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The Deerstalker That Almost Wasn't: A Brief History of the Sherlock Holmes Hat

The Deerstalker That Almost Wasn't: A Brief History of the Sherlock Holmes Hat

Jarringly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington were all recently photographed on the set of the next Sherlock special, and their costumes continue to be Victorian-esque. If Sherlock the show was a direct adaptation the Victorian Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries, these costumes wouldn't be a mystery at all, but since the show takes place in the present, they are! Ever since last year’s cryptic photograph, we’re still wondering why a 21st Century Sherlock has become a 19th century Sherlock. But, have you ever wondered how 19th-century Sherlock Holmes got that hat to begin with? There’s not a single line in the canonical stories and novels mentioning a “deerstalker,” so why does he wear it?

Primarily, Sherlock Holmes’s deerstalker cap and “trademark” cloak/cape exist in the popular imagination because of the way he was rendered in the original drawings for The Strand Magazine. The short stories and serialized novels were all fully illustrated—as was the custom of the time—by a man named Sidney Paget, who was one of five brothers, non-unique among them because two other brothers were also illustrators. Legendarily, The Strand actually wanted Sidney’s brother Walter to do the Holmes illustrations, but because of some kind of postal mix up, Sidney was contracted to draw Sherlock Holmes instead. Sidney Paget took a lot of liberties with the appearance of Holmes in contrast to the stories, and even used his brother Walter Paget (who was supposed to have gotten the job) as his model! So, the first face of Sherlock Holmes is actually the face of the man who was supposed to be the first to draw him!

But what the deerstalker is a deerstalker? Cumberbatch’s Holmes has called the goofy-looking hat a “death Frisbee,” and if you've ever tried to buy a deerstalker at a haberdashery or regular-old hat shop, you've probably noticed the word “Sherlock” affixed somewhere to the price tag of your death Frisbee. Simply, the deerstalker was just a hat that people wore in the rural English countryside while hunting, specifically deer. So, why would Sherlock Holmes rock this accessory? Doesn't he actually hate the countryside?  In “The Adventure of the Cooper Beaches,” Holmes sneers at the idea of the beautiful rural settings, all of which he detests because of their hidden sinister nature; “…It is my belief Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

In addition to this, Sherlock Holmes also doesn't seem to enjoy hunting or killing animals for sport, making the fact he even owns a deerstalker even more confounding. However, in any incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the character is an eccentric, so maybe the appropriation of the deerstalker is an eccentrically comical move on