Espionage and the fashion industry are both international in scope, given to intrigue, and often comfortably adjacent to people in power, so it’s no surprise they occasionally overlap. This is particularly true in times of war, when security services routinely rummage about in the creative communities for needed expertise.
During World War II, future fashion icon Bill Blass served in an elite unit informally known as the Ghost Army, which launched an array of tactical deception operations to confuse the Nazis, including the well-known inflatable tanks intended to deceive aerial reconnaissance. Men’s-wear designer John Weitz, a native German speaker, worked for the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), America’s wartime intelligence agency. And Vera Leigh, born in Leeds, a co-founder of Parisian couture millinery Rose Valois, was recruited into England’s Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.). She was murdered by the Gestapo after capture in occupied France.
However, Sir Edwin Hardy Amies occupies a special place in the long and entangled history of espionage and fashion. Over his long career, he was dressmaker to the Queen, Savile Row stalwart, costume designer for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and creator of both the 1972 Olympic and 1966 World Cup uniforms. As an author, he wrote books on fashion as well as two delightful memoirs. That he was also a lieutenant colonel in the S.O.E. and said to be involved in an operation known as Ratweek—the coordinated killing of Nazi officials and collaborators in occupied countries—is a part of his story that remains largely overlooked even today.
When Amies received the proverbial “tap on the shoulder” in 1941 that led him into the clandestine world of wartime espionage, he was the managing designer at the couture house Lachasse and a rising star in the fashion world. He would later remember answering an anodyne advertisement in Times of London for the Corps of Military Police, seeking wartime recruits with a knowledge of at least two European languages. Amies, fluent in French and German, was, apparently, just what the S.O.E. needed at the time.
In 1940, Churchill signed the formation documents for the S.O.E., unofficially known as the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” with the memorable exhortation to “set Europe ablaze.” Sabotage, intelligence gathering, propaganda, subversion, and assassination were all within the organization’s remit, as was the training and equipping of Resistance groups.
At first, Amies trained operatives at Beaulieu, a Hampshire country estate puckishly called the “Finishing School.” There, clever techies turned out weapons such as the Welrod silenced pistol, small-scale explosives, and portable radios. Recruits were taught hand-to-hand combat along with knife-fighting techniques, particularly with the deadly double-edged Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, created especially for the S.O.E.
“This officer is far tougher both physically and mentally than his rather precious appearance would suggest,” read one evaluation report on Amies. “He possesses a keen brain and an abundance of shrewd sense.” The subtext makes clear his superiors knew Amies was a gay man.
Surprisingly, Amies continued to design fashionable clothes during his off-hours, at the explicit behest of the Board of Trade. His efforts, intended solely for export, joined the work of other well-known British designers, including Sir Norman Hartnell, Edward Molyneux, and Charles Creed in a global fashion offensive. At a time of rationing, when Britons were compelled to “Make Do and Mend,” this effort, aside from an obvious economic benefit, was doubtless a component of a larger propaganda effort. Not unlike the newsreels of the harrowing destruction of the Blitz at night followed by everyday work in the morning, its intent was to display British resilience. A posed photo of a white-jacketed milkman making deliveries through a rubble-strewn street became an emblematic image.
“British fashions, like their creators, have proven they can take it.… Through blitzkrieg and blockade, Britain gallantly and stubbornly continues to deliver the goods,” Associated Press Fashion Editor Dorothy Roe reported in the summer of 1941 as the first designs arrived in Manhattan. A small contingent of models accompanied the designs, armed with tales of wartime privation and volunteer service, sound bites, and a British-bulldog mascot. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt received a dinner gown, which she praised in her syndicated newspaper column, while Vincent Astor provided temporary showroom space in the Hotel Astor, as the formidable promotional machinery of the American fashion industry supported the wartime effort.
“This officer is far tougher both physically and mentally than his rather precious appearance would suggest.”
Having performed well at Beaulieu, Amies was transferred to London and the S.O.E.’s Baker Street headquarters in 1943 to become acting head of operations in occupied Belgium—T Section—before being installed as permanent head a year later. Although he deflected questions and obfuscated regarding specifics, one 1944 operation came to light, although not until 2000. Codenamed “Ratweek” (sometimes spelled “Rat Week”), the operation involved the coordinated killings of scores of Nazi officials and collaborators in occupied territories.
When BBC2 producers uncovered documents that seemed to connect him to Ratweek for their program Secret Agent, he denied any knowledge of it. “Sorry, old chap, I can’t remember a thing about it,” the 91-year-old Amies reportedly told the producers. Although his personnel file held by the National Archives includes no mention of Ratweek, it does, significantly, include his signed Official Secrets Act document, which barred him from revealing the more secret aspects of his S.O.E. career.
However, what is generally confirmed is that T Section oversaw highly effective networks of S.O.E. saboteurs who blocked waterways, cut telephone lines, and engineered train derailments throughout occupied Belgium. So successful were these hundreds of field operations that General Eisenhower personally signed a secret note of “sincere congratulations” to the Resistance fighters.
One memorable operation launched during Amies’s time as head of T Section was Operation Emilia, one of S.O.E.’s more unconventional missions, conducted in collaboration with another intelligence component, the Political Warfare Executive. The operation launched in August of 1944, when 34-year-old Olga Jackson, born in Liège and then married to a retired British officer, was parachuted into her native Belgium. Operating under the field name “Babette,” her mission was to make contact with the mistresses of high-ranking German officers as well as prostitutes they may have frequented. Recruited either through bribery or appeals to patriotism, members of the network were tasked with demoralizing their German paramours through talk of imminent defeat or promoting vices such as gambling, drinking, or narcotics.
