A good spy can adapt to any scenario, right down to the perfect outfit. The ability to blend in is an essential espionage skill, but fictional agents also have a habit of standing out when the operation requires it. Spies have long held a sartorial fascination, which is why every decade has several standout characters who captured the audience's imagination. From the high-glamour kitsch styling of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake to the kick-ass couture of the late ‘80s-set Atomic Blonde, the last decade has offered up a variety of takes on the 20th-century spy. On television, The Americans delivered sensible government employee wigs and honey trap distractions leaning into realism over the fantasy of a covert closet in its depiction of '80s Cold War tension.
Nearly 20 years ago, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was a grad student with more than regular essay deadlines and midterms to contend with. She worked as a top-secret agent for what she thought was a black-ops division of the CIA, though in the pilot she discovers she is instead part of a larger rogue alliance intent on domination. Much like its protagonist, Alias juggled several different threads at once, from mythological tales promising eternal life to old battles between nations, as well as a nefarious global organization.
Creator J.J. Abrams took a page from Bond, Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers (the 1960s bowler-hat-wearing kind, not the MCU) and put a contemporary twist on a familiar format. A big part of the success of Alias is Jennifer Garner, who possesses a potent combination of charm and ass-kicking skills; she could play alluring, vulnerable, and intelligent. Basically, she made the perfect spy. In her day-to-day work look, sensible pantsuits reigned; at home, she was girl-next-door wholesome; while out on the job, she could be whatever they needed her to be.
A heightened spy landscape took Sydney across the globe, which embraced disguises of all kinds of women, from scientists to party girls (so many black-market deals and secret labs took place within a nightclub setting). Slightly campy or kitsch in sartorial tone, she found herself dressed as maids, cabaret singers, and techno goths wearing an array of wigs, sheer shirts, and short skirts.
Sometimes a spy is required to go undetected, but in the world of Alias, drawing focus is often vital to the success of a dangerous mission. The costume design is a big part of this, so here are the 10 best looks from across five seasons (and over 100 episodes) of covert dress-up shenanigans.
'Truth Be Told' (Season 1, Episode 1)
Sydney Bristow's introduction is as memorable as her bright red hair, which we later see her dyeing in a gas station bathroom — a highly valuable skill for any covert agent. The pilot was designed by Linda Serijan, setting a fun tone for the disguises. The plaid mini-skirt paired with a glittery Union Jack tank gives this a Spice Girls-leaning-pop-punk aesthetic, which would inform other disguises later in the series using an array of rainbow-infused wigs. Switching into an-all black ensemble upon arrival in Taipei, Sydney has the light cover combat look down, even if her hair is a beacon in the night.
'So It Begins' (Season 1, Episode 2)
A mission to Moscow ticked two Alias costume boxes with Sydney going undercover as a maid and a nightclub patron. The latter trip to the Banya Club resulted in one of the defining looks of the entire run. This was Linda Goldsmith's first episode — she would rack up two Emmy nominations and a CDGA win — and she proved that Sydney's costumes could come from a variety of stores. The blue micro rubber dress was found at Syren Latex in Los Angeles and the iconic L.A. store Trashy Lingerie was another disguise favorite. Like a good spy, Goldsmith proved how resourceful Syd is via her costumes.
'Parity' (Season 1, Episode 3)
If Alias had aired in the age of emojis, then the red-dress dancing woman would have gotten a big workout during this early episode. Going undercover at an auto show event in Madrid has Sydney leaning into the flamenco of it all, complete with a fan and red hair. It is not easy to fight against your nemesis at the best of times, but even less so when wearing a frock. Anna Espinosa (Gina Torres) gets the upper hand in a cater waiter uniform, which proves that high glam is not always the best for a covert agent.
'The Coup' (Season 1, Episode 14)
There's a lot of tag-teaming in Alias, including couples-themed disguises or working in tandem. At the Regal Casino in Las Vegas, Syd poses as a cocktail waitress while Dixon (Carl Lumbly) is faking it as a high-stakes gambler. The barely-there chainmail material is flapper but make it Vegas, including a thigh-high split in the already mini skirt, which is also challenging during a confrontation. Professional and personal lives collide as Sydney is required to do a quick change to ensure her roommate Francie (Merrin Dungey) doesn't become aware of her extracurricular activities
'Rendezvous' (Season 1, Episode 21)
Going full Cabaret in Paris involves more than just a singing talent; Sydney also needs the outfit to match. A magenta wig paired with an Armani suit and Agent Provocateur corset makes this the ultimate masculine-meets-feminine look for Syd as she serenades the target before finding her best friend Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) tied up — a huge moment in the trajectory of Alias as someone from her non-spy life finds out the truth about her career in espionage. A big fight sequence follows, which highlights the flat shoes Syd is wearing, showcasing the need for a sensible fighting option.
'Almost 30 Years' (Season 1, Episode 22)
Pulling out the big guns for the Season 1 finale means going all-in on the lab under a club disguise. Bringing it full circle, this time Syd's colored wig is paired nicely with a sheer shirt, PVC pants, and a wrist full of studded cuffs. She blends in, even if Vaughn's (Michael Vartan) couldn't look more CIA if he tried.
'Passage Part I' (Season 2, Episode 8)
The family that spies together stays together is probably not a phrase the Bristow clan would endorse. Teaming up means trusting Irina (Lena Olin), which is a tall order even while they're disguised as tourists. Sydney twirling her blonde curly wig ages her down, giving her the opportunity to briefly experience the family dynamic she missed out on as a teen. It's hard to make up for missed time; however, her situation is pretty unique. This is family therapy the spy way.
'Remnants' (Season 3, Episode 10)
"I'm here, she's here. We made it," Will announces in this Season 3 return. Long before Bradley Cooper made A Star is Born, he went undercover as Will Tippin using the guise of a rock star. Delivering a Mick Jagger leaning accent to match his threads, Sydney is the purple faux fur-coat-wearing cool girl in his band. The oversized shades and nonchalant aura gives off the air that they could be the next big thing, as well as hinting at the direction Cooper will be taking — cowboy hat and all.
'The Awful Truth' (Season 4, Episode 3)
The fourth season committed an act of theme music sacrilege by changing up the tempo and graphics. While the subsequent Alias remix was less enjoyable, the sheer volume of disguises that were put front and center highlight the variation and strength of this series. Over the years, Syd played plenty of rich women in order to gain the upper hand and blind targets using fake wealth. Pairing up with gadget maestro Marshall (Kevin Weisman), in order to gain access to a safe in a Bahamas bank, she posed as Claudia Maria Vasquez DeMarco in a look that is full Real Housewives.
'There's Only One Sydney Bristow' (Season 5, Episode 12)
Celebrating 100 episodes is a defining moment for any show, but one with this many costumes was always going to call back to some favorites. Most notably, the red wig is a twofer that subtly nods to the pilot and to the style of her first-ever Will Tippin rescue back in Season 1. This club look is more low-key than other fetish and goth leaning ensembles, but it makes sense that her return to work post-maternity leave wouldn't go full rubber dress. Nightclubs and bad guys go hand-in-hand in this world, but Sydney also gets to team up with Will once again as a rich couple on a train. Cue accents and fake mustaches as the pair veer into 1920s murder mystery territory. By this point in the series, it was clear Alias was ending at the right time; nevertheless, this episode excels at celebrating the charm and style of the lead character and the actress who played her.