As anyone who goes to see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will attest, the secret to great espionage is a fantastic eye catching outfit. The spies of the 1960s, much like the movies stars, just dressed better than other people. It was a look that costume designer Johanna Johnston was keen to capture for the movie.
“It was all about colour,” she expands. “It was a very radical and adventurous time across all disciplines, from art to fashion and music. What really struck me was the freedom of design of the time; it shines through the photography, the models, the styling, everything.”
Keen to avoid the clichés that are often found in period pieces, Johnston opted for a look that was “more subtle and original, but still glossy and slick, like those films you remember where everyone looked good no matter what they were doing.”
With that in mind, let’s have a look at some of the outfits in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and ask, “Why are they so much cooler than everyone else?”
The perennial turtleneck
Now let’s be honest here, the turtleneck is a difficult look to pull off. Historically, there are only two groups who can carry it off: Artistic literary types (such as Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys) and international super spies/cat burglars.
There’s a reason that, when designing the costumes for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the turtleneck was the only item of clothing she carried over from the TV show.
Johnston kept the Russian agent’s wardrobe low-key and casual-sexy overall, saying of Illya Kuryakin, “His look was comprised of separates, suede and corduroy jackets, slacks and, of course, the turtleneck sweaters, which was the only element I had to keep from the TV show because it’s the first thing everyone I talked to mentioned.”
However, given that’s essentially just a regular jumper with a collar, the turtleneck does a lot of work. Put on a normal sweater and you will look like you’re ready to do some gardening or maybe go carol singing. Put on a turtleneck and it’s clear that you are a man of action!
Of course, while the turtleneck might suit the more practical, low-key style of Agent Kuryakin (who, as actor Armie Hammer points out “was on a Soviet budget”), there are also times when an agent needs to bring some class to proceedings. It’s well known that the best secret agents wear the best suits, and this can be seen nowhere more clearly than in Napoleon Solo’s more ostentatious wardrobe.
As Johnston explains, “He has fine tailoring from Saville Row and handmade shoes, and looks like the proper gentleman. I used Timothy Everest, a well known British tailor, to make all of Henry’s suits. He’s all about the vanity and projection of his appearance – so expensive, good-looking and chic.”
The end result is a suit that doesn’t just look fine, but makes you feel like a secret agent.
“They were made of the most wonderful fabric,” says Henry Cavill, who plays Solo, “and as soon as I put them on, I felt like Napoleon Solo.”
Of course, while agents still have a certain amount of formality they must conform to, there are others who get a bit more freedom in their sartorial choices. We’re talking, of course, about the bad guys.
As the chilling Victoria Vinciguerra, actress Elizabeth Debicki had great fun working with Johnston to create her sinister style.
“In her individual way, Victoria is sort of a match for [Solo] with the consideration and application, her projection of image. She likes a lot of drama in her look. She’s a snake, and she wants to snare people into her lair,” she says.
But while Victoria’s look might hold up a mirror to Napoleon Solo’s style, it couldn’t be further from Illya Kuryakin’s reserved turtlenecks.
“Victoria’s clothes represent the best of ‘60s fashion,” Debicki says. “She’s quite a fan of bling and belts and, because she’s so wealthy, we felt there needn’t be any limit. Plus, being the villain means you can do whatever you please.”