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Clothing Britain’s Spies during World War II

9 August 2018


In July 1940, the British government established a secret intelligence agency called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After the fall of France and the evacuation of the British forces at Dunkirk, Britain needed a way to undermine the Axis powers from within. The SOE was created to train and manage covert agents who would infiltrate enemy territory for purposes of reconnaissance, subversion, and sabotage. Thousands of spies would eventually penetrate every theater of World War II, from Poland to Ethiopia to Burma, with most serving in continental Europe. The organization’s greatest presence was in France, where the SOE dispatched 1,800 agents from May 1941 to September 1944.

The SOE’s spies all posed as inhabitants of the places they infiltrated—up to two-thirds of the agents actually were natives of the countries in which they worked. Being able to pass for a local depended on more than a flawless ability to speak the native language. It also meant looking the part.

National and regional differences in fashion were more pronounced in the 1940s then they are today, as markets were less globalized and many people still made their own clothes or acquired them from local tailors and seamstresses. Spies needed to blend in, and to do that, they needed to wear what the locals were wearing. At first, the SOE sourced outfits, shoes, and suitcases from secondhand shops or bought them from refugees who’d fled continental Europe for the British Isles. But these sources were soon depleted, meaning the SOE had to begin manufacturing their own “authentic” European clothing and luggage to outfit their agents. The SOE outsourced much of this production work to clothing companies owned by refugees, who were already well-versed in the sewing styles of their native lands.

. . . .

Claudia Pulver, a seamstress from Vienna, was working for a small garment-production company in central London called Loroco, Ltd., when she suddenly found herself a costume designer for Britain’s spies. “To start with,” Pulver told an interviewer for the BBC2 documentary program Secret Agent Selection, “we got old shirts from refugees and we took them apart, looked at the various collar shapes that were fashionable at the time, looked at the way they were manufactured, looked at the seams.”

Something as simple as the stitching on a seam advertised to the keen eye whether a garment was British or French or Dutch. “There certainly was an enormous difference between the side seams that were made on the Continent and those that were made in England,” Pulver recalled.

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When possible, SOE tailors used fabric smuggled out of Europe or repurposed from existing clothing taken from refugees or secondhand shops. Labels were also transplanted from such items or copied in meticulous detail. For tailored suits, an imitation tailor’s slip was placed inside the left jacket pocket. Thread had to be the right thickness, and preferably sourced from the region where the agent was going. Plain bone buttons worked best for most clothing items, although suspender buttons were sometimes stamped “elegant,” “mode de Paris,” or “for gentlemen,” as was common on both German and French trousers. British-made zippers bore the brand name Lightning, which had to be carefully ground off the metal pulls with a dentist’s drill.

. . . .

“Even the buttons on the men’s suits needed to be sewn on in a special French style.” In France, buttons were usually threaded in two parallel lines, rather than a crisscross pattern. Such differences, which in other circumstances might seem tiny and insignificant, could give a spy away. For instance, in the 1940s, many men still wore detachable collars, which fastened onto the shirt with small studs, like cufflinks. In Britain, the stud hole on the back of the collar was a vertical slit; on the continent, it was horizontal—something a German officer could easily check.

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Adlington’s job was to “age” the new clothing, accessories, and luggage being made for covert agents’ use. “There were no new suits in Germany, only for the real higher-ups, so the suit had to be aged,” he explained. To make a suit look used, Adlington and his colleagues had a simple solution: wear it, night and day, for a week. “It stunk to high heaven at the end of it ’cause you never had a shower or nothing!” he remarked. Once the suit had begun to crease from wear, a technician would rub a thin layer of Vaseline over the creases, to darken and set them. Then, to create the appearance of wear and tear, he’d dust the fabric with rottenstone (an abrasive powder used in woodworking and metalsmithing) and take fine sandpaper to the lapels. Workers would even intentionally make holes in the material, just so they could darn them, SOE seamstress May Shrubb told an interviewer from the Imperial War Museum. Everything had to be “dirtied down,” she said, because both clothing and shoes were carefully rationed during the war, making anything new look suspicious.

Link to the rest at JSTOR




5 Comments to “Clothing Britain’s Spies during World War II”

  1. As Mr Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

    • Indeed. 😉

      It’s the little details that count, I guess. Most wouldn’t see it, but you never would know who might be looking for just such a slip up.

  2. Oh, yes: Fascinating!

    It’s a bit of clothing history I hadn’t heard before. Though admittedly, if it happened after 1889, I haven’t paid much attention. LOL!

  3. Reminds me of “Inglorious Bastards” and the dramatic counting to three scene. Great stuff!

  4. As a long time sewist/seamstress/fabric artist and retiree from the US intel community, I found this article really fascinating. Thanks for highlighting it. Cheers.

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