Cracking the dress code

With the anticipated release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes a potential fashion phenomenon – spy chic. The term seems absurd: aren’t spies supposed to blend in, to slink unobtrusively between secret meetings? How can there be an aesthetic so distinct that designer Paul Smith feels compelled to launch a fashion range to coincide with the film’s release?

As the author of Child 44, a novel set in the world of Soviet domestic spies, I’m particularly taken with the quintessentially British nature of this spy fashioning. In Russia, many of the leading intelligence figures were photographed in coarse military uniform because they saw themselves as soldiers, while domestic spies would be careful to avoid expensive clothes since such items would signal their status within the regime. Concerns about tailoring were considered indulgent and bourgeois; in this political climate ugly and functional were virtues.

The peculiarly British, understated brand of spy chic in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a hire tux with a pair of sunglasses, nor is it an open shirt and a Havana cigar: the glitzy ostentation of Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond has no part to play here. We need to go back to Ian Fleming’s Bond. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), Bond is described as wearing a thin, black tie and a dark single-breasted suit made from alpaca. The look is fundamentally one of restraint, drawn from the past, the 1940s and 1950s, a handsome Oxbridge academic blended with an element of danger. Intelligence and thoughtful lethality expressed through a particular style of dress, always single-breasted, muted colours, never prissy, always practical, with a meticulous attention to detail that includes accessories from socks to spectacles.

To mismatch suggests a mind capable of missing clues and an unnacceptable failure to scrutinise. Though the clothes that comprise spy chic eschew gaudy displays of wealth, the look cannot be achieved on the cheap. It requires the finest understated British tailoring, not the brashness of new money, gold cufflinks or dazzling silk pocket handkerchiefs, the clothes of the upstart entrepreneur, but the savvy associated with old money and even older institutions. The material, even when freshly cut in Savile Row, must appear to reek of clubhouse smoke.

In fact, a new suit should be worn in before being worn out, since the crispness of the lines needs to soften, masking the unseemly process of purchasing clothes, a frivolous affair beneath the consideration of those with national security on their mind. Spy style to these men is not a game played among the vain: it is a code, a series of signals given, received and required to be allowed access to the vast vault of murky secrets.

The roots of this aesthetic are to be found in the private members club mentality of the British spy system. You did not get in if you were not cut from the right type of cloth, educated in the right places, friends with the right sorts of people. No quirky expressions of individuality were tolerated in the mistaken belief that this guaranteed a character of trustworthy stock. But, of course, codes can be cracked, and this fashion code was quickly deciphered and understood by traitors. The great irony was that by placing such emphasis on a series of intellectual and fashion prerequisites, the Cambridge spies merely had to play along. Take a look at Donald Maclean photographed wearing black polo-necks, like the dapper debutante, or Guy Burgess in his grey shirts and flannel jackets, single-breasted of course, looking like a melancholy Latin professor. Or Anthony Blunt, who really was a professor, with his immaculate knitware, sombre ties and starched white shirt collars, attired for Buckingham Palace, where he indeed collected his knighthood before it was stripped from him upon the revelation that he had spent his career passing critical intelligence to the Soviets. In fact, so accomplished a traitor was he, passing over so much valuable information, that the Soviets even suspected him of being a triple agent. He was too good to be true, an appropriate summation of the spy’s constructed identity, all the way down to his clothes.

The costumes in this latest version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy operate as a series of coded signals, and there are deliberate and revealing deviations from the norms of spy chic within the movie. Gary Oldman, playing the consummate spy George Smiley, perfectly embodies spy chic. Even his reversible mackintosh is based on the one favoured by Graham Greene, one of the literary masters of the spy world, who took spy chic tropical in Our Man In Havana, the single-breasted dark colours replaced with cream, wool exchanged for linen. These clothes are not about looking good. They are about character. If you are in any doubt that Smiley is our hero look at the cut of his suit, his dull socks cleverly contrasted with another character’s brightly-coloured socks later on in the movie. Such is the importance of the tailoring it is impossible for me to talk about the clothes of the other spies without giving away the plot but it is a riveting game to play. Keep an eye out for the man who chooses to wear a lurid blue tie, or the person who dons a double-breasted jacket. Pay attention when a character eschews spy chic, dressing instead like a trade union leader, an entirely unacceptable role model for any would-be Smiley. None of these choices are meaningless. By playing that game you are participating in the same set of assessments that are made by the spies on screen. As I discovered when researching life in Russia, fashion, so often derided as superficial, can be a matter of life or death, mission failure or mission accomplished.

Yet this newly-minted term does not mean spies were chic at the time. The adage is a retrospective one; these were men unconcerned with the ever-giddy transitions of the fashion world. But while Smiley was not chic then, he certainly is now. Bearing in mind the dubious social prejudices and antiquated notions of class bound up in this form of dress, why does it continue to captivate us? British spy chic is discreet fashion: it is style that does not shout. Its signals are subtle, requiring a studious glance, flattering the viewer not merely the wearer. To appreciate the look is to be part of the club. What could be deemed prissy and unappealing in its fastidiousness carefully hides the degree of thought that lies behind it.

Ultimately, the elegant simplicity speaks of a man who is working, not seeking admiration. The fact that the clothes make him attractive is incidental, and to make vanity invisible will always be coveted in fashion.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.