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Trick-or-Treat the CIA Way: Tips for a Halloween Spent Undercover

October 23, 2023

With Halloween right around the corner, we thought it might be fun to talk about our own love of costumes. Of course, we use another term that you might be familiar with: disguises. Both costumes and disguises are meant to hide someone’s true identity, but the purpose behind the two couldn’t be more different. Read below to learn the difference and check out our tips for crafting the perfect disguise. Happy Halloween!

CIA K9 Calliope showing off her pumpkin Halloween costume in front of CIA’s Original Headquarters Building.

When we think about costumes, we usually imagine something funny or scary, often involving unique or bizarre makeup and clothing. Disguises, on the other hand, are made with the sole purpose of hiding someone’s true identity. Perhaps one of the most significant differences between the two is that disguises, unlike costumes, are made to be as boring as possible to help our officers blend in with their surroundings.

James Bond may look suave in a tuxedo, but that’s probably not the best outfit to wear when you’re on an undercover mission in the middle of the desert. As the saying goes, you’d stick out like a sore thumb. When our officers plan for the perfect disguise, they are looking for something that will allow them to disappear into the crowd.

We know better than most people how difficult it can be to craft the perfect costume or disguise. Check out the following tips and tricks to help you create a Halloween costume that even a spy might wear.

CIA K9 Calliope is ready for Trick-or-Treating!

CIA K9 Calliope on an undercover mission to obtain a cheeseburger from the cafeteria!

CIA K9 Calliope trying out her lion disguise. Pretty convincing, right?

Five Tips for Crafting a Spy-Worthy Disguise:

1. The Basics: Imagine you’re on the phone with someone who is looking for you in a crowd of people at a concert or game. Here’s the twist: You’ve never met, and they have never seen you. How would you describe yourself? You probably wouldn’t start with your love of volleyball and action movies. No, you would start with the basics – hair color, height, build, clothing, and age. Why? Because these are your unique characteristics. That’s exactly why you should start here when developing your perfect disguise.

  • Hair: This is a pretty easy one. The quick addition of a ball cap or hoodie can hide your natural hair. If you want to take it a step further, a wig or bald cap can change your look even more.
  • Age: You would be surprised at what you can accomplish with just a little bit of well-placed makeup. Add a few quick wrinkles and a sun spot or two to make yourself look a little bit older.
  • Body-Type: Changing your body-type can be a tough one to accomplish, but with a bit of thought and planning, you can give it a shot. If you’re short, consider looking at platform shoes to give you an extra inch or two. Those of you with a slim build can try adding some stuffing under your shirt to give you the appearance of a bigger person.
  • Clothes/Accessories: Clothes and accessories are critical to pulling off the perfect disguise. Stay away from anything flashy or particularly memorable. (Remember, you’re not James Bond). You want to be a passing face in the crowd, and a fresh pair of kicks will stick out. Neutral colors are always best and can allow you to blend into a variety of environments. Accessories like hats, sunglasses, and scarves are great to carry around, and can allow you to change your look in just a few seconds.

2. Think Simple: Changing your look doesn’t have to be difficult. While masks, fake mustaches/beards, and fake teeth seem cool, sometimes the simple things can be the most convincing, not to mention the most time-saving. Think about this: If you’re out on a mission in a remote part of the world, do you really think you’ll have the time to put on a wig, change your entire outfit, add a fake mustache, and do a full makeup routine? Probably not. Instead, opt for the simple things: ball caps and sunglasses, for instance.

3. Dual-purpose and Space Saving: When buying clothing or props for your next disguise, think about how you can get the most bang for your buck. Looking for a bag? You might want to try to find something with removable backpack straps, that way you can wear it as a backpack or carry it as a duffel bag. What about a scarf? You could look for a double-sided shawl instead, which can be worn in countless ways in a variety of outfits. As with most clothes, reversible is best, so you can quickly change color/style.

When switching your look, especially on the go, you’ll also need to be prepared to stealthily pack away that old outfit. This is where a little planning can go a long way. Are you carrying a water bottle? Look for something collapsible that you can put in your pocket or bag when empty. If you’re in the market for a jacket, choosing something that can be packed tightly will save you the headache of lugging around a bulky overcoat, or conversely, an oversized jacket might allow you to hide parts of your old outfit beneath it while wearing it.

4. Be Aware of Your “Giveaways”: No matter how hard you try, there are going to be certain features that will be hard to disguise. Maybe it’s a small limp in your step from an old injury or the nervous habit of biting your nails. Whatever it is, the best thing to do is to become self-aware. We recommend chatting with your friends or family to figure out what these “giveaways” might be so that you can downplay them while in disguise. Who knows your oddities better than those closest to you?

5. You Gotta Walk-the-Walk: The key to creating a convincing disguise isn’t your outfit. It’s your persona. You must become the disguise. That means not just being aware of your “giveaways,” but also adopting the qualities of the persona or character you want to create with your disguise. Maybe in real life you’re an outgoing party girl, but the persona you’re trying to create is a serious, quiet student. Ask yourself: How does she walk? Does talk with her hands? How does she carry herself in public? What kinds of things would she stop and notice on the street? You can wear the perfect wig and craft the perfect outfit, but if you’re still doing all the same mannerisms you normally would, you might just give away your true identity.

Want to learn more about disguises and the art of deception? Check out episode 012 of our podcast, “The Langley Files,” where CIA disguise experts take you behind-the-scenes to reveal how spies transform themselves into someone else.