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Carmen Sandiego is that bitch. She’s not only a secret agent, criminal mastermind, and Latina role model, she’s also a fashion icon who’s inspired everyone from Lady Gaga to Jennifer Lopez. So the recent news that Gina Rodriguez will produce and star in a Netflix feature film about the antiheroine is welcome news for gamers, cosplayers, and fashion lovers alike.
Known as the “Lady in Red,” the character first appeared in the 1980s video game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? It went on to spawn a ’90s TV show of the same name, as well as an animated series, in which Rita Moreno provided the voice of Sandiego. And more than 20 years later, it’s impossible to think of Sandiego without remembering how her style made her a woman of mystery.
Writer Frances Martel has described Sandiego’s fashion sense as “keen but conservative,” but it’s more complicated than that. She’s decked out all in red — a color that’s the opposite of conservative, unless we’re talking politics. With a hat based on the sombrero cordobés, a menswear staple; an oversized trench coat; and a briefcase, Sandiego’s signature look includes both masculine and feminine elements. It’s her makeup, gloves, heels, and flowing hair that add a touch of femme fatale. And while Sandiego often wears pants — the better to caper with — in some series she favors skirts.
The fact that Sandiego’s fashion sense literally contains layers explains why it remains a source of inspiration decades after the video game debuted. When Priyanka Chopra arrived at the Met Gala in a lengthy trench coat and heeled boots last year, fans saw Inspector Gadget with a dash of Carmen Sandiego. (There’s also a hint of another trench coat-clad woman of mystery, Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher.)
In 2014, when Lady Gaga stepped out in a red wide-brimmed hat and matching jumpsuit, the comparisons to Carmen Sandiego were immediate, spawning “Who Wore It Better?” polls. That fall, Rita Ora drew similar comparisons when she wore a red trench coat and hat. A year earlier, Glee’s Naya Rivera dressed as a sexed-up version of the character for Halloween. She skipped the pants and the skirt beneath the trench coat, opting for a red latex leotard instead. The same year, 2013, Complex named Carmen Sandiego one of its 12 old-school video game style icons.
“Carmen is a stylish fitstress that has inspired countless fans to break out the ankle length outerwear during the fall,” Complex wrote.
Just last year Fendi outfitted Kendall Jenner in a red coat and boots reminiscent of Sandiego for a runway show. In 2017, the character also earned a glowing writeup from the gamer site Destructoid, which named Sandiego the “greatest female video game of character of all time.” It described Carmen Sandiego as “cunning,” “ruthless,” and a woman who “simply doesn’t give a fuck.” Given how many fans delight in Carmen’s badassery, it’s no wonder that every year there’s no shortage of cosplayers and Halloween revelers paying tribute to the character.
Sandiego is not a complete anomaly, however. She comes from a long tradition of stylish female spies with a penchant for mixing the masculine with the feminine. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious, Ingrid Bergman sports a men’s hat, just as Sandiego does, that she pairs with a men’s dress shirt, tie, and jacket. About 60 years later, Angelina Jolie played a spy in Mr. and Mrs. Smith who sometimes wears men’s clothing.
The masculine elements of the female spies’ wardrobes serve to clue in the audience that these women aren’t bound by gender or social norms. Carmen Sandiego dresses how she wants just as deftly as she takes what she wants.
Sandiego may be fictional, but as part of the bygone edutainment video game trend, she played a very real role in the lives of kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. Clearly, Gina Rodriguez has some big shoes to fill as she makes this legendary role her own.