Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, CIA covert operations officer
Tehran, Iran, January 1980
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Director: Ben Affleck
Costume Designer: Jacqueline West
A month ago on my Instagram page, I posted about Ben Affleck’s tweedy look in Argo to coincide with the 40th anniversary of what became known as the “Canadian Caper”, the successful 1980 rescue of six American diplomats who had been taking refuge with Canadian diplomatic personnel after the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
The six diplomats—Bob Anders, Cora and Mark Lijek, Henry Lee Schatz, and Joe and Kathleen Stafford—had managed to escape after militants first stormed the embassy on November 4, 1979, evading the 444 days of captivity that befell more than 50 Americans who were detained in what would become known as the “Iran hostage crisis”. The escapees initially received help from the British embassy but deemed their situation too risky due to the militants’ raids of diplomatic compounds. Eventually, the sextet found a safer, longer-term solution sheltered at the homes of Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown and Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.
Taylor first contacted the Canadian government, who expressed support for the sanctuary and instigated a plan to create six Canadian passports for the Americans to safely fly out of Iran. The joint Canadian-American operation also required the participation of the CIA, particularly the efforts of Antonio “Tony” Mendez, a decorated agent and expert in disguises and exfiltration.
The 2012 film Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, focused on the CIA’s role in assisting the six, taking some criticism for underplaying the part that Canada played in not only taking great risks to shelter the “houseguests” but also to arrange for their exfiltration. Of the depiction, Jimmy Carter—who had been the U.S. president at the time of the incident—even stated in a contemporary interview that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian… the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA and, with that exception, the movie is very good.”
Despite the redirected focus, I found Argo to be a sharp, suspenseful, surprisingly funny, and more realistic look at covert operations than we’re used to seeing from Hollywood, earning accolades like Roger Ebert’s final “favorite movie of the year” title and the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“The only way out of that city is the airport,” Affleck’s Mendez informs his CIA superiors when outlining his exfil plan. “You build new cover identities for them, you send in a Moses, he takes ’em out on a commercial flight.” As in real life, Mendez serves as the ‘Moses’, working with Oscar-winning prosthetics pro John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convincingly establish the sextet’s new identities as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fictional science fiction epic called Argo.
“Don’t fuck up, the whole country is watching you… they just don’t know it,” advises Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), who adds after escorting Mendez to the airport: “I’m required to remidn you that, if you’re detained, the agency will not claim you.” Mendez deadpans in response: “Shoulda brought some books to read in prison,” to which O’Donnell adds a touch of gallows humor: “Nah… they’ll kill you long before prison.”
Mendez seems considerably more optimistic once he’s in the airport, calling Chambers to inform him: “We got a green light. Keep the office running ’til you hear otherwise.” Via Istanbul, Mendez eventually lands in Tehran, where Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) introduces him to the six diplomats he’ll be expediently training in their cover stories, while Mendez shares his own cover name: “Hi. My name’s Kevin Harkins, and I’m gonna get you home.”
One of my favorite sequences features the group preparing for the next morning’s exfiltration with drinking and music, specifically Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, a track that Affleck has admitted he was “desperate” to include in the movie. While the band agreed to the track’s inclusion, they did have one stipulation: the scene as shot showed Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) placing the needle at the start of the album rather than its proper place as the last song on the record’s second side. Appreciative of the band’s attention to detail, Affleck was reportedly more than happy to direct the required reshoot.
What’d He Wear?
When costuming Ben Affleck to play Tony Mendez, costume designer Jacqueline West sought to dress him in clothing similar to what the actual agent wore during his mission. According to Ewen MacAskill for The Guardian, the real Mendez’s wife Jonna—also a former CIA officer—was “appalled” to learn that her husband had still had those old clothes from more than 30 years earlier in the garage.
“Tony sent me the actual clothes he wore during the exfiltration,” West explained in an exclusive interview with Clothes on Film about her work in Argo. “The jacket was herringbone tweed Brooks Brothers… Bless their hearts, Brooks Brothers had all their initial patterns from the 1970s and they made all those jackets and suits for Ben.”
The article in The Guardian states that Mendez had worn his Harris tweed jacket with slacks and cordovan wingtip shoes, essentially a de facto uniform for CIA agents of the era. “That was our uniform,” Mendez explained. “The jackets were representative of our group. Those of us in the CIA who did overseas work, work in the field. If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan [the Soviet Union and its allies], you had Harris tweed.”
