts and Crosses” and “Dreadnoughts and Doublecrosses”, respectively, Reilly is in St. Petersburg to obtain the plans for German destroyers for the British. This is 1910, four years before World War I, and Europe is rife with suspicions, blackmail, assassination, and double-crossing, apropos to the title.
Despite the atmosphere, this is still the Edwardian era and gentlemen must still be gentlemen. Thus, Reilly twice finds himself in white tie, traveling between covert gambling dens and seedy drinking holes to the grand mansions of noblemen, all the while seducing the wife of a nobleman solely to win a contract building ships for the Russian Navy.
What’d He Wear?
White tie is a timeless look because of how old fashioned it is. It is so established that it cannot be altered by stylistic tendencies, such as the wide lapels and swelled edges of the 1970s or the boxy look of the 1980s.
Reilly is first seen in this episode sitting at a card table in a St. Petersburg hotel room, cigarette in one hand, vintage poker cards in the other. Three other men are playing, one an especially fidgety cad. Reilly’s smile grows in smugness as he raises the bets to astronomical levels, forcing the cad to borrow from his business, just as Reilly was hoping. All of the men are in white tie, making the action of the scene much more intriguing: What was happening before this, or what will be happening after, that is important enough to warrant full eveningwear?
At this time, the tuxedo, or dinner jacket, was growing in popularity in the United States and parts of England (stag parties, for example), but Imperial Russia, which is still stuck in the 1870s, would likely look down on men wearing white tie in public. It wasn’t until after World War I ended that the evening tailcoat became reserved for only ceremonial or extremely formal situations as the tuxedo took over as standard eveningwear.
Reilly’s tailcoat is traditional. It is black and double-breasted with 6 decorative buttons, as white tie buttons have not been used for fastening since the 1870s. There are no pockets on the coat. Additional coat details are 2-button cuffs and 2 buttons above the tails. All buttons are covered in black grosgrain, as are the inner half of the peak lapels. I’m not sure if this type of facing has a correct name; if so, please feel free to edify me.
The front of Reilly’s tailcoat, which is cut straight across rather than at an angle, is a few inches shorter than his waistcoat, which is also cut straight across the bottom, parallel to the waist. As World War I approached, this style began to change with the coat and waistcoat bottoms angling upward, toward the tails. Three buttons on each side of the coat, as Reilly wears, was also the norm by this time.
Reilly’s flat front trousers are also black, with a wide black satin stripe running down the side of each leg and fishmouth pockets on the front. Typically, modern white tie has two stripes and one stripe is reserved for black tie trousers. However, at this point in history, stripes on the trousers were still emerging as white tie standards and both single and double stripes were seen.
Appropriately, Reilly wears a stiff white dress shirt with a detachable wing collar and a plain starched bib. The shirt’s single cuffs are fastened with diamond-shaped cuff links that are black with silver trim to match the shirt studs. This is all correct for Edwardian white tie, as is the white bow tie and matching white waistcoat, which is double-breasted with 8 buttons, peak lapels, and jetted hip pockets. The waistcoat also has a V-shaped opening, with an edge rather than a curve where the lapels meet.
Reilly wears his gold pocketwatch in his waistcoat pocket, connected via a silver chain across his stomach.
Although difficult to see, Reilly’s black leather shoes do not appear to be the patent leather pumps traditionally worn with white tie. Instead, they look more substantial, either laced oxfords or dress boots. His black socks, however, are visible.
After collecting his winnings, Reilly dons his hat, overcoat, gloves, and scarf, and bundles up for the St. Petersburg spring night, which typically falls below the freezing point. Reilly’s formal outerwear is also very proper and correct for an Edwardian gentleman.
His silk top hat is black, as expected. The black single-breasted overcoat has wide notch lapels with grosgrain facing. The left lapel has a buttonhole. In addition, the coat has flapped hip pockets and 3-button cuffs. His final details are white leather dress gloves and a white scarf with frilly edges.
When returning to his room at night to write letters, Reilly removes his tailcoat, replacing it with a large midnight blue dressing gown that goes down just below his knees. The robe is double-breasted, with 6 buttons. All buttons, including the buttons on each cuff gauntlet, is grosgrain-covered, as are the wide shawl lapels and the cuff gauntlets themselves. Like most robes, it also ties with a sash.
Reilly typically wears his robe over the rest of his eveningwear, including bowtie and waistcoat, but after a knock at the door wakes him rudely at 4:00 a.m., Reilly has time only to grab his service revolver and a robe to cover up (as Reilly sleeps au naturel, especially when with a woman).
