Sherlock Holmes’ Purple Frock Coat
Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, eccentric consulting detective
London, August 1890
Film: Sherlock Holmes
Release Date: December 25, 2009
Director: Guy Ritchie
Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan
Few have heard of Dr. Joseph Bell, a physician at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and eventual lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school who was born today in 1837. Those who do know Dr. Bell, however, likely know him due to his fame as a likely inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes. A very observant and proud doctor, Bell was often called in to assist with police investigations, teaming up with forensic expert Professor Henry Littlejohn. Arthur Conan Doyle had met Bell in 1877 and worked as his clerk at the infirmary. Bell later took pride in knowing that Doyle’s most famed and beloved creation – the character of Sherlock Holmes – was at least partly based on him. Though this inspiration has been exaggerated by series like Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, the Bell-Doyle connection is undeniable.
To honor Dr. Bell’s birthday, I’ll be exploring the first appearance of Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 reboot, Sherlock Holmes. In this sequence, Holmes and Watson pair up to arrest the evil Lord Blackwood and stop his black magic practices. The scene involves many elements that would become trademarks of the new films, including Holmes’ predictive and fluid fighting technique that proves most effective against Britain’s most thickheaded thugs.
What’d He Wear?
Holmes’ re-introduction to the big screen is heralded by the most colorful of his many bohemian looks, although the dark lighting throughout this sequence neutralizes the effect. Still, a clear contrast is drawn between the scrappy Holmes in his purple frock coat and the more dignified Watson in his brown houndstooth suit (which Holmes would actually wear in the sequel).
Despite its current scarcity outside of period costumes, the frock coat is one of the longest-lasting staples of men’s wardrobes, remaining popular for a hundred years after its development in the 1820s. They were worn for all occasions – formal and informal – and cut in a variety of styles. The most formal was the black double-breasted, or “Prince Albert”, style with peak lapels.
Holmes wears a much more informal – and certainly more unorthodox – frock coat for his opening adventure with Watson. Single-breasted frock coats (with notch lapels) like his were not uncommon for informal wear, but the deep plum color would’ve horrified many Victorian tailors… and put a smile right on Oscar Wilde’s face. Colors rarely differed from black other than charcoal or midnight blue, making Holmes’ purple frock coat a true anomaly for the era.
Holmes’ plum wool frock coat has roped sleeveheads and a three-button front, although the extra wide notch lapels – which extend nearly to the shoulders – roll over each buttonhole. It also has a short and boxy fit, similar to a pea coat, which is at odds with the traditional knee-length and waist-suppressed fit of standard Victorian frock coats.
Other characteristics that set Holmes’ frock coat apart are the pockets. While some “dandies” of the era, like Mr. Wilde, had breast pockets added to allow for use of a pocket square, outer pockets were mostly verboten on frock coats. Holmes defies this with not only a patch pocket on his chest but flapped pockets set back on his waistline. Another dandified feature of Victorian and Edwardian frock coats was decorative braiding around the sleeve cuffs and lapel edges. Holmes’ coat refrains from any lapel decoration, but the cuff edges are trimmed in a multi-colored silk that nicely reflects the colorful waistcoat underneath.
While so many aspects of the jacket keep it from being a true frock coat, the long single rear vent and the two decorative buttons on the waistline give it some slight grounding in tradition. The two buttons are a reflection of the horseback era when gentlemen would button up the rear flaps of their jacket while riding. As the Edwardian era dawned and fewer men were on horseback, the buttons remained as a dignified reminder.
Holmes wears a very distinctive waistcoat (I’d call it a vest, but Holmes is English so…) with multi-colored vertical stripes and a standing notch collar. The six black buttons fasten high on the chest, but Holmes only buttons three toward the bottom. The vest – er, waistcoat – also has two welted lower pockets.
The waistcoat’s peculiar striping is best described as a series of blue, white, light red, and light green stripes. A thick blue stripe is divided by a white chalkstripe, followed by a thick red stripe, a thinner green stripe, and a very thin red stripe. The pattern then repeats again with the blue. On the left side of the chest, this pattern is reversed.
