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Monday, 10 September 2012

From Arthur Conan Doyle to New York City's "Elementary": The Costume Design of Holmes and Watson.

(This post is spoiler-free for CBS's Elementary.)

Like many Sherlock Holmes fans I had mixed feelings about the BBC's plan to make a modern-era Holmes adaptation, and was once again rather doubtful when CBS announced that they were going to film what sounded worryingly like Sherlock: New York City edition. But since BBC Sherlock won me over within about five minutes of its first episode, I decided to keep an open mind when it came to Elementary. I can understand people who don't like the idea of a US-set Holmes (particularly one that exists within the strictures of an episodic crime procedural), but I have no worries whatsoever regarding the casting of Lucy Liu as Watson. If Holmes and Watson are still platonic friends -- which the Elementary showrunners have already assured us will be the case -- then in a 21st century setting, it shouldn't matter that Watson is a woman. Will this be a close adaptation of Conan Doyle's vision? Probably not, but it isn't as if the existence yet another Holmes can retroactively damage any of the hundreds of other versions we have to choose from.
The PLAGIARISM SCARF in action.
I was impressed to notice that even though all we've seen of Elementary so far are a few publicity shots and (in some cases, anyway) screener DVDs of the pilot episode, Holmes and Joan Watson already have very distinctive costuming styles. Most of the costume-related fan-commentary I've seen so far, though, is people expressing irritation at the apparent similarities between BBC Sherlock's famous coat and scarf, and the costume worn by Jonny Lee Miller during some scenes in the Elementary pilot. The two outfits are, I suppose, quite similar, but in general Elementary Holmes' styling couldn't be more different from BBC Sherlock's. And it's worth noting that Elementary takes place during autumn/winter in New York, so a thick coat and scarf aren't exactly out of place.

