Holmes and Hats

Since I’m finishing up Holmes for my reading, I thought I’d include more than meta thought. I often get ideas, and Holmes is one that I can actually publish. Beyond the bevy of Sherlockian societies, there’s a large number on the web, too, from lay to scholarly. Here’s my first Sherlockian essay. It’s on a very tiny detail, but one that has come up rather recently as a point of contention: Sherlock Holmes’ hat.

After the release of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr in the title role, there has been some murmur about his own choice of headwear: a fedora.  Why does this cause trouble? Because it’s not the ear-flapped deerstalker cap that we have lodged into our collective unconscious. It’s not what we, as a mass entity, would expect. Reactions have ranged from Downey’s fedora being “interesting,” “cool” and “new” to making him “look like a hobo” and being “not in character.” The purist and costumer in me begs for some evaluation. How Sherlockian is the fedora? How Sherlockian is the deerstalker cap? Here’s my two cents, based on the evidence.

First, I do not like the deerstalker hat.

Many Sherlockians point happily to the fact that the deerstalker image is flawed. The stories themselves do not support the deerstalker, the closest thing to it is an “ear-flapped travelling cap” mentioned in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” Watson says Holmes was fond of the hat, and apparently so is the public! We have this image lodged in our minds thanks mostly to the early stage and screen depictions of Holmes by Basil Rathbone, who also introduced the pipe we see as Holmes’ pipe. Both are inaccurate to the stories, and at least for the hat, wearing such a hat about town in Victorian England would be a horrible fashion faux-pas for a gentleman like Sherlock Holmes to commit. The presence of the deerstalker is an error from the beginning. A crime has been committed!

Ah, but he had a fond traveling cap, you might proclaim!  But wait, I return, let’s look at the evidence! Let’s take a minute and be like Holmes- look at the clues we have. There are not many actual textual references to headwear in the stories. Wikipedia also nicely points to the original illustrations as the source for the traveling cap predominance, so I wanted to see if this theory held any water. Do the illustrations give an excuse for Rathbone’s portrayal and our collective mental image? We are in a position where we cannot rely on the words themselves, but we have plenty of clues nonetheless!

I wanted to look at those actual images for clues. In how many stories does Holmes wear that darn traveling cap? Is this a justified image of Holmes? I started by just looking at the illustrations from the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This set not only includes the earliest illustrations of him, as these were published in The Strand first, but also is the most popular collection of stories. I figured that by taking this book as a sample, we should be able to get a solid estimation of Sherlock Holmes’ choice in hats.

There is a hat here I refer to as a funny derby- fedora hybrid because it looks like a cross between a derby hat and a fedora. It could be a Homburg, but it’s really not clear to me. I know that fedora and Hombug hats do not always have the crease or pinching, and this hybrid hat certainly doesn’t. It has what appears to be a stiff round crown on top but the brim is soft and folds down like a fedora. Not being a hat expert, I can’t say for sure what this hat is, so I’m just calling it the derby-fedora hybrid hat to differentiate it from the clear derby and clear fedora. The hats in the illustrations that I call fedoras I am fairly certain are clearly fedoras and not Homburgs, however, as they do not have the typical brim curl or size of a Homburg but have side dents or pinches in addition to the “gutter dent” running down the top. I also always thought that trilby hats, which also have a gutter dent, had narrow brims, so they don’t fit the bill either, leaving me confident in calling the fedoras fedoras, and leaving the odd hybrid looking hat to any haberdashers in the audience.

Illustrations in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Scandal: 10 images, 9 have Holmes, 4 hatless, 5 are in costume: a derby (bowler) seen twice, and a broad brimmed hat thrice,

Red Headed: 10, 6 with Holmes, 3 hatless, 1 top hat (about the City), 2 fedora (while on a stake out)

