Styling Secrets Jonna Mendez Learned as the CIA's Chief of Disguise

Nothing proves the power of fashion like seeing it become a matter of life and death for spies trying to hide their identities.
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Jonna Mendez, in disguise, with then-President George H.W. Bush.

Jonna Mendez, in disguise, with then-President George H.W. Bush.

No one understands the power of fashion to communicate — and conceal — better than Jonna Mendez.

Having served with the CIA for 27 years prior to her retirement in 1993, Mendez earned the title of Chief of Disguise, ran a multi-million dollar program and received the Intelligence Commendation Medal for her services. During her career with the agency, she became a specialist in identity transformation and clandestine photography and came up against the KGB in Moscow, the Stasi in East Germany and the Cuban Intelligence Directorate. No big deal.

In the years since she left the agency, Mendez has used her experience with real-life spies to co-write books like "Argo," "Spy Dust" and "The Moscow Rules" with her husband Antonio Mendez, who shared the title Chief of Disguise. Jonna is now a lecturer, consultant and a founding member of the board of advisors at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. — and she's arguably the best person to ask for advice if you're taking a trip to your hometown and don't want your ex to recognize you on the street.

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When it comes to disguises, people often focus on what you see from the chin up — wigs, mustaches, facial prosthetics — but tend to forget about the rest of the body. Curious to know more about how fashion can be used to totally transform perceptions, we reached out to Mendez to uncover the styling secrets she learned as the CIA's Chief of Disguise. Read on to see what we learned.

You can tell where someone is from based on their shoes.

If the CIA was sending one of its officers to a different country, it would have them buy their shoes after they landed in their new location. Why? 

"In all my years of working, shoes were the number one thing [that marked people as foreign]," Mendez says. "It's either American or it's not... We wear brand new, blaring white sneakers." 

So if you're traveling and want to blend in, make sure you go straight from the airport to a shoe store. 

There's a specific reason why French fashion is so coveted.

"What [Americans] put in our suitcases when we travel [is meant for comfort]… That translates either to flip flops or sneakers for a lot of people," Mendez states. "Most Europeans, when they step out the door, they're put together — especially the women."

It's not that French women are inherently more chic, Mendez argues. It's just that they're more willing to spend a little time on their appearance, and they're less likely to prioritize comfort over style.

"They spend some time in front of a mirror," she says. "And that's why everyone always comments, 'Oh, French women are so beautiful.'" 

It takes only a few tweaks to completely change who someone appears to be.

Mendez explains that people often believe the CIA's disguise department is spending most of its time with wigs and mustaches, but that's definitely not the case. 

"That's just talking about the facial oval, and a lot of times, that's not the issue," she says. 

Using an American diplomat as an example — a nicely dressed person wearing a suit and tie — Mendez reveals that making this person hard to spot would take only a few tweaks.

"We could take off their tie, unbutton their shirt, maybe one button too many, put on some sort of awful gold chain, remove their wedding ring, so you can see that they have a wedding ring, but it's not there. There's that dent in the finger," she says. "Splash a little bit too much cologne on them, put on a couple of tattoos or a piercing… it takes nothing to completely change people's impression of that guy on the street."

It's simple to change how people see you because, according to Mendez, when you're looking at people coming and going on the sidewalk, it's almost like you're scanning a barcode. You take one look at a person and without even consciously thinking about it, you draw conclusions about what kind of person they are.

The labels you wear can be seen as currency in other countries.

Pop into any local thrift store and you'll likely find a heap of Levi's jeans. It doesn't strike you as out of the ordinary if you're in the US, but somewhere else, it might. 

"There was a time when if you showed up in Europe in Levi's, in genuine American Levi's, somebody would want to buy them from you," Mendez says. "They were very, very conscious of branded items and labels. Also, if you were wearing phony Levi's jeans, they could see that too." 

From the CIA's perspective, this wasn't desirable, since they wanted to blend in and make sure they were wearing what locals were wearing.

Jonna Mendez in Cuba. 

Jonna Mendez in Cuba. 

It doesn't take much to change your perceived social status.

It seems obvious that to play with perception of socioeconomic status, you need to buy more expensive clothes and accessories if you're trying to visually climb the ladder. However, it doesn't have to be that complex or costly, according to Mendez.