The concept of a rugged CIA operative in the 1970s clad in tweed, knitwear, and denim recalls Robert Redford’s iconic look in Three Days of the Condor, and West has stated that she used the famous 1975 thriller to convince Affleck that the herringbone would be effective on screen. But would an outfit appropriate for Christmastime in New York translate to a mission to Iran?
We know it’s a cold January in Tehran as Affleck’s Mendez had indicated the visible snow on the ground, seen in an Iranian newspaper, to quickly quash an idea that the six diplomats could use the cover as crop inspectors. Thus, the durable Harris tweed would be a comfortable top layer for Mendez to wear with his jeans, heavy boots, and a rotation of casual open-neck shirts. Jacket lapels aside, the approach is among the more timeless outfits in Argo, particularly when compared to the excessively fashionable sportswear worn by some of the disguised diplomats.
Jacket #1: Brown-and-Black Herringbone Tweed
Based on my initial recollections of the movie, I was fully prepared to write about Affleck’s herringbone tweed jacket until, upon rewatching, I discovered that he wears no less than three different herringbone tweed jackets! All three are similarly cut, styled, and patterned with slight variations in color, the “warmest” being the brown-and-black herringbone jacket worn for Mendez’s initial flight from Washington, D.C. to Istanbul.
Mendez’s light blue oxford cloth cotton shirt with its button-down collar, front placket, and button cuffs is an Ivy staple and likely another Brooks Brothers piece.
While he would continue to wear the dark jeans, brown belt, and brown boots for the rest of his mission, the brown-and-black tweed jacket and blue OCBD would not be seen again once Mendez leaves Istanbul.
Jacket #2: Gray-and-Black Herringbone Tweed
From his flight in to Tehran to his departure two days later, Mendez wears a gray-and-black herringbone jacket that gets the most screen-time of his trio of herringbone Harris tweed. All three jackets are single-breasted with broad notch lapels that, likely 4″ wide with swelled edges, are the most dated aspects of the outfit but would have looked out of place during the era if they had been more moderate in width.
The jackets have a welted breast pocket, straight hip pockets, and a long vent. The two buttons on the front and the four on each cuff are black woven leather.
Mendez’s first shirt with this jacket—worn for his arrival in Tehran and subsequently meeting the six diplomats—is a navy-and-red plaid with a thin white windowpane grid-check. This flannel shirt has a front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs.
Later, Mendez joins the six houseguests on “scouting” trip to convince the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that their covers are legitimate, followed by a long evening to test and solidify their knowledge of their cover stories before facing airport security.
Apropos the full day of work, Mendez wears a classic work shirt in a rich blue chambray with a long point collar, front placket, and single-button cuffs, all fastening with cream-colored plastic two-hole buttons. The shirt has two patch pockets on the chest, one with a button-down flap on the right side and a button-through pocket on the left side.
One of the most frequently seen of Mendez’s shirts is an off-white cotton dress shirt with closely spaced hairline stripes that alternate between faded blue and faded salmon. In addition to wearing the shirt with neckties at CIA headquarters, he also wears the shirt twice while in the field. It has a long point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs.
The hairline-striped shirt is most prominently seen during the climactic airport sequence as Mendez escorts the six diplomats onto their Swissair flight out of Iran. He layers a navy wool long-sleeved sweater over his shirt for the flight, allowing the long point collar to fall outside the sweater’s V-neck opening.
Jacket #3: Black-and-White Herringbone Tweed
After the successful exfil of the six diplomats, Mendez dresses up his third and final-seen herringbone tweed jacket for the office with a tie and trousers rather than his more casual mission-wear of open-neck shirt and jeans. He wears the same hairline-striped shirt that he wore under his sweater during the departure flight but with a navy tie patterned with ornate magenta dotted-edge squares that each enclose a yellow four-pointed star.
He wears the same brown leather belt but, rather than jeans, a pair of dark gray flat front slacks and cordovan wingtip derbies, no doubt reflecting the office “uniform” that Mendez referenced in the article in The Guardian.
