Harris Tweed was Cold War ‘uniform’ for CIA

Tony Mendez, pictured wearing a Harris Tweed jacket. Picture: Richard Ballard
Tony Mendez, pictured wearing a Harris Tweed jacket. Picture: Richard Ballard
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WHILE British secret agents of the 1970s were portrayed on TV in tight blue jeans, shirts with huge collars, ludicrous wide ties and brown cardigans – a la The Professionals – their real-life equivalents on the other side of the Atlantic opted for … Harris Tweed.

The American hero behind the Iran hostage rescue featured in the film Argo has revealed the fashion style of CIA agents during the Cold War as he was honoured for services to the famous Scots cloth.

Tony Mendez was played in the Best Picture of the Year Oscar-winner by Ben Affleck, whose Harris Tweed jacket is giving the fabric its highest-profile Hollywood exposure in years.

Former agent Mendez, speaking in New York, confirmed that the movie reflected reality and that Harris Tweed had been “part of what every agent wore” during his time in the service.

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He said: “I wore it all the time. That was our uniform. The jackets were representative of our group.”

When Ben Affleck asked him how he dressed during the Argo mission, Mendez couriered to Hollywood the jacket he wore during the rescue drama in Iran more than 30 years ago – and which he had refused to part with.

The former agent was guest of honour at the launch of a new social media site, Need for Tweed, a collaboration between Harris Tweed Hebrides and Leo Burnett advertising agency which will celebrate the heritage of Harris Tweed in North America.

Brian Wilson, the former UK trade minister who chairs Harris Tweed Hebrides, said: “Argo is the perfect link.

“Tony represents an era when every well-dressed American had Harris Tweed in his closet while Ben Affleck confirms why that would again be a great idea.

“By telling the story and honouring Tony, we hope everyone who sees Argo will be more likely to say – that’s a great Harris Tweed jacket Ben Affleck is wearing. I want one of them.”

Tony also recalled that another Scottish product played a key role in the real-life hostage story.

He said: “When I was forging the passport documents needed to get them out of there, using a special ink, the pad ran dry and I used the Canadian ambassador’s finest bottle of Scotch whisky to revive it.”

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This precise scene is now being captured in a portrait of Tony commissioned by the CIA to commemorate his role in the Argo drama.

He said: “My partner is standing over me and he too was wearing Harris Tweed so half of the picture is taken up with Harris Tweed.”

Harris Tweed Hebrides creative director, Mark Hogarth, said: “Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Tony joins the pantheon of great Hollywood images in which Harris Tweed was worn both on-set and off by stars of the day.

“It’s that combination of heritage, quality and style that we want to remind America of”.

Mendez added: “I’m an artist and love the depth and complexity of colour which each pattern contains.

“I have four Harris Tweed jackets, all good as new but getting a little tight now. It is wonderful fabric and has a great story behind it.”

However, his wardrobe has now been replenished – Tony was presented with a brand new Harris Tweed jacket while his wife Jonna received a bag made from the fabric as well as a gold and silver brooch in the form of the famous Orb trade mark, presented by the Harris Tweed Authority.

Mendez’ covert trip to Tehran in 1979, to help six US diplomats caught up in the embassy siege escape, has been portrayed in Affleck’s Oscar-winning movie Argo.

He retired from the CIA in 1990 after a career of 25 years that took him not only to Iran but Russia, Vietnam and elsewhere, winning the Intelligence Star.

Earlier this week Harris Tweed Hebrides, the biggest producer of the fabric in the Outer Hebrides, revealed its plans to revive demand for the cloth in the US and Canada.

Exports fell sharply in the 1980s, ending a time where North America was among the biggest importers of Harris Tweed.

Price wars fought between rival firms in the 80s led to dwindling sales of Harris Tweed, with Germany and Japan overtaking the US and Canada as the cloth’s largest export market.