December 23, 2009


Secret Squirrel found its fun Spy Vibe elements in conventions like lethal gadgets- a spy squirrel with a machine gun cane? Now that's 1960s surreal thinking! Episodes showed up on a recent DVD release of classic 60s cartoons and I enjoyed revisiting this dangerous little rodent. But as I started to look at other spy-related programming for kids during that era, I found that they all offered the same basic package: nitwit comedy cloaked in a throwback to hard boiled crime fiction- the trench coat. As we saw on Spy Vibe earlier this year, it was the peeling off of these drab macs that helped give 1960s spies a fashionable boost over their private eye counterparts. Bond's tux hidden under the tight wetsuit! Yet, the trench coat endured throughout spy fiction and remains a catch-all symbol for sneaky intentions (no connection to "dirty mac" stories here- we're PG13). 1960s London counter-culture centerpiece, Barry Miles, said that there was a major turning point in the early-mid 1960s when the cash-earning baby boomers started to come of age. To paraphrase, he said that before the shift, young people all dressed to look like middle-aged people. But after the shift, everyone started trying to dress like young people. So when Cold War spies became popular entertainment, we saw examples of productions embracing the youth-generated curve of that shift. Great examples were The Avengers with those kinky leathers and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. with Mod outfits and miniskirts. In the comedy productions, especially those made for kids, there was a slightly middle-aged approach that downplayed the sexuality and expressiveness that otherwise was a great part of 1960s liberation. Instead of cartoon characters in wild new fashions, the form was watered down for mass consumption and took on the trappings of the older generation. Replace the stubble and Fedora of the private eye with sunglasses and a gadget and you've easily turned the symbol of the 1930s-1950s "gumshoe" (Philip Marlow, Sam Spade) into the symbol of a "spy-in-disguise." Luckily overcoats were more popular back then- maybe a trench coat spy might have had a chance of blending in with the commuters!

There are two claims to the invention of the trench coat, but Burberry certainly has a firm hold on the garment's history. They originally began producing long coats to protect officers from the elements during the Boer War in 1895. A few modifications and wars later, the jacket began to evolve closer to its modern image during WWI, when it was dubbed the "trench coat" as officers wore them in the first trench battles. I'm sure that there are scholars of pulp fiction, Black Mask magazine, etc who could trace when the jacket became indelibly linked with crime fiction. Early pulps pictured private eyes dressed in the look we all associate with Bogart's portrayals of heroes by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. 1965's Secret Squirrel even borrowed from the Bogart lexicon by giving him a sidekick based on Peter Lorre! The WWI aviator's version of the trench coat showed up in European intrigue films, like Fritz Lang's Spione (1928). The trench coat look swept into fashion, and was acculturated for rush hour workers; men and women throughout the decades standing on metrolpolitan train platforms. As Hugh Hefner's sexual revolution took hold in the 1950s and beyond, he was in many ways rebelling against that grey flannel suit/raincoat lifestyle. Bond and the spies that followed in his wake ran with the young crowd in sexy, thin gear. But for kids and spy comedy? It was keep on the baggy side of life.

Imagine we were producing the major spy comedies targeted for younger viewers during the spy boom. We are like Mr. Briggs or Mr. Phelps of the Impossible Missions Force, flipping through our portfolio of secret agents: Boris Badinov (Bullwinkle), Secret Squirrel, Max Smart and Agent 99 (Get Smart), Cool McCool, Fred Flintstone (Man Called Flintstone), Lancelot Link, MAD's Spy Vs. Spy. They all have the outfit. Even the bungling Inspector Clouseau (Pink Panther) had the right wardrobe to face international intrigue, as did other spoof-film characters played by Doris Day (Glass-Bottomed Boat), Fabian (Dr. Goldfoot), and others. The comedy-spy characters of the 1960s clearly had the same tailor. Just as Bond baddies dressed "Nehru," this batch came from Central Casting with one requirement- wear a trench coat. The costuming and storytelling did not alter much among this group. They didn't have great style. But the characters made us laugh and remain important to 1960s spy culture (and the contemporary spin-off market). In some cases, like the bikini-wow Dr. Goldfoot films, the trench coat reads as a kind of "straight man" symbology in the comedy. What most of these productions lacked in fashion, they made up for in fun gadgets- a theme taken up years later by another trench coat-wearing crime/comedy firgure, Inspector Gadget.

The one major spy character for adults in the 1960s to actually look right in a mac was Michael Caine's Harry Plamer (The Ipcress File). Somehow his working bloke's portrayal brought authenticity to the jacket. It read more as ubiquitous than iconic; character-driven rather than cartoony.

To step into the Swingin' 60s side things, check out Spy Vibe's PEELING OFF THE TRENCH COATS. And because I love getting The Beatles into any discussion if possible, check out The Dirty Macs, a one-off 1968 band that included John Lennon, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell, and Eric Clapton!

1 comment:

  1. As always Jason, another well written and well research piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

    All the best for New Year.