Service personnel in restaurants, bars, and hotels were also recruited to spread disheartening news and encourage debilitating behavior among the German occupiers. And just to ensure there could be no escape from negative talk, anonymous letters were sent to the wives of German officers warning of inevitable German defeat and the necessity for a planned escape if they wished to save their families. While details are scant, the operation is generally viewed as a success.
However, an even more noteworthy T Section operation was a post D-day counter-sabotage effort that kept the Belgian waterfront, including Antwerp’s docks, operational, allowing the Allies to maintain vital supply lines as they pushed toward Germany.
Despite these wartime successes, Amies ran afoul of a superior by cooperating with Lee Miller, a longtime friend from the fashion world. Miller, the fashion model and Man Ray muse turned fashion photographer turned war correspondent, had written and photographed a feature story for the March 1945 issue of Vogue that included photos of Amies as well as members of the underground in the recently liberated city of Brussels. Although the photos of Amies were barely recognizable and censors found no cause for alarm, one superior officer called it a “gaudy publicity stunt.”
T Section oversaw highly effective networks of saboteurs who blocked waterways, cut telephone lines, and engineered train derailments throughout occupied Belgium.
The bureaucratic ire, however, was short-lived and came to nothing. Amies received only brief mention in Miller’s story, described as a lieutenant colonel whose wartime service was vaguely categorized as “liaison officer to the Belgian forces.” This was partially true. He was in Brussels working with local officials to infiltrate agents into Germany. However, she credited him with introducing her to members of the Resistance. “I kept watching [Countess Thérèse’s] ‘baby-face,’ which had been such a perfect passport for her activities in the Resistance movement,” Miller wrote. “She is supposed to have carried millions of francs in her handbag… delivering funds for arms and bribery, for saboteurs and the hidden army.” T Section had probably authorized those funds, and Amies was clearly acting as unofficial press agent for members of the Resistance.
This is not surprising. Amies, like so many others on Baker Street, possessed a profound admiration for the bravery displayed by the agents in the field, and was deeply affected by their sacrifices. In Belgium the work had been particularly brutal and losses heavy. Afforded none of the protections of uniformed P.O.W.’s, agents were routinely tortured, executed, or shipped to concentration camps. Some had simply vanished. “It is recorded that Amies attended many memorial services at that time in Belgium for murdered agents,” Amies’s biographer, Michael Pick, tells me. “And that he met survivors amongst their families to assist them, and no doubt find out information about what had happened.”
He also became concerned for those S.O.E. agents who survived. He would later express regret that many of those men and women who performed so heroically in the field never received proper official recognition.
If his wartime service remains clouded in secrecy, his postwar years saw a very public rise to the top of the London fashion world, creating an international brand along the way. Within months after D-day, he acquired a lease for a shop at 14 Savile Row, in a building badly damaged in the Blitz. One early investor was Virginia Cherrill, the American actress known for her role as the blind flower girl in Chaplin’s City Lights as well as for being the first Mrs. Cary Grant, and, later, Virginia Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey.
In 1955 Amies received a royal warrant as official Dressmaker by Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He added men’s fashion to his offerings in 1959–60 with a line of ready-to-wear for the decidedly non-posh retailer Joseph Hepworth & Son, having been approached by another S.O.E. veteran, Prince Yuri “Yurka” Galitzine, Hepworth’s public-relations man.
It was Galitzine who opened his home in Leeds to host what is generally thought to be the first runway show featuring male models. Deemed a success, the modest Leeds show was followed the next year by a much larger event at London’s Savoy hotel. More than 300 journalists and buyers attended the show, which was complete with music—the “British Grenadiers” march—and models in svelte-fitting suits carrying umbrellas like rifles in the shoulder-arms position.
Following his success with Hepworth, Amies branched out with licensing deals for accessories. It was during this time that he published the landmark ABC of Men’s Fashion (1964), which grew out of a series of columns he wrote for Esquire. The slim volume is not filled with bespoke minutiae of surgeon cuffs and ticket pockets but pragmatic and sometimes quirky advice written in the crisp, lean style of an intelligence report. A section on “Approach” reads, “A preoccupation with dress is unpleasant in a woman and repellent in a man; both sexes should pay each other the compliment of giving the appearance that trouble has been taken if no more. A man should look as if he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them.”
Another book, The Englishman’s Suit, followed in 1994, written in the same clear style. It traces the evolution of the suit from its origins to the present day. Added to this are two memoirs, Just So Far (1954), dedicated “to the Women who cannot afford my clothes, especially those who buy them,” and Still Here (1984).
“He had a fairly forbidding, even austere exterior, much like a headmaster of a great school or a professor in an ancient university,” says Michael Pick. “It was his protective shell, perhaps, but he was certainly remarkably tough and resourceful.”
Always discreet regarding his sexuality in a way that matched the norms and laws of the day, he didn’t come out until late in life. He called famed photographer Cecil Beaton “an unhappy old queen” while describing himself as “a happy old queen.”
Knighted in 1989—Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, he gave up the royal warrant the following year, clearing the way for younger designers to dress the Queen. Amies remained active, playing tennis well into his 80s, reluctant till the end to discuss his wartime service. He died in 2003, at the age of 93. His brand continues, now owned by the private investment firm Fung Capital.
Henry Schlesinger writes frequently about espionage. His latest book is Honey Trapped: Sex, Betrayal and Weaponized Love.