Identity: 7 images, 4 of Holmes, all are hatless

Boscombe: 10 images, 5 of holmes, 3 traveling cap (in the fields), 2 hatless

Orange Pips: 6 images, 2 of Holmes, hatless

Twisted Lip: 10 images, 7 of Holmes, 2 hatless in costume, 3 fedora, 2 hatless

Blue Carbuncle: 8 images, 7 of Holmes, 5 hatless, 2 derby-fedora hybrid

Speckled Band: 9 images, 7 of Holmes, 5 hatless, 2 funny derby-fedora again

Engineer’s Thumb: 8 images, 2 of Holmes, 1 hatless, 1 in fedora

noble bachelor: 8 images, 3 of Holmes, 3 hatless,

beryl coronet: 9 images, 4 of Holmes, 3 hatless, 1 flat cap (in costume)

copper beeches: 9 images, 3 of Holmes, 3 hatless

Of the 104 illustrations published in The Strand between July 1891 and December 1892 that compose the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 59 illustrations include Holmes himself. Holmes exhibits a variety of headwear, showing the fashion of different hats for different occasions for fine gentlemen. In three of the stories Holmes wears costumes with various hats, showing that he has a wide collection. Several of these, such as the “broad brimmed black hat” of the clergyman are described in the text. A full 33 illustrations are interior hatless shots. This both reflects the courtesy of removing one’s hat while indoors as well as the fact that many scenes occur at 221B Baker Street, when clients come to state their cases. A great many also feature Holmes in a dressing gown or wrapper, which is true to story, and is perhaps the only fashion faux pas we can fault him on- knowing that he has callers coming, he should not always be en robe!

Now if we take out the costumes as anomalies, and the hatless shots as irrelevant to this endeavor and thus take only the illustrations of Holmes with hats, 3 images of the traveling cap (all three in the same story as as each other), 6 images with a fedora which span three full stories, 4 images of the funny derby-fedora hybrid, over two stories, and one image with a top hat. Of these, we can pull out appropriateness: the traveling cap is worn while traveling on a train to a town far out into the countryside where Holmes gets very active and dirty. This is a sensible choice. The top hat is worn going about town on a longer day which begins with posing as accountants and ends at a concert. This hat is again a sensible choice. For everyday use, we are down to the derby, the fedora, and the funny derby-fedora hybrid. Of these three, the fedora appears most often, in both number of images and number of stories.

Temporality: the next thing we can look at is whether there are any trends over time by putting the stories in chronological order, not by publishing date, but in world order. The artists would be able to reflect somewhat on this, though there is a predominance of illustrating the current fashions. It does, however, give us an in world rationale for whether a fedora fits in the recent movie. Given the presence of both Irene and Mary, and the season, we know that at minimum, the film is set in the winter of 1889-1890. The instances of the funny derby-fedora shows up the earliest in 1883 (Speckled Band) which would make sense as the fedora was not popularized until later, though the term was coined from a Sarah Bernhardt play in 1882. The fedora shows up in summer 1889 (Engineer’s Thumb),  June 1889 (Twisted Lip), and Oct 1890 (Red Headed). The derby-fedora comes back in Dec 1889 (Blue Carbuncle). These stories reflect a very narrow time period, but they do show Holmes wearing soft brims and fedoras in the period immediately preceding the film’s setting. And apparently, he has worn similar hats for most of the previous decade! We have here a sense of Holmes’ style.

For Watson, our image of him in a derby is quite justified. Whenever he is wearing a hat, it is a derby hat. The one exception is the top hat image- both he and Holmes are wearing top hats. Watson clearly favors a derby hat. Watson equals derby, and derby equals Watson. Now, from the hats of Holmes, he is shown wearing a derby in one story as part of a costume of a common groom. I can’t help but think he borrowed an old one of Watson’s! Nonetheless in illustrations of Holmes without costume, there is a very clear preference for a fedora, and second to that the derby crowned hat with the fedora brim. At least in terms of illustrations, the choice of hats would help differentiate the characters visually. If Watson, our everyman sidekick, is in a derby, it is a guarantee that the main character should favor something different.

We can conclude that Holmes, who has a variety of hats for a variety of occaisions, still prefers a soft brimmed hat, often the fedora. The fedora, we can note, is also the only hat worn while on a stake out and when Holmes expects action. The brim can hide the face, can blend into shadows easier, and is more durable than a hard derby hat. The presence of Downey’s fedora in the Sherlock Holmes movie is then both consistent with Holmes’ preferences for day-to-day hats and also fits the conditions in which he wears the hat- when he expects trouble.

Credit should be given to Guy Ritchie and Downey in this choice of hat (apparently Ritchie let Downey choose his hat). The fedora, at least in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, is more Sherlockian than any other hat.


~ by glasslajora on March 1, 2010.

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