More of Sidney Paget's Holmes illustrations can be found here.
In relation to the clothes worn by Holmes in Conan Doyle's books, the costuming in BBC Sherlock is surprisingly faithful. In his original iteration as a Victorian gentleman, Holmes was habitually neat and well-dressed whenever he was outside 221B Baker Street. His most memorable outfits are the floor-length housecoat he wears at home, the iconic deerstalker/tweed suit outfit, and the sleek black 19th-century suits he wears most of the rest of the time. The perception of Holmes as a conservatively-dressed, dapper urbanite was further publicised by Sidney Paget's accompanying illustrations, which live on to this day as the "real" visualisation of classic Sherlock Holmes and generally show Watson as a typical Victorian gentleman dressed in three-piece suits and long overcoats.
More info regarding BBC Sherlock's coat can be found here.
BBC Sherlock's costumes are very uniform, with Benedict Cumberbatch invariably wearing dark trousers and shirts tailored to button-popping tightness around his skinny frame. Much like "canon" Holmes, he's soberly and expensively dressed, with the iconic Belstaff coat serving to give him extra dramatic flare during all those scenes where he swoops around like a cross between Dracula and a flamingo. BBC Watson, on the other hand, looks rather different to his Victorian namesake, mostly because he's played by Martin Freeman. Freeman is short, middle-aged, and harmless-looking, and the costume designers evidently took this into account when picking out his clothes. Watson's characterisation is a bit of a free-for-all when it comes to TV and film adaptations because his role in the books is usually that of a narrator or foil for Holmes' info-dump speeches, meaning that his canon personality is less fleshed-out than Holmes'. BBC Sherlock's Watson is often underestimated by people who aren't Sherlock, characterised as a seemingly "normal" and friendly everyman who hides his adrenaline-junkie nature. And Martin Freeman's boring, jumper-wearing exterior supports that.
(source)
In my opinion, the most canonical versions of Holmes and Watson would be Jeremy Brett's pitch-perfect Holmes from the 1980s-90s Granada TV series, and Jude Law's Watson from the Guy Ritchie films. Granada Holmes is widely regarded to be the most faithful adaptation of the short stories, and Brett himself was so obsessively devoted to canonical accuracy that he more-or-less acted himself into the grave. And he wasn't just a great actor -- he looked the part as well, with his slicked-back hair, aquiline nose, and excitable mannerisms. Brett's two Watsons, however, had more in common with the bumbling Jam Watsons of the WWII-era Basil Rathbone movies than with the character Conan Doyle set out to write. Jude Law's Watson is my favourite because he's Action Watson. When the Holmes stories first became popular, Conan Doyle was rather nonplussed to discover that readers far preferred the eccentric, misanthropic Holmes to the more classically heroic Watson, and public opinion has never really swung Watson's way since then. Upstanding, handsome, and a war hero, Watson is a good Victorian role-model but is nowhere near as intriguing a protagonist as Holmes.
(source)
Robert Downey Jr's Holmes looks nothing like canon Holmes, but that doesn't really matter because his adventures take place in some kind of Victorian-adjacent steampunk universe rather than in the "real" world of Arthur Conan Doyle. It wouldn't be in-character for RDJ's Holmes to wear a sombre black suit, just as if canon Holmes dressed like RDJ then he'd be summarily banned from every gentleman's club in London. The costume design in the Guy Ritchie movies is far closer to the kind of character-led costuming you see in present-day movies than the costuming of a period drama, but dressing an actual modern-era Holmes is a completely different situation yet again. It's important to remember that in the 19th century, people had far fewer clothing options. Holmes and Watson are middle/upper-class men, so they wore suits and hats. Every day. Victorian standards of neatness were different from our own so while we know that Holmes was rather vain, we can assume that Watson still looked far more formal than most people we see today. In 21st-century London or NYC you can get away with wearing pretty much anything, so there can never really be an "accurate" modern version of Holmes and Watson's rigidly conventional Victorian wardobe.
(source)
For example, if we characterise a modern Holmes as being a down-on-his-luck Oxbridge toff who follows the same basic life story of canon Holmes -- ie, posh upbringing; Chemistry at Cambridge; casual drug use and possible split from his family; development of his career as a consulting detective -- then we might well arrive at the character of BBC Sherlock, whose limited but high-quality wardrobe is very similar to that of canon Holmes. But in the 21st century, men are no longer required to wear a uniform of tailored suits and coats, so we already know that Sherlock's clothes are very much a personal choice rather than something he wears because it's the only conceivable option. You could just as easily characterise a modern Holmes as an academic or nerd (which he is), and have him wearing a pocket-protector or sloganised t-shirts. Or have him, as a consulting detective, wear outfits informed by the long tradition of noir crime-fighters from the past 80 years of film and television. Likewise, John Watson the rugby-playing ex-army surgeon could be a protein-powder addict who wears nothing but Adidas.
The thing is, I kinda love the costuming in Elementary. Last night I was listening to fan podcast The Slash Report review the Elementary pilot, and they expressed an opinion that I've already seen from quite a few people: that Elementary's Holmes and Watson have terrible fashion sense, and/or that Holmes looks like a hipster. To my eyes, it's more like Holmes has no fashion sense -- as in, he literally does not care what he wears -- and Joan Watson is actually quite stylish. Of course, Joan's collection of loose, drapey skirts and cardigans would look absolutely terrible on most people who don't have the build and cheekbones of Lucy Liu, but such is life when it comes to personal style. Personally, I love her Matrix-esque fishnet sweater. And Holmes doesn't so much resemble a hipster as the archetype of what hipsters dream of being: someone who cares so little about clothes that they accidentally end up wearing an ironically-ugly sloganised t-shirt. The only real hipster-fashion moment in the pilot was when he pulled on a waistcoat over his t-shirt (ugh), although the way I interpreted that was that he was literally just putting on any old crap until he felt like he'd reached the optimum quantity of layers for facing the great outdoors.
Regarding Jonny Lee Miller's costumes, it's incredibly rare for a main character to look like this on mainstream American television. His clothes are wrinkled, shapeless, and look like they probably came from a bargain-bin. In real life you see people dressed like this every day, but in TV-land even the costuming decisions that are used to signify poverty or "bad dress-sense" are often coded rather than truly realistic. Joan's style is pretty much set out from step one: classy, with a lot of neutral tones and chunky, flowing knitwear. Sherlock's is a little trickier because in the pilot he's only just out of rehab, and gives every impression of wearing whatever he just pulled out of a bag of second-hand clothes he had on the floor. I'll be interested to see if this develops into hard-and-fast "he just doesn't give a crap" costume characterisation later on in the series, or if they decide to go the classic Holmesian route of him being a master of disguise.

Oh, and one final thing? I love Elementary Holmes and Watson's coincidental matching plaid outfits.
Postscript: I've written previously on the costumes and set-design of BBC Sherlock, and if you want to read something more in-depth on the costumes of Guy Ritchie's Holmes movies, Clothes On Film has written about both.

21 comments:

  1. This is an AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING analysis and I'm going to reread it several times over.

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  2. I desperately want a PLAGIARISM SCARF. Luckily, all I apparently need to do is to tie it that particular way, which I've been doing for years, so I don't need to make much of an effort.

    What I like about the matching plaid is that Joan chooses hers after she's seen Sherlock wear his scarf, so it may be an intentional (or subconscious) effort on her part to tie them together.