Holmes’ baggy high-rise trousers – paired with the bowler hat – evoke images of Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in 1992. These trousers, however, have a black and white houndstooth check and are plain-hemmed with a very long break over his shoes. The flat front trousers have a generous fit and are especially loose through the legs. They are likely worn with suspenders (or braces), but the frock coat and waistcoat hide them even in behind-the-scenes images. The trousers also appear to have frogmouth front pockets.
Holmes wears a thick brown leather belt with reddish edge stitching and a large dulled brass buckle. It doesn’t appear to actually hold up the trousers as they have no belt loops – not to mention that belt loops weren’t really around in 1890. Holmes often uses his belt to carry his revolver; it also adds the desired “steampunk” image of this Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes wears an era-correct striped pullover shirt with a button-front bib and detached collar. It has a white ground and thin dark blue stripes. He keeps the barrel cuffs unbuttoned, adding a more ragged, bohemian element. The white neckband is clearly meant to be worn with an attachable collar due to the buttonhole on each side, but Holmes foregoes the collar.
Holmes wears a dark purple cravat over his exposed chest that nicely matches the frock coat. The cravat has a subtle white pinstripe pattern of dots and is tied to be worn underneath the rather large shirt.
A pair of black laced boots is glimpsed in the final film, but all behind-the-scenes images show both Downey, Jr. and his stuntman wearing modern pairs of black athletic leather boots that would be anachronistic but certainly easier for the scene’s demanding stuntwork.
Holmes balances the potential anachronism of his footwear by donning an era-correct black bowler hat with a black band.
Go Big or Go Home
Head cocked to the left, partial deafness in ear: first point of attack. Two: throat; paralyze vocal chords, stop scream. Three: got to be a heavy drinker, floating rib to the liver. Four: finally, drag in left leg, fist to patella. Summary prognosis: unconscious in ninety seconds, martial efficacy quarter of an hour at best. Full faculty recovery: unlikely.
Sherlock Holmes gave the world a cinematic side of Holmes mentioned in the books but rarely seen on screen: he is, indeed, a badass. And not just the Jason Statham good-at-fighting type, but a very specific type of fighter who uses his often incorrect intuition to predict and efficiently counter his opponent’s next moves. While some critics say it detracts from the character, I say it’s very appropriate for such an intuitive character that finds himself in many dangerous situations.
This new side of Holmes is also nicely lampshaded in an exchange with Lestrade that also allows Holmes to show off his trademark wit.
Insp. Lestrade: You were supposed to wait for my orders.
Holmes: If I had, you’d be cleaning up a corpse and chasing a rumor. Besides, the girl’s parents hired me, not the Yard. Why they thought you’d require any assistance is beyond me.
The excellent Hans Zimmer score also offers great music to fight by, including the opening track “Discombobulate”.
How to Get the Look
Victorian purists would turn up their nose at Holmes’ bohemian take on the frock coat, but I suppose it’s just right that an eccentric genius like Holmes would defy Victorian standards.
- Dark plum-colored wool single-breasted frock coat with wide notch lapels, 3-button front, patch breast pocket, set-back flapped hip pockets, multi-color cuff braiding, 2 decorative rear buttons, and long single rear vent
- Blue, red, and green striped waistcoat with standing notch lapels, 6-button front, welted lower pockets
- Black-and-white houndstooth check high-rise flat front trousers with frogmouth front pockets, straight fly, and baggy plain-hemmed bottoms
- White (with thin blue stripes) collarless shirt with button-front bib and unbuttoned barrel cuffs
- Dark purple dot-striped cravat
- Dark brown leather belt with red edge stitching and dulled brass buckle
- Black bowler hat
- Black laced boots
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
My mind rebels at stagnation! Give me problems! Give me work!
Behind-the-scenes photos are sourced from JustJared.com.