Other than the trousers he wears when he has returned to CIA headquarters, Mendez almost exclusively wears dark blue jeans with his herringbone tweed jackets, a casual but texturally coordinating choice that harmonizes the rough and “fuzzy” finish of the woolen Harris tweed with famously durable denim.
Mendez wears a thick brown leather belt with a rectangular brass single-prong buckle and a thick brass keeper.
The Nevada-born Mendez is shown wearing brown cowboy boots with decoratively stitched soles for many early scenes in his operation, though he changes into somewhat more practical brown lace-up hiking boots for much of his time in Tehran.
A frequent Rolex wearer in real life and other movies, Ben Affleck sports a Rolex Sea-Dweller in Argo, which some eagle-eyed viewers have identified as the ref. 116660 Sea-Dweller DEEPSEA, a model not introduced until 2008. While that anachronistic model may have been worn in some scenes (like this!), many of the Tehran sequences appear to feature a period-correct Rolex diver, stainless with a black rotating bezel, black dial with a 3:00 date function, and a steel “Oyster”-style link bracelet.
In 1966, Rolex introduced the first Submariner with a date function, the ref. 1680, signifying the timepiece’s transition from a functional diver’s tool to a more broadly marketed status symbol. The following year marked the introduction of the Rolex Sea-Dweller (ref. 1665), essentially a heavier duty Submariner Date with a thicker case and crystal though its date window it lacked the “cyclops” magnifier.
Both Deployant and Ben Affleck’s Watch Collection (at swisswatchexpo.com) has identified the period-correct Rolex to be a Submariner Date. However, the screen-worn watch appears to lack the “cyclops” magnifier that was present on the ref. 1680. While I’m inclined to defer to these experts, I have a suspicion that the older Rolex featured on screen might thus be a Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 rather than a Submariner Date… though I welcome any discussion or clarification from those in the know!
What to Imbibe
Damned with the knowledge that the CIA called off the mission (a fictional element added for additional dramatic tension), Mendez quietly lets the six “houseguests” gradually get into a drunken, hopeful bliss to the scratchy sounds of Led Zeppelin. “We were having a lot to drink,” Cora Lijek recalls with a smirk in a modern documentary. “I think we were excited about the departure… and nervous as well.”
Mendez sneaks out a bottle of Macallan single malt Scotch whisky from the Canadian ambassador’s stash for himself and spends the rest of his sleepless night consulting the bottle back in his hotel room.
Cora recalled that it wasn’t their pre-flight drinks were hardly the end of their imbibing: “Once we got out of Iranian airspace, Tony ordered Bloody Marys for us and it tasted great.”
“One of the best Bloody Marys I have ever had!” added Bob Anders, the senior member of the group, while Kathy Stafford also remembered “that cocktail over Turkish airspace was delightful, it was wonderful!”
How to Get the Look
While Ben Affleck’s outfit in Argo may call Three Days of the Condor to mind, costume designer Jacqueline West was primarily influenced by the tweed Brooks Brothers jacket that the real Tony Mendez wore on his CIA mission to Tehran in the winter of 1980, sported with Condor-approved jeans, brown leather boots, and a classic dive watch.
- Gray-and-black herringbone Harris tweed single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and long single vent
- White hairline-striped cotton shirt with long point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Navy knit V-neck long-sleeve sweater
- Dark blue denim jeans
- Brown leather belt with brass rectangular single-prong buckle and brass keeper
- Brown leather hiking boots
- Rolex steel dive watch with black bezel, black dial (with 3:00 date function), and steel Oyster-style link bracelet
You can read more about West’s costume design and Harris tweed in Argo here:
- “Argo: Interview with Costume Designer Jacqueline West” by Lord Christopher Laverty for Clothes on Film, February 2013
- “CIA agents look better in Harris tweed: how Argo revived a Scottish classic” by Ewen MacAskill for The Guardian, April 2013
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Reading was evidently a popular pastime for the six diplomats in hiding. Lee Schatz recalled that John Sheardown was “a voracious reader so he had a great collection of books”, and Kathy Stafford added that the personal libraries available to her likely assisted in the escape. “I’m sure that one of the reasons I was able to go through the airport without being nervous was because I read every John LeCarre book they had,” Stafford explained in a 2013 interview. “I realized from his books that, if you act like you know what you’re doing, then other people will think you know what you’re doing and they’ll think… fine.”
Ar-go fuck yourself.