Reilly wears white tie as standard eveningwear for most of his St. Petersburg adventures in 1910. However, the next episode is set during the counter-revolution in 1918. White tie, or any formalwear, is bourgeoise and would blow Reilly’s cover as a Chekist. He wears very military clothing and, when we next see him in London, he is in black tie, which becomes his eveningwear for the remaining episodes of the series. While many English gentlemen were still wearing white tie well into the 20th century, Reilly’s choice for black tie can be excused as he is not English, he is hardly a gentleman, and he is very forward-thinking. Although the black tie sported by Reilly is a bit off for the era (notch lapels!), it differentiates him from the more traditional older men he associates with even as he ages into his 50s.
Unfortunately, white tie has seen a strong decline since the end of World War II, especially in the United States. In Europe, it is often still worn for state dinners and some ceremonies, balls, banquets, and evening weddings. In the United States, it is also seen at formal occasions such as banquets and evening weddings, but even traditional black tie is rarely seen as men prefer wearing standard neckties to bowties with bowties only accounting for 3% of men’s neckwear sales in the United States.
Go Big or Go Home
The real Reilly’s life was shrouded in legend and mystery, but he was insistent on everyone knowing about his grand lifestyle. He smoked Russian cigarettes, drank Turkish coffee, and drove the newest and fastest sports car. He was always in the company of beautiful women, including his three wives, with many showgirl mistresses in his rented apartments across the world.
This is reflected in the series, with Reilly seducing women of all types: married noblewomen, simple-minded artists, grand actresses… you get the point. The missions may have been embellished, but Reilly’s lifestyle was not. He just chose to explain the funding for his lifestyle with a nobler explanation than the truth.
What to Imbibe
While in Russia, Reilly is often seeing drinking shots of vodka or sipping from a brandy snifter, but, especially in his white tie scenes, Reilly drinks champagne. Two specific brands are mentioned during the show, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon. In a memorable scene after the war is over, Reilly wakes up to find the blonde prostitute he had taken home the evening before in his kitchen, eating cereal. He does a double take, then realizes she is eating her cereal with his Bollinger! After questioning the girl, she shrugs and responds that Reilly was out of milk.
For late night entertainment in St. Petersburg, Reilly and his cohorts always choose Panina’s, a restaurant welcoming to drunken revelers. In both the show and real life, Panina would serenade a certain drinker in the establishment. During the song, the drinker would need to chug a goblet of champagne and then bestow the singer with a kiss when she was finished. This ritual was also known as a charochka.
Bruce Lockhart describes this in his 1932 book British Agent, calling Panina “the greatest of all gypsies”:
As in a dream I followed the others through the Palm Court, which is the main part of the building, into a large pine. walled “kabinet,” with a roaring wood fire burning in an open fireplace. The proprietor rubbed his hands and bowed. The headwaiter bowed without rubbing his hands. A host of waiters in white uniforms bowed still lower and moved silently to their various tasks. In a few seconds the room was prepared for the great ritual. We guests sat at a large table near the fire. Before us was an open space and behind it a semi-circle of chairs for the gipsies. The wine waiter brought the champagne, and then Maria Nikolaievna came in followed by eight gipsies, four with guitars, and four girls, with eyes like sloes and sinuous graceful bodies. Both men and women were dressed in the traditional gipsy costume, the men with white-brocaded Russian shirts and coloured trousers, the girls in coloured silks with a red silk kerchief round their heads.
When I met her that night for the first time, Maria Nikolaievna was a plump, heavy woman of forty. Her face was lined, and there was a wistful sadness in her large, grey eyes. In repose she looked an old and lonely woman, but when she spoke the lines in her face vanished into smiles, and one realised the immense reserves of strength which she could call upon at will. The cynic will say that her task in life was to collect foolish and preferably rich young men, to sing to them, and to make them drink oceans of champagne until their wealth or their father’s wealth was transferred from their pockets to her own. Commonsense may seem to be on the cynic’s side, but there was nothing cynical in Maria Nikolaievna’s attitude towards life. She was an artist—in her own way, a great artist—who gave full value for her money, and her kindness and generosity to those who were her friends came straight from the heart.
That night I heard her sing for the first time, and the memory of those great deep notes, which are the secret of the best women gipsy singers, will remain with me until I die. That night, too, I drank my first “charochka” to her singing. For a novice it is rather a trying ordeal. A large champagne glass is filled to the brim. The gipsy singer places it on a plate and, facing the guest who is to drink the “charochka,” sings the following verse:
Like a scented flower
Breathing out perfume,
Bring the brimming glass;
Let us drink a toast.
Drink a toast to Roman,
Román, our beloved,
And until he drinks it down
Pour him out no more.
The last four lines are a chorus, which is taken up with increasing frenzy by the whole troupe. The singer then advances towards the guest whom she is honouring, and holds out the plate to him. He takes the glass, bows low, stands erect, and then drinks the bumper in one draught, replacing the glass upside down on the plate to show that he has not left a drop.
