Mrs. Peel's look is back with a vengeance


It's ironic that the green, not-so-mean, natural '90s would take a cue from the plastic era.

But for many European and American designers, the super-sexy secret agent look of the '60s found in James Bond movies, "Mission: Impossible," "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." and "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is ripe for this decade, too. And there is no better muse for "spy fashion" than secret agent Emma Peel.

The character, played by Diana Rigg, regularly karate-chopped and kung-fued her way across the screen every week from 1965 to 1968 in the British adventure series, "The Avengers." The resourceful and capable Mrs. Peel and agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee, sartorially splendid himself in Saville Row suits, with bowler and ubiquitous umbrella) went on week after week to save England from one nefarious villain after another.

Now, in what only the fashion world could consider a tribute, designers on both sides of the Atlantic have paid homage to the pared-down, ready-for-action look of Emma Peel. At the fall European shows, designers Katherine Hamnett, Claude Montana (who used the show's theme song for his fall show) and Thierry Mugler, and houses such as Lanvin and Sitbon came out with leather catsuits that zipped up or cinched down. Usually they paired them with thigh-high boots or lacquered trenchcoats.

And speaking of trenchcoats (and what well-dressed spy doesn't have a few?), the spring '91 shows in New York demonstrated an American love of short, swingy trench shapes in both coats and dresses.

Were she still around, Mrs. Peel undoubtedly would have snatched them up, put on some leggings and leather boots and gone out to save the world ... again.

That's the kind of woman she was brave, strong, fiercely independent and her clothes reflected it. Mrs. Peel's spy apparel was streamlined, almost aerodynamic action clothes intense on style. What we now call catsuits and see everywhere were unheard of in the early '60s. But if you watch the series on the Arts & Entertainment Network, there they are: catsuits, leather anoraks and body stockings.

"I think they're a more dressed-up version of athletic clothes, really," says British designer Ann Ogden, whose spring line includes several interpretations of "Avengers" fashion. "I think that's what makes them totally in tune with the times. I think women realize that they could be wearing athletic clothing because that's really what it is and still be totally sexy and a bit perverse. Emma Peel's clothes had a tough feeling about them, but you could never call those clothes masculine. But think about it: She was a woman in a man's world, a female spy. These clothes were fabulous uniforms for her trade."

Peel's predecessor was Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman), a cool blonde with a doctorate in anthropology and a talent for judo. Peel's successor was Tara King (played by Linda Thorson), a peppy mod who favored miniskirts and culottes. But it was Emma Peel who came to embody the avenging woman, and appropriately it is her wardrobe that most easily translates today.

"Cathy Gale wore very similar costumes to what Emma Peel later wore," says Dave Rogers, author of "The Complete Avengers" (St. Martins Press), in a telephone interview from his home just outside Manchester, England. "She wore the leather jerkin with sleeves over leather trousers always with boots. When Diana Rigg came along, they added a more outrageous cut and it was much tighter. They were designed for appeal, if you will. With Diana, they added chains and lots of silver zippers. It was all very sexy and meant to catch the male's eye."

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