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The highly covetable wardrobe of covert spies

Contributed by
Jun 9, 2018

Being a spy has never been more in vogue. Movie franchises, one-off outings, and TV shows are all head-over-heels for everything espionage.

This is far from a new trend. Fritz Lang is best known for Metropolis, but his 1928 silent movie Spies featured a tuxedo-wearing agent with a number for a name, long before the one with a license to kill. The ‘60s saw an explosion of spy TV shows including The Million Dollar Man, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, I Spy, The Saint, Mission: Impossible, and The Avengers (no, not those ones). A lot of these seem familiar — not because of reruns, but because Hollywood loves tales of covert action as much as it loves a reboot.

At the moment there are plenty of flavors of spy on offer — franchise, superhero, and ones reflecting real-world conflicts. Their mission objectives vary, but in the spy arsenal clothes are just as important as gadgets and weapons. The right outfit helps manipulate a target, blend in or aid an escape. Cover stories rely on looking the part, and if something isn’t quite right it could have deadly consequences. On-the-job danger levels are high, but for an onscreen spy there is the added benefit of never getting bored with your look. A wig change, hair chop, and constant rotation of clothes means never getting stuck in a sartorial rut—although a high turnover in clothing is a job-related hazard. Blood stains and fights can really do a number on your garments.

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The last five years have featured spies across a variety decades, with Agent Carter in 1940s New York and Los Angeles, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. embracing 1963 Cold War-era fashions in Europe, and both The Americans and Atomic Blonde looking at the end of that conflict in the ‘80s. Cold War anxiety has shifted into something else, but fears over an unseen enemy remain. A peaceful world probably doesn’t need spies, but when has the world ever been truly free from conflict?

Wish fulfillment plays a role in how we respond to this seemingly glamorous top-secret government agency work, because not many jobs come with global travel perks, a suitcase full of incredible clothes, and the option to pretend to be someone else. In last year’s Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton is as deadly as she is stylish.

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While some of the plot fell flat, it is a memorable movie because of Theron kicking ass in a series of outfits that wouldn’t look out of place in Vogue. There is a coat collection that includes Dior, Max Mara, and a classic Burberry trench. The latter could be considered a spy outfit cliché, but there is nothing stale about Cindy Evans’ costume design in Atomic Blonde. A slouchy Saint Laurent mohair sweater, an oversized Boy London tee worn off the shoulder, and a super sexy bronze jumpsuit are all part of Lorraine's Berlin look. Meanwhile, a mini-skirt, visible garters, and over-the-knee boots aren't necessarily the best for fighting in, but she makes it work.   

Jurassic World prompted the great running-in-heels debate of 2015, but in Atomic Blonde Lorraine fights in both flats and heels. Sometimes you’ve got to make do with what you have on, and sometimes a red patent Dior pump makes for a great weapon. Or there is another option — take them off. In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Paula Patton as IMF Agent Jane Carter removes her heels before running barefoot after Sabine (Léa Seydoux). Later, a shoeless fight ensues. A good spy adapts to surroundings, a good costume designer knows when a stiletto makes sense, and a good director doesn’t insist otherwise.

Female spies are at times meant to cause distraction, but they aren’t simply on the team for this reason. During World War II, the British government ran a “Careless Talk Costs Lives” propaganda campaign. One image is of an attractive, red-lipstick-wearing young woman surrounded by horny-looking military dudes accompanied with “Keep mum, she’s not dumb.” Someone in the War Office was very familiar with the concept of a honey trap. This year, the Jennifer Lawrence thriller Red Sparrow explored the concept of covert agents trained to use their sexuality as their main method of acquiring information. Dominika has been forced into this seduction-as-weapon world but gains the upper hand through these methods. She both has agency and is stripped of choice, which makes for a very muddled end result.

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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire costume designer Trish Summerville reunited with Lawrence for Red Sparrow, and clothes were again vital to the image that is projected. As with Atomic Blonde, a Burberry trench coat hangs in her closet. Dominika predominantly wears black, but her slick wardrobe is filled with pieces that have been iconic for decades, including the black turtleneck and leather jacket combo. This timeless style is why some initially thought Red Sparrow was going to be a Cold War-era period piece. Instead, it plays on a political climate that is relevant once again.

When the Red Sparrow trailer was released, comparisons to Natasha Romanov's Marvel origins were rife. Despite first appearing eight years ago in Iron Man 2, the long-rumored Black Widow standalone film has only recently acquired a writer. It has been a long time since Natasha went undercover — her Avengers multi-purpose jumpsuit has been getting quite the workout. Gone is her red hair, switched for a blonde bob in Infinity War. Natasha’s spy role has been reduced, and we still don’t know what happened in Budapest, though she does have the mandated leather jacket, the uniform for all female spies if a project is set from the '80s onward.

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The origins of Black Widow were revealed in Season 1 of Agent Carter. The Russian Assassin program is a precursor to what Natasha experienced, and the Red Room training facility is fundamental to both. Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) played the honey trap and the timid girl-next-door. In Iron Man 2 Natasha (as Natalie) wore low-cut animal print to distract Tony Stark, while Dottie originally opted for a black gown complete with thigh-high slit to seduce Tony’s father Howard. History repeats in a number of ways, but fancy gowns and designer threads are not the only items a good spy needs in her closet. On The Americans, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is most effective at her job when she can blend in. She’s not going to do that if she is dripping in Dior.

On the new BBC America series that everyone should be talking about, Killing Eve, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) works for the British Intelligence service. She dresses in pretty standard office attire to match what starts as a pretty standard monitoring job, while it's the assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) who gets the multi-wardrobe changes to match her location. Her off-duty looks are where this incredibly deadly woman has fun with fashion, enjoying her Parisian lifestyle when not killing targets in inventive ways. Expensive clothing is also one of the ways Villanelle communicates with Eve, replacing Eve’s regular clothes in the suitcase she swiped in order to gift Eve with pricey alternatives.

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The spy genre is vast and sprawling. Even the latest Wonder Woman had a slight spy angle for the men, with Chris Pine's Steve Trevor dressed to impersonate a German soldier. Black Panther also pays homage to James Bond; costume designer Ruth E. Carter notes that the casino sequence was influenced by arguably the world’s most famous secret agent.       

Secret dossiers, alleged collusion with other nations, and poison attacks on former spies could be plot points from the movies and television shows discussed above. Instead, they are stories dominating the actual news. Between 1960 and 1962 the space race began, the Berlin Wall went up, Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. The following year, JFK was assassinated. The world was unstable, and fictional spies on television came to the rescue on a weekly basis. When stories straight out of a spy thriller become front-page news, there is comfort to be found in these secret agent characters. It is a messy, complicated world; this is a messy, complicated job. Stability isn’t a feature, but you can count on these covert women to save the day in an outfit that you might just stop to covet.