Like most well known styles in the popular imagination such as ‘Gangster’ style (Edward G. Robinson) and ‘Man-About-Town’ style (Cary Grant), Spy style is largely the result of good cinematographic wardrobe.
Most of our modern ideas about style come from, if not Edith Head, then certainly her later colleagues. Where else do we mainly get our visual ideas from these days?
Ian Fleming wrote a good Bond but only when Sean Connery made the words flesh did Spy style really take off. Think of a Spy and the chances are that you probably think of Connery as Bond. The suits, the gadgets, the lot. Pre-Fleming and the Bond films fictional spies were actually rather nondescript on the whole.
They blended in. G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ (1907) not only has ‘Secret Policemen’ who look completely ordinary but Anarchist plotters who look exactly the same as well. Hard to know who’s who. How… dull.
Real life spies are much more interesting. They have real style!
1963 is a great year to look at if you’re thinking about classic English Spy style. That was the year Connery was doing such good box office business at the cinema in ‘From Russia with Love’ while Guy Burgess was dying in Russia from neglect, finally having one last drink in August of that year.
More interesting than the fictional Bond, real life English Spy Burgess (Eton, Cambridge, Foreign Office, Moscow) wore Savile Row and enjoyed a tireless libido too. However, unlike Bond, he spied for the Russians and ‘Pussy Galore’ was hardly his motto.
Bond we know all about from films & books, but what of Burgess?
How does a real spy really live? What is his lifestyle?
Cue: Noel Annan1 …
Here we find out how a real spy lives in the heart of London’s West-End –
“ He used to cook, his friend Goronwy Rees recalled, in a heavy iron saucepan ‘a thick grey gruel compounded of porridge, kippers, bacon, garlic, onions and anything else that may have been lying about in the kitchen’, a dish which sustained him over every weekend. Chewing raw garlic was only one of his minor social disabilities: in his Foreign Office days a minute was circulated requiring him to desist. He kept in the shambles of his Bond Street flat a flitch of bacon outside the window which was hauled up when he needed to hack off a slice, and was then consigned again to outer space.
Grime covered everything. Every table, lampshade, sheet and blanket was scarred with burns, the stigmata of so many drunken evenings. The bath had no plug; in its place was a sock once white but by now dark grey with dirt into which a squash ball had been thrust. Screams rent the air at night in the building because his flat was sandwiched between two others inhabited by prostitutes, but it was a moot point whether the traffic in and out of their rooms was any heavier than that in and out of his. His habits were filthy, going far beyond those of negligent bachelors; in his Foreign Office days he was often sodden and sweaty. He had the appearance of a man who had just stepped off the Golden arrow after a night in the Rue de Lappe. Maurice Bowra in a characteristically vigorous phrase used to complain that he had shit in his fingernails and cock-cheese behind the ears.”
Here is the brute. A real English spy, but not very Bond-like at all… I’m almost sorry I mentioned him now.
Most real English spies inhabit the world between Bond and his polar opposite Burgess. How could they not do?
Here are two ‘nice’ ones to wash away the memory of the aromatic Burgess. They blend the playboy with the scoundrel – A perfect recipe for a spy!
Dusko Popov2 is rumoured to be Fleming’s inspiration for 007. Why he was named ‘Agent Tricycle’ is beyond me – although it may have been related to his liking for “three-in-a-bed” romps . Some camp old dear in MI5 having fun on a Friday afternoon I suspect. Popov was one of England’s most successful wartime double agents feeding the Germans false information from around 1940 onwards. A debonair, suave chap with an easy manner who could draw people in, Popov was first recruited by the German Abwehr and then promptly sauntered over to MI5 to offer his services. Why not, old boy?
At the war’s end, having been both a successful double agent and a notorious playboy who womanised and gambled his way through the war, Ticycle was granted British nationality. He was also awarded the OBE, which was informally presented to him in the bar of the Ritz hotel. Very fitting.