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  3. I have to disagree (very strongly) with your view of Burke and Hardwick as bumbling Watsons. They are no more bumbling than Freeman and, in fact, are generally considered to be a huge step (despite many non-bumbling Watsons preceding them). Many lines belonging to Holmes are given to Watson in the Granada series and, if the Watson wasn't as smart as Holmes, the way Law's and Liu's might be, he never was in the books either. (Although I'm okay with more even versions and etc., etc., very much excited about Lucy Liu.)

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  4. I don't have as strong an opinion re. the Granada Watsons, but allow me to just say YES to Law's Watson. I constantly lead off my description of Ritchie's Holmes movies with a paean to Law's Watson, because he looks uncannily like the Paget illustrations for like the first time ever, and they pick up on a number of little things about canon Watson that either seem neglected in other adaptations or just ignored (lady-killer, gambler, man of action). I am amused by Ritchie's movies in general and by RDJ's Holmes as a tour-de-something, but god do I love Law's Watson. (Blah blah obsessive fan of ACD's writings since I was 12 blah blah Holmes cred.)

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  5. A; This is awesome. And B: They are the first true gen X Homes and Watson. The plaid flannel of their youth cannot be denied. I know that it is back now, but it is also a huge generational signifier. God knows I've still got a bunch of the stuff.

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  6. Haven't seen the pilot, but from the looks of these pictures alone I already prefer 'Elementary' to the BBC's 'Sherlock'. I hadn't thought about it until I read this, but there's something a bit annoying about how the BBC Holmes, who's supposed to be a sociopathic asshole with poor self-care and little sense of appropriate behaviour, still manages to dress incredibly stylishly and look sexy all the time. I rather prefer the idea of a Holmes who looks like he really doesn't give a crap about his appearance (though as you say, either can fit with the character from the books).

    This gives me an off-topic thought: have you ever written anything about the costumes of Doctor Who? Not surprisingly, given the similarity to Holmes, dressing The Doctor seems to raise the same issues: you could have him wear almost anything, but you still want him to be recognisable as 'The Doctor'.

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  7. hmm, i actually find bbc sherlock's costumes to be completely reasonable? he's very vain, and presumably quite posh -- and also makes fun of his brother's weight, which i suspect means he values his own looks as a means of sibling rivalry. also, i don't think the sociopathic behaviour thing would mean he'd have to dress badly or be poorly groomed -- quite the opposite, really, because looking classy allows you to get away with WAY more, particularly if that's accompanied with english upper-class arrogance, and he's manipulative enough to use his appearance/looks on occasion.

    no, i've never written about doctor who costumes, and i don't know if i ever will. regarding the doctor himself, because he only really has one outfit per incarnation i don't really ascribe much ~meaning~ to it, particularly in the older versions. in New Who more consideration is put into marketing etc though, i suppose. of the three new doctors, matt smith's is probably the most interesting to me because it simultaneously incorporates a kind of hipster look with an old man look -- matt smith is a total hipster IRL, and in my opinion the eleventh Doctor is a lot more of an "old man" than the previous couple of doctors. with Nine i think they just wanted to sort of toughen him up so he could be a bit more of a Northern bruiser type -- which was what all the papers were saying at the time, anyway, as i recall.

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  8. haha, i hadn't considered that! i wonder what ages they're supposed to be in the show... jonny lee miller's 39, and lucy liu is 43.

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  9. I'm going to keep being annoyed that Lucy Liu isn't Holmes at least until I actually see an episode.

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  10. Johnny Lee Miller looks a bit like Andrew Scott in some of these pictures and it freaks me out a little.
    The clothing choices they made for this Sherlock seem to support their interpretation of the character, it's just that their Holmes does not seem to be the kind of Holmes I like.
    That said, I will reserve judgement until I actually watch it.

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  11. I actually think that the drapey knitwear is something many women can wear (I mean, I wear it A LOT), but it requires a certain edge to keep it from looking too soft.
    See also: Lucy Liu's magnificent bone structure.

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  12. Love this, but you already know that :)

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  13. Is it possible to find out which clothing designers have been used for Lucy Liu's charater of Watson? In episode 3, she's wearing this pale cream sleeveless dress with an amazing light blue cardigan over it and I'd love to buy that ensemble, but where?

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  14. Great post! I am a huge fan of Lucy Liu's bags for the show. They seem to fit her character perfectly. Any way to get a list of designers?

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  15. who makes sherlock's shoes?

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  16. i have no idea, im afraid

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  17. sorry, i'm afraid i don't know anything about the specific designers. :/

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  18. sorry, i don't know!

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  19. Possesionista on Twitter & associated website follows clothes shown on various shows, hopefully there'll be a hint there

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  20. Great Article!

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