It is an intimate ritual. Only the guest’s Christian name is used, and, as there is no Robert in Russian, there and then Maria Nikolaievna christened me “Roman,” which is the Russian equivalent, and Roman or Rómochka I have remained to my Russian friends ever since.
Following the revolution, name brands were naturally non grata in Soviet Russia. However, as the Soviet Union developed in the 1920s, the government realized that people wanted champagne. To counter the elite status commonly associated with it, they asked (as if the Soviets ever “asked” anyone anything) Russian wine-makers to create a champagne “for the people” that would not only be cheap and efficient to produce but would also be accesible to the working class. The result was Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, which literally means “Soviet Champagne”.
Although this was not around in 1910, it is likely similar to the cheap champagne drunk by Reilly when Maria Nikolaievna toasted to his honor in Panina’s restaurant.
How to Get the Look
Reilly wears white tie very well, taking the traditional aspects and adding his own touch. There are several guides to wearing white tie online at several places, but to replicate Reilly’s exact look, follow these guidelines:
- Black formal tailcoat with grosgrain-covered peak lapels, 6-button double-breasted front, 2-button cuffs, no pockets, 2 buttons over the tails
- Black formal fishtail trousers with a single satin stripe down each leg
- White pique double-breasted waistcoat with peak lapels, 8 buttons, and 2 jetted hip pockets
- White formal dress shirt with a stiff pique bib, detachable wing collars, and single cuffs
- Black round shirt studs, with silver trim
- Black diamond-shaped cuff links, with silver trim
- White pique bow tie
- Black knee-high silk dress socks
- Black leather shoes
- Black silk top hat
- Black single-breasted overcoat with wide notch lapels, flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs
- White scarf
- White leather dress gloves with 1-button cuffs
- Midnight blue robe with large shawl lapels, 6 grosgrain-covered buttons plus one on each grosgrain-covered cuff, and a grosgrain sash
Reilly also probably wears suspenders in black or white, but they are unseen. If I discover differently, I’ll update.
Also, Reilly kept a silver flask of hard booze in his pocket. Especially if you’ll be traveling through the open air of a cold St. Petersburg night, you should do the same.
Reilly uses plenty of guns throughout the series – a multitude of early 20th century firearms, including the Webley Mk VI, the venerable Luger P08, a Beretta Model 1919, and even the gangster’s classic Thompson M1921A submachine gun. However, in St. Petersburg, Reilly is shown carrying an Enfield No. 2 Mk I revolver, a British service revolver chambered in .38 S&W (“.38/200″ in British service). The only problem with this? The Enfield No. 2 wasn’t introduced until 1931, 21 years after this episode takes place and 6 years after Reilly was killed!
The Enfield was developed after World War I when the British decided that an alternate revolver, with a smaller cartridge than the powerful .455 Webley, was needed. The .455 was a well-performing man-stopper but required skilled marksmen to control the powerful round. Webley & Scott began working to solve this problem and introduced their concept to the government. Unwilling to adopt another firm’s work (and have to pay!), the British government took the design to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, which quickly turned out the Enfield No. 2 Mk I. Webley sued and won, but the Enfield was still adopted for use. By 1938, when Britain was on the brink of war with Germany, Enfield developed the Mk I*, which had a spurless hammer and could only be fired as double action only (meaning that a user could not manually cock a shot by pulling back the hammer).
During World War II, Enfield was not able to produce enough revolvers to fit the needs of the military. Justice was served and Webley & Scott’s .38/200 Mk IV model was adopted for service by the government.
Why was it called the No. 2? In 1879, RSAF Enfield designed a powerful .476-caliber, which became the first Enfield revolver, also known as the Enfield Mk I. A further variant, developed around 1882, was the Enfield Mk II. These revolvers were produced during the 1880s and one can be spotted in John Cleese’s hand in the 1985 Western film Silverado.
The Enfield No. 2 Mk I is a break-top design, like the Webley revolver or the S&W Model 3. The front section of the gun is on a hinge, allowing for quick and easy loading and reloading.
Do Yourself A Favor And…
Buy the series.
Reilly wears this particular white tie in Episodes 5 and 6, “Dreadnoughts and Crosses” and “Dreadnoughts and Doublecrosses”. He also wears white tie in the first episode, “An Affair With a Married Woman”, while on a mission in Baku nine years earlier.
I want to make my own fortune, Basil. Not yours.
The full text of Bruce Lockhart’s 1932 book about his exploits, British Agent, can be found here thanks to somebody who is truly awesome.
The Black Tie Guide has an excellent history of formalwear. This entry discuss the details of white tie during the Edwardian era. Comparing the details of the entry and Reilly’s chosen attire show just how period-correct the white tie chosen for Reilly on the miniseries is.
This miniseries was made in 1983, the same year that Sam Neill auditioned for the role of James Bond.