Everyone is thinking about costumes with Halloween right around the corner, but for some people, dressing up as someone else is a very serious business. For spies, it’s a matter of life and death, and they need to get it exactly right.
Jonna Mendez is the CIA’s former Chief of Disguise, and in an interview with Wired, she explains how the organisation approaches hiding someone’s identity. Basically, it’s by taking lots of small subtle steps until you reach your desired effect.
“A disguise is an onion, whether you’re building it, or peeling layers off,” she begins. “If you get enough of them going, you disappear.” Below, we’ll break down the different elements that make up an effective disguise, depending on what kind of effect you’re going for:
A light disguise is something like a wig, facial hair, or glasses. Mendez says this is for a brief encounter, like meeting someone in a coffee shop for information with a different identity. You don’t want someone who knows you as yourself—or some other persona—to pop in and recognise you. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy. Even small things that are not your usual look can make all the difference.
An advanced disguise is developed when something is needed for meetings that are “up close and personal and for an extended period of time.”
“The goal is that if someone were to write a memo describing you, every item on that memo would be wrong,” says Mendez.
The CIA has a number of ways to change someone’s appearance, including full face masks, which Mendez has herself worn. But simpler ways to completely change the face are dental facades and plumpers, which mask your teeth and even reform the shape of your face. They’ll sometimes add in artificial palettes to the top of the mouth, which can alter how someone speaks by creating a lisp.
Mendez says it’s far easier to convincingly make a woman look like a man with prosthetics than the other way around; with men they tend to age them with grey hair and facial hair, because older guys are perceived as less threatening. Ultimately, the design goal of a good disguise, in Mendez’s opinion, is to make you the sort of person who can get on and off an elevator without anyone remembering you.
A disguise isn’t just how you look, it’s how you act. In particular, sending US spies to Europe involves them unlearning certain habits. Small acts give people away — Europeans use the fork in the left hand while Americans tend to switch back and forth. In Europe, people hold cigarettes between the thumb and forefinger, rather than between their first two fingers. In the US, when people stand, they tend to put their weight on one leg, but in Europe they stand straight.
These are general behaviours of a larger group, but you have your own “tells” that give away your identity which you may not be aware of. Mendez recommends asking a friend to observe you, and tell you what they are — a certain way of sitting or gesturing. Some of them are difficult to consciously let go of, so adding an element to your disguise that forces you to adjust those behaviours can be helpful. Mendez says she would sometimes add gravel to her shoe or bandage a knee to change the way she walked.
Sometimes it was necessary for an operative to clandestinely change their appearance as they walked through the street. These steps were measured and rehearsed, and involved simple things like changing a shirt and putting on a hat as you walked.
“The goal is to disappear,” says Mendez, explaining that it shouldn’t seem like a wild escape. “Surveillance should think it’s their fault that they lost you,” she adds.
Few ordinary citizens need this level of skill when it comes to a disguise, but Mendez has a suspicious mind. She says citizens abroad are often targets, and a simple way to blend in is to leave your usual shoes at home, buy some clothes from a store in the city you’re visiting and pick up a pack of local brand cigarettes. Most disguises are pretty boring, actually, but who knows what intrigue they’ll lead to.