I distinctly remember my mother getting home from work every evening around 4 p.m. She would hustle to her bedroom before properly greeting us — a one-inch kitten heel flying in one direction, a tweed brown blazer in the other. I always found it peculiar that the first thing she wanted to do when she entered our home in Maryland was to find an entirely new outfit to wear for dinner.
In retrospect, her nightly routine reflected my mother’s need to shed her post-Cold War espionage persona for the maternal visage she wore at home. Working for the Central Intelligence Agency as a staff operational officer was sufficiently demanding to propel my mother, Suzanne Matthews, to her closet doors every evening. Despite this, she carried the stress of her job home, like a tracking device discreetly placed in her lapels.
Over the course of a career that spanned from 1975 to 2007, this is what my mother ― an agent working for the CIA ― wore to work every day.
Like a generic country song, my mother was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. And like a very popular country song, she wanted to experience life outside her very small western town. “I spent a summer traveling with my brother in Europe after college,” she told me. “I was motivated to return, but didn’t know exactly how to do that. A friend suggested I consider a career in the CIA, as her mother was a recruiter, so I interviewed and got the job as a secretary.”
My mother settled in Washington, D.C., in the ’70s, working in a relatively corporate atmosphere. Her clothing had to reflect that, as well: “Because I was just beginning my career after college, I didn’t have disposable income to spend on many clothes,” she said. “Living in the D.C. area, where federal government employees are known for conservative dress, I did the same. My ‘uniform’ was a jacket and skirt or slacks and comfortable shoes. Nothing terribly memorable, just classic blacks, beiges, whites. That way, I could mix and match regularly on my limited budget.”
But even when she started as a secretary, she did operational work, especially overseas when consulates or embassies needed more manpower.
By 1982, Suzanne worked her way up to being a Special Operational Officer (SOO), which meant her occupational duties changed drastically. So, too, did her ensembles. Of course, the stereotypical image associated with a spy is a black turtleneck, dark Ray-Bans and an iconic Burberry trench coat. Contrary to popular belief (and every Jason Bourne movie), blending in is a more successful spying technique than standing out. And wearing a trench coat with sunglasses stands out like a sore thumb in the counterintelligence world.
“Meeting clandestine sources on the ‘street’ can be very daunting,” Suzanne said. “Our primary goal is to protect the sources we are meeting. This means blending in with our environment, not attracting attention. Depending on the locale, we would build a simple disguise or a persona to fit in with the culture. If the city is a popular one for tourists, that might mean dressing in sneakers, shorts and a baseball cap.
“There are times, while conducting a surveillance detection route, that we would build in a ‘gap’ where surveillance coverage disappeared for a few seconds and we quickly change personas. This might mean removing or adding clothing, changing shoes or a wig.”
My mother was able to camouflage within her surroundings when needed, overtly dressing like a tourist in her efforts to gain insight into her local surroundings while maintaining the ever-encompassing goal of a CIA agent ― to always act and be as nondescript as possible.
Suzanne’s duties within her home changed with her rising status in the CIA. Foreign service workers often struggle to delineate their responsibilities at work with their role at home while living overseas. Female CIA agents often face the greatest challenge, shouldering the dual burdens of parenthood and a demanding espionage career. She juggled it all like most mothers and had to be mindful of her children and her career.
“Normally, children are not included in clandestine operations,” Suzanne said. “If there is a need for a casual observation of a target, perhaps a visit to a restaurant or ice cream store with the kids would help us look innocuous. Operating in plain sight is part of what we are trained to do. Generally, I would not recommend taking children along on an operation. There are simply too many things that could go wrong and it is most important to protect our sources when arranging to meet.”
My mother often struggled with her wardrobe. She would avoid wearing heels at all costs, an occupational hazard that transcends industry and generation, as evident by younger generations opting for much more casual work uniforms. Similarly, Suzanne was challenged by the need to elevate the corporate “uniform” she donned to match the street fashions of the European capitals she prowled.
“A desk job in Washington, D.C., is a professional position and we would dress accordingly. Working the ‘street’ in a foreign location requires a keen sense or how the locals look and behave and we would dress to blend in,” she said.
In a profession where clothing may mark you as a target for or threat to hostile foreign governments, the garments Suzanne chose each morning held more importance than a regular Madewell sweater might usually represent.
For some, getting dressed for work is purely utilitarian: jeans, T-shirt and a sweater for heavily air-conditioned offices. For others, uniforms are laid out the night before work to jump mindlessly into an early shift. For Suzanne, a retired veteran of the CIA, fashion was a means to blend into foreign environments with very different fashion rules, whether it be the dimly lit streets of an exotic locale or the fluorescent hallways of the Reagan Era CIA headquarters.
If she failed to meet the fashion requirements of either setting by standing out dramatically, Suzanne’s career could have floundered. Now retired 30 years later, she can go about her day wearing statement necklaces and bold earrings without fear of losing a precious foreign contact or blowing her cover. She now enters Chico’s with her head held high.