The old fedora and trench coat tropes may have faded away, but modern-day PIs still need to dress the part — the better to disappear.
Despite all I’ve written about negative PI stereotypes and their ill effects upon our industry, I’ll admit it: I still kinda love the romantic (if clichéd) image of the noir PI, the spy, the International Man of Mystery.
He is a man’s man, he wears his fedora low over one eye and his trench coat collar buttoned high and vertically, and he smokes unfiltered Gauloises. Saxophones cry out at his every step (in shiny black wingtips), and the mean streets he treads glisten with ceaseless night rain and its bottomless reflections.
The myth of the PI (or spy) is a story of longing. The noir hero came of age in an era of financial collapse, Fascism, communism, and world war. He was the hero we wanted then, willing to dirty his hands in the service of Good…and he dressed the part.
The myth of the PI (or spy) is a story of longing…He was the hero we wanted then…and he dressed the part.
Who knows? He and his fedora might have melted perfectly into the murky night in occupied Paris or Cold-War-Era Warsaw. Or maybe even in 1930s Chinatown.
Today, he’s as useless as a Crown Vic when it comes to surveillance.
In the modern-day PI universe, a guy in a fedora and trench doesn’t disappear into the scenery so well. The unsexy truth of it is this: to fade into the background, a PI’s gotta set aside fashion and mystery and shoot for dull.
To become invisible (or at least to seem so ordinary as to become de facto invisible), an investigator needs to look like exactly what you’d expect to see in any given environment. A guy sitting in a car with tinted windows arouses suspicion. A guy standing by a work vehicle wearing a hard hat and manipulating some combination of survey tripod, orange cones, and clipboard does not warrant a second glance.
Let’s have a quick look at the lexicon of disguise:
Cover for Status:
An activity, outfit, and/or manner that provides a false pretext for being in a certain place, so that agent may conduct surveillance without arousing suspicion
Cover for Action:
An activity, outfit, and/or manner that provides a false pretext for doing something, so that agent may conduct some type of covert activity without arousing suspicion
Creating a plausible cover for status means blending in seamlessly to a range of situations — wearing an outfit that makes people forget to see you, doing things that conform to people’s idea of what a person in that outfit should be doing, and having a simple story or act ready to go when you’re questioned. Magnetic vehicle signs with a fake company logo can complete the story, but make sure the phone number isn’t a dead end…or your personal cell phone number.
Cover for action gets a little more complicated, but the same idea applies: have a good reason to be there. Need to get a quick look inside a new house without pulling a B&E? (Lawbreaking is NOT recommended.) Drop by and welcome the new neighbors to the ‘hood with a lovely fruit basket from the local church or neighborhood association.
In the end, “cover” is the operative word: it’s about camouflage, urban or otherwise. You can hide almost anywhere by looking as if you belonged there. Ghillie suit seldom, if ever, required.