#MyrtleMondays: Dressing the Victorian Detective

Last week, I spent Halloween Eve (yes, All Hallow’s Eve Eve) with fellow Algonquin Young Readers authors Sarah Jean Horwitz (The Dark Lord Clementine and the Carmer & Grit series) and Will Ritter (Oddmire and Jackaby series)—at an event with Prairie Fox Books of Ottawa, Illinois. As it was Halloween, we swiftly decided costumes would be in order!

Naturally, I dressed as everyone’s second-favorite Victorian detective.


A deerstalker hat, caped coat, and magnifying glass are instantly recognizable as the accoutrements of Sherlock Holmes—so much so that they’ve been endlessly imitated for the last 130 years:

I rest my case.


Let’s break down this iconic ensemble and its history.

Holmes first appears in his signature deerstalker hat in 1891’s “Boscombe Valley Mystery,” in Sidney Paget’s illustration for The Strand:

The cap is an indication that they are headed to the countryside: the deerstalker is the headgear of rural sportsmen (hence the name), although it was not only for men or for hunting. A young cyclist wears hers with aplomb in this 1880s fashion plate:

Although never actually named by Doyle in the text, Holmes’s hat is described as a soft cap with ear flaps, and Sidney Paget (himself a deerstalker aficionado) went with the most common such hat of the day.

Artist Sidney Paget punting in his own deerstalker, c. 1900

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and artists like Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who illustrated the American editions of the Sherlock Holmes stories, were cognizant of the enormous and long-lasting popularity of the character. As stage and screen adaptations ran alongside the stories, they began to feed off each other, further cementing a single recognizable image for the famous detective.

American actor William Gillette played Sherlock Holmes on stage more than 1000 times (and in this silent film from 1916), and is said to have been Frederic Dorr Steele’s model for his depictions of the detective.

Steele’s illustration for a 1903 reprint of “The Adventure of the Final Problem”

Despite the rural origins of the deerstalker cap, it became so synonymous and inseparable from Holmes’s image that Paget himself depicted Holmes wearing it in the city in later stories (a departure from Holmes’s typical impeccably correct fashion sense).

Holmes can thank Doyle for his characteristic caped coat. The style was variously known as an Inverness cape or Ulster coat (or an Inverness coat or Ulster cape!), after two notoriously stormy locations, apparently, in which one would definitely want the double protection of both coat and cape. Popular from the early 1800s for men, women, and children, Holmes’s ulster graced his very first appearance, 1887’s A Study in Scarlet:

Artist David Henry Friston illustrated the first Sherlock Holmes story, including the Inverness cape right from the start. (Paget’s deerstalker came later.)

Notably, Watson also wears an ulster coat, as he tells us in several stories, including “The Blue Carbuncle,” although to distinguish him from his partner, he’s rarely if ever shown in one.

Holmes was at the cusp of fashion in this style—here’s a splendid women’s ensemble (with matching hat!) from around 1890:

See more detailed images of this fantastic ensemble at AntiqueDress.com

And an illustration from an 1880s American catalogue, for a girl’s version:

Might we see another Victorian detective of our acquaintance in such a garment? Hmmm….

As Holmes’s popularity in print, stage, screen, and radio grew, these elements of his costume came to represent the character himself, long after they passed out of everyday fashion. One of the most recognizable Sherlock Holmes actors of all time, Basil Rathbone played the detective in fourteen films in the 1930s and 1940s, many set in the early 20th century. Although the Victorian outerwear had long gone by the wayside, the most famous of Victorian detectives stayed resolute in his iconic wardrobe:

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in a publicity shot featuring all the now-necessary elements of the costume

It has become impossible to separate Holmes from his deerstalker, so much so that even modern depictions include at least a nod to the famous costume:

My favorite Holmes, Jeremy Brett in 1984’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Starfleet officers Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner) in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Elementary, Dear Data,” 1988

Benedict Cumberbatch, 2010’s Sherlock

In Premeditated Myrtle Myrtle is given a deerstalker cap as a gift, and instantly recognizes its significance.

And your Learned Author? Elementary.

Click the links for more details about my modern interpretation of the ulster and its accompanying deerstalker hat. More information about the 18″ doll costume can be found here.

I had a lot of fun stepping into the tradition for a bit and dressing my own inner Victorian detective!


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