A bit like Popov, but to me much more fun, was Eddie Chapman – Friend of Terrence Young the director of the early Bond films and who may or may not have bumped into Ian Fleming while working for British intelligence. Sounds cool, eh? So what was his code name then? “Agent ZigZag”! (Makes you wonder if there was ever an ‘Agent Fantabulosa’…)
Eddie Chapman3 was naturally brilliant and wonderfully amoral. An early intelligence assessment of him reads “Today there is no trace of sodomy, and gone is any predilection for living on women on the fringes of society”. So that was Eddie on a good day then was it? He no longer carried on like a bugger or a pimp. Good to see the boy had cleaned up his act!
Chapman was an undoubted national hero who used his skills to help to defeat the Nazis… And Mr. Chapman certainly had the skills required:
A safe breaker.
He was leader of the notorious ‘Gelignite Gang’ stealing thousands of pounds all over England which he then spent around the bars & clubs of Soho living the life of an underworld playboy.
And he was also:
And a bit of a genius of a sort.
After a little trouble in England he fled to the Channel Islands to evade arrest but got arrested anyway in Jersey for beating up a Policeman. Then while Eddie was in prison, the Germans invaded and took over the island… So Eddie naturally charmed them and used all those ‘People Skills’ we hear so much about at work to get them to release him and employ him as a member of the German secret service.
They eventually did, making him ‘Agent Fritz’ of the Abwehr (Not much better than ‘Agent ZigZag’ is it?) His first mission was to blow up the De-Havilland Mosquito factory in Cambridgeshire back in England, but on the way there he popped into MI5 and charmed them into employing him instead. Well, why not, old boy?
A bit like Popov he was such a schmoozer…
And a brilliant double agent.
What all these men shared was a thorough understanding of appearances and just what they were worth, or rather just how little they were worth. All of them: Burgess, Popov, Chapman (and even Bond) used every trick in the book to achieve their aims, including personal charm and the services of a good tailor. I hate quoting Shakespeare but “O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath”. Maybe he was right about that.
So that’s Spy Style pretty much – Bad men doing good things. Nice suits and nasty morals. It’s how the West was won!
Here is my take on current Spy Style for the aspiring Crown Operative.
Spy tie: Black or midnight blue narrow knitted silk – Perfect for throttling enemy agents. Never needs ironing so you can slip it off and on easily in between dispatching evil henchmen and nobody will be any the wiser. Talk about being dressed to kill.
Spy shirt: Purposefully plain, probably sea-island cotton. White. Cream. Pale Blue. French cuffs purely because you can hide knock-out drops in them to discreetly slip into Mr. Big’s champagne glass as you trade one-liners.
Spy suit: Again less is more, a conservative cut to wear while cutting a dash. An interesting Blue or Grey lightweight number concealing a heavyweight arsenal of secret pockets and useful weapons. The answer to the question “Is that a gun in your pocket…?” is always “which pocket?”. A length of piano wire sewn into the lapel line gives a nice crisp look to the silhouette and can easily be removed for any impromptu garrotings which may come your way.
Spy shoes: Blackly elegant with a heel just heavy enough to club to death a Baddie. Shoe laces may be used as fuses for the explosive hidden in the handle of your tightly furled umbrella. Oxford shoes are best & remind you just where it was that MI5 first approached you.
For the evening: A spy’s busiest time! Black tie (of course) in an ultra correct cut. Doesn’t show the blood stains.
Black tie: Black as night (Midnight blue looks black by electric light but blends into the shadows less well when out and about on business). Cufflinks and dress studs are all employed as they can conceal so much. Differing grades of Micky Finn can be administered to the drinks of the unwary with just a flick of the wrist. The cummerbund’s pleats and folds neatly conceal glass cutters, razor blades, and enough plastic explosive to leave any party shaken and stirred.
Belts: Preferred to braces purely because they provide a neat place to store Krugerrands. And all good spies know that most baddies (To quote Ms Bassy) “Love only gold. Only gold. They love gold!!!.
Useful accessories: This is a look which is all about those little extras. Beyond the girl and the car are a lot of beaten-up gunmetal grey items slipped into the pockets: Cigarette case, gun, lighter, other gun, hip flask, knife. Airport metal detectors are not your friends.
1 Annan, Our Age (1990)
2 KV2/845-866, M15 Files (National Archive), KV2/862
3 KV2/455-462, M15 Files (National Archive)