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Lorraine Broughton is a spy who thinks about her clothes. “If I knew he was going to call the police, I would have worn a different outfit,” the MI6 agent drolly tells her superiors during the lengthy interrogation that acts as a framing device in director David Leitch's Atomic Blonde. Lorraine, played by Charlize Theron, doesn't elaborate, but we do see how she is dressed when battling a bunch of uniformed officers who try to bust her investigation of a dead colleague's apartment in 1989 Berlin: in a bright coat and a flashy turtleneck sweater, all in vivid black and white. Her hemline is way above her knees, which are covered by her boots.
It's a “cheeky” comment, according to costume designer Cindy Evans, who responded to our queries via email. After all, it's not exactly like Lorraine is incognito. However, no get-up could stop her from fully demolishing her opponents. Later, Lorraine returns to the subject of appropriate apparel, asking what she should wear for tea with the queen. In context, it's a bit of a joke, but by that point we know Lorraine takes these matters seriously.
Lorraine certainly isn't the first fashion-forward female spy. Diana Rigg, for instance, epitomized the ’60s as the catsuited Emma Peel in the The Avengers. We're talking about the British TV series, not the Marvel team-up, though Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is indebted to Rigg. Vanity Fair, meanwhile, recently made a video featuring Theron and her Atomic Blonde costar Sofia Boutella commenting on their predecessors' (often skimpy) attire, including Theron's body-hugging Æon Flux look. But Lorraine has drawn comparisons to her male counterparts, like James Bond — in part, it seems, because the world has trouble conceiving of women who have as much ruthless swagger as she does. “I think the entire sort of spy pantheon was on the table when we were playing,” Leitch says. “I don't mind the comparisons between Bond in that he's stylish and cool and suave and manipulative and smart and cheeky, and I think Lorraine is all those. I think you could compare her at times to Jason Bourne. She's resourceful and uses found objects in the apartment to thwart her enemies. You can make comparisons to John Wick in terms of her adeptness in fighting and using a gun and using martial arts. We weren't afraid to go all different directions and try to create a new take on the character, but the influences, they're undeniable."
Leitch is very familiar with Wick, having co-directed Keanu Reeves in the first installment of the franchise about the puppy-avenging assassin, and Atomic Blonde also eschews believability for aesthetic appeal. “If I was going to make a super authentic Cold War spy movie, we would have had a lot more muted tones and she would have had more practical outfits and maybe some tactical things,” the director says. “It's not unlike John Wick. You don't really put on a suit to go do that business, you put on something that makes you blend in.” If Lorraine solely had her task — retrieving a list naming intelligence personnel — in mind when arriving in Berlin, she probably wouldn't have elected to wear red heels. Of course, those stilettos end up becoming a weapon she wields when she realizes the men she's sharing a car with aren't exactly her friends.
In The Coldest City, the graphic novel on which Atomic Blonde is based, Lorraine's style is unremarkable and vaguely ’80s, but in a way that emphasizes the decade’s dowdiness. On paper she has more in common with the spies of The Americans. For the screen, Leitch and Evans wanted to draw on the flashier hallmarks of the decade. “We went out to aggregate all the cool things we could from the ’80s, and fashion was just one of those things,” Leitch notes. “It drove our approach and Cindy's approach to finding things that were iconic for the time, but also resonate in a contemporary way so she still looks amazing.”
So in addition to “99 Luftballons” and New Order pumping through the soundtrack, Lorraine cuts a figure ripped from a photograph by Helmut Newton — the artist Evans says she cited. But Lorraine's wardrobe isn't overly steeped in nostalgia. Her collection of overcoats — which includes a custom white-vinyl piece by John Galliano — feels more in keeping with espionage traditions than the milieu of the decade. These, after all, are “essential garment[s] in the spy universe,” Evans writes.
Arguably, the piece in Lorraine's closet that acts as the biggest ’80s signifier is an oversized BOY London T-shirt, proudly displaying the name of the brand associated with the likes of Pet Shop Boy and Boy George. (BOY London was recently brought back in a move that drew outrage when people realized its eagle logo looked an awful lot like Nazi imagery.) Lorraine rarely wears anything that's not in a monochrome shade, so when she does put on something like a red Dior coat found in the designer's archives, it's a “character morph,” Evans notes. Without giving too much away, the color does redefine how the audience perceives her.
The costumes also had to weather the character’s battles. Given Leitch's background in stunt work, he knows about the intimate relationship between physical and sartorial prowess. “As a fight choreographer and a stunt coordinator for decades, you're always working in close connection with the costume department, because you're trying to find new ways to make the movement work but to keep a style,” Leitch says. “You're finding how to hide knee pads, you're finding how to create gussets in the armpits and the groin so you can do kicks.” Lorraine, Leitch points out, also makes a transition from heeled boots to flats as the combat intensifies. In a crucial scene — when the heroine knows that ass-kicking and subterfuge is on the table — she has on muddy colors and covers her legs in pants.
While Lorraine doesn't hide secret gadgets in her garters, she does utilize her clothing to her advantage. At one point, she lifts her turtleneck over her mouth before finishing off her challengers. Leitch explains it's a "stylistic" move, but it also acts almost like a mask. "We found ways and the choreography team found ways to make it feel like she could kill you with a cable-knit sweater if she had to," he says.