For Angelina Jolie’s role as a secret agent in the newly released thriller Salt, The Row (the Olsen twins’ label) created not one, but 10 black cashmere coats. “The idea was that she swiped the clothing off a dry cleaning cart in a hotel,” says costume designer Sarah Edwards, of the getaway look that includes a custom-made silk shell and gentleman’s tailored trousers. Of course, it would take a spy like Evelyn Salt to find such perfect laundry from which to pull her disguise. Decoding secret-agent style proves just as elusive as capturing those who possess it, though the fall collections held a few looks worthy of contention. How does an operative remain under the radar, while conjuring the requisite enigmatically sexy persona? The examples are limited to history, Hollywood and a very few others.
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It was after countless meetings with spy operatives, a conference call with Jolie, and tea with CIA officer Melissa Mahle that Edwards was able to determine how exactly to approach the costuming for Salt. “We got a lot of information about the subtleties of disguise and the importance of being able to blend in and seemingly disappear,” she says of simple tactics like scarves, or makeup and hair changes. (Agent Salt keeps her blunt-cut bangs as both a blonde and brunette.) This is but one half of the spy-style dichotomy: that which allows operatives to gain information by blending in with those around them.
World War II spy Virginia Hall, known as “the limping lady of the OSS,” (due to her wooden leg, a handicap she masterfully concealed) and “the most dangerous Allied agent in occupied France,” (a superlative courtesy of the Gestapo), dressed as an unassuming milkmaid for reconnaissance. “You learn how to blend in, and the better spies know how to do it naturally,” says Linda McCarthy, an author and lecturer, who spent 25 years in the CIA and founded the CIA Museum, and has consulted on films like Patriot Games. Hall is among McCarthy’s favorite historic examples of stylish female agents (Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Julia Child, and Hedy Lamarr are not to be forgotten.) “Hall could have been some sort of starlet somewhere, but that wasn’t her speed. You can have a presence, have an aura and command respect, but not be trashy-flashy; someone’s going to ask questions.”
“Sexy and fun,” is how model Lily Cole describes the collared black leather one piece she wore to open and close the Hermes fall 2010 show, complete with bowler cap worthy of The Avenger’s Emma Peel. (“I loved the hat so much, Jean Paul [Gaultier] very generously let me keep it!”) The recent Hermes ad campaign features model Constance Jablonski in a three-piece leather suit staring out with kohl-rimmed eyes, not unlike Jolie’s gaze on the Salt movie poster. "We hope she won’t wear a Lycra body suit the whole movie," says Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren in regards to Jolie as Salt. "A great body is nice, but a good spy has as well a brain and exceptional taste.”
Out of the recent couture collections, an agent might look to Alexis Mabille’s custom creations that could easily transition from party to hot pursuit. “She could wear the tuxedo to a cocktail, or the jacket with the short dress to seduce and get information,” says Mabille of the pieces’ permutations. “She could wear the jacket with the pant and shirt to start fighting and then add the bolero for an elegant dinner with a politician—to make him die of charm.” Mabille particularly likes Mata Hari or The Marquise de Montespan as women of intrigue.
Other spy-worthy looks from fall collections: an assortment Vera Wang’s layered black separates, or Viktor and Rolf’s winter coats with linings that transform into dresses or capes—which morph into skirts.
These ensembles are not as radical or strictly Hollywood as they may seem. “Because most CIA operatives spend time overseas, their clothing styles often reflect that,” says Edwards of findings from her research for Salt. “We chose a lot of European designers to help us realize this character.” McCarthy explains that often when émigrés would arrive to the United States during WW II, for example, Allied intelligence agents would offer new clothes in exchange for their existing wardrobe and suitcase. Operatives would then use these provisions to blend in when they were working undercover behind the lines.
“The whole idea was disguise, and this certainly meant wearing indigenous threads on your back,” says McCarthy. Aside from commissions from The Row, Edwards also had custom made coats from Loro Piana, Akris blouses, and suits by Italian clothier Luciano Barbera. While many of these may have allowed Salt to blend in, they also leant a certain fashion cred to her style. It’s said that Josephine Baker’s favorite costume of all time was her wartime uniform, which leaves the banana skirts a paltry second place. Baker’s secret weapon was her notoriety, which allowed her to mingle at grand parties, take mental notes and then transfer them to paper slips she’d pin to her underwear. No one would ever ask to frisk “La Baker” at checkpoints.
All this begs the question: Would you dare detain Angelina Jolie?
Stephanie LaCava is a writer living in New York City. Previously, she was a features associate on staff at Vogue.