"We had a hard hat like you'd see on a construction site. We had a red kerchief. We had a big rolled-up piece of paper. And the idea was that if you put that hard hat on and the kerchief around your neck, everyone who saw you at the construction site would assume that you were a laborer," says Mendez. "But you pick up the rolled-up piece of paper and you put on a tie — now you got the hat, a tie, the paper, take off the red kerchief, and you're probably the boss of the job or the architect looking to make sure it's being built correctly." 

With these minute changes, you can subtly play with stereotyping to achieve an impactful shift in perception.

The CIA had officers keep track of trends that were coming and going in any given area.

If you're a fashion professional or fashion lover, you might keep up with what people are wearing via Instagram or this very website, which can help you get a sense for what's trending. The CIA, though — which places a high value on staying on top of trends — took a different approach under Mendez.

"[I]t became not just a matter of being aware of the style, but being aware of what's in and what's out [in a given place]," she explains. "Because things cycle through. So someone has to keep an eye on that and your local disguise officer, who would either be a resident in the city you were in or would come through the city you were in once or twice a year, could keep you clued in on what you could get away with and what you probably wouldn't want to be seen on the street wearing." 

In short: If you want to know what's cutting-edge, the internet is fine. But if you really want to look like the average person on the street in another country so you can become effectively invisible, your best bet is booking a ticket there to observe or querying someone who lives there full-time about what to wear.

Jewelry and makeup really are all you need for your day-to-night transition.

"When we were disguising women, it was really fun," says Mendez. "Because women are very open to it. We've all been playing with makeup since we were three." 

She goes on to say that an easy way for a woman to change her appearance is to switch out her jewelry: "If she wears a really quiet, small gold necklace and little hoops, you put on some chunky costume jewelry — something she would never wear — and jazz up her makeup a lot, she can just disappear." 

This transition can happen in five minutes, which is great news for any woman trying to transition from a corporate office setting to a warehouse rager in minutes (not to mention proof that all those articles in fashion glossies about the ease of switching from day to night looks were onto something).

Mendez in disguise.

Mendez in disguise.

The CIA used perfume and lipstick to hide cameras, and the Russians had a lipstick that doubled as a gun.

While discussing whether spy devices have been placed in jewelry (they haven't — but the CIA did try with watches), Mendez reveals, "We could put a camera in a lipstick. We could put a camera in a perfume atomizer. It was like a Chanel perfume atomizer, a black lacquered thing, we could put a camera in there so that when you push down on the atomizer, instead of spraying perfume, it took a picture."

But the Russians took the whole lipstick-turned-spy-device trick to the next level. 

"The KGB had a gun that was in a lipstick and fired one shot. It's in the spy museum," says Mendez. "It would be used by a woman who was really, really close to the person she was getting ready to kill." 

Appropriately, this lipstick gun was called "the kiss of death."

Color palettes have a lot of power.

Looking to get noticed outside the shows at fashion week, or hoping to blend into a sea of faces at an event where your scary ex-boss is likely to be present? The colors you wear have a big role to play in how effectively you're able to do so.

"You can make yourself recede or you can make yourself stand out [depending on your color palette]," says Mendez. "Red being at the one end and maybe black being at the other end. Today, now that I'm not working and I'm trying to stay under the radar, I wear almost entirely black." 

This tidbit can also help you learn something about your own psychology: all it takes is a quick peek into your closet to see if you're subconsciously trying to hide or stand out in a crowd.

Fashion can be as protective as a suit of armor.

Mendez says that the CIA's men weren't keen on dressing up in wigs and mustaches, but that completely changed when they started working against terrorists and doing counter-narcotics work. 

"Those guys were dangerous, and they were armed. It was more of a criminal element than your traditional embassy espionage operation," Mendez states. "So our guys discovered that a good disguise is like wearing a suit of armor. It's personal protection. It could keep you from being killed. It could keep you from looking American… It [could] keep a terrorist from following you home from the embassy and finding out where your house is, where your wife is, where your kids are. It became a much more useful tool."

So next time someone tells you that fashion doesn't have power, you can remind them that the greatest, most protective disguises in history have required a thoughtful approach to getting dressed. 

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