News & Politics

If This Coat Could Talk

For more than 40 years, Peter Earnest’s herringbone topcoat has seen him through everything from winters in Eastern Europe to meetings with secret agents.

Dressed in his black herringbone topcoat, International Spy Museum director Peter Earnest certainly looks the part. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Peter Earnest is director of the International Spy Museum. During his 36-year career in the CIA, he spent time in Europe, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe.

More than 40 years ago, as Earnest was about to set out on assignment, he bought a black herringbone topcoat.

Why did you buy a topcoat?

I bought the coat because I was being assigned to Cyprus as a political attaché. When I went there in 1964, the Turks had just bombed the northern coast of Kyrenia in Cyprus. Because I would be involved in “diplomatic stuff,” if you will, I thought I ought to be dressed appropriately.

What made you buy this coat?

I wanted a nice, formal topcoat you could wear with anything—a tuxedo, a suit, or a sports coat.

My father was a vice counsel in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is where I was born. He was always very nicely dressed, and I had that image in my mind.

I went to what was one of the best men’s stores in town, Raleighs. I’m sure I paid far more than I had ever paid for a coat before. It was a handsome coat.

It’s seen some interesting places over the years.

Yes. When I left Cyprus, I returned to Greece in 1969, so I would have worn it through the winters there. I might have been meeting agents and people at night in the winter. That’s the coat I wore.

What do you think a person’s coat says?

I do believe clothes say a lot about you. For about ten years I worked on the Soviet/East European target. Much of operational work is assessing people. You become very sensitive to how they behave, what they say, what they wear. You are always looking for indicators of their personality. You become very observant about clothes, but you also become conscious of clothes yourself.

If you’re not, let’s say, walking the talk, and your clothes are out of sync with who you say you are, that’s a message.

When you bought this coat, what were you trying to convey?

I wanted to be taken seriously. I was young enough that I felt I needed to at least look the part.