The Westwood or the McQueen?: Fashion, Disguise, and Power in the Sherlock Holmes Mythos

Abstract for paper presented at ‘ Fashion in Fiction: Style Stories and Transglobal Narratives’ (City University of Hong Kong, June 2014).

The Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original 56 stories wore very little clothing—or, at least, very little clothing that we are told about. The rare glimpses of attire come mostly with disguises that help Holmes penetrate the bleaker precincts of London, so the now iconic image of the great detective of Baker Street first emerged only when the American actor-manager William Gillette stepped onto the stage in a deerstalker hat and houndstooth cape. This paper will examine the relationship between fashion, disguise, and power in the BBC’s hugely popular Sherlock, a radical, yet, in many ways, remarkably faithful neo-Victorian restaging of the Holmes canon. Unlike Conan Doyle, the creators of Sherlock understand their viewers as sophisticated readers of fashion and brand identity, and consistently portray classic British luxury labels such as Belstaff, Derek Rose, Paul Smith, Gieves & Hawkes, Vivienne Westwood, and Alexander McQueen as forms of disguise that can dress and undress characters.  When Sherlock’s Belstaff ‘Milford’ coat becomes an almost mythical cloak of identification and protection for the detective, or when James Moriarty exhibits a camp attachment to his Vivian Westwood suit during a heated standoff, the programme not only anticipates viewer’s perceptions of luxury fashion, but also strips luxury fashion of its usual commoditized implications. Reading both the fictional and televisual incarnations of Holmes alongside the vast fan culture that has grown up around the programme, this paper argues that, in addition to contesting sartorial subjectivity, the wardrobe of Sherlock represents a calculated portrayal of contemporary British identity which has contributed to the recent growth of the UK’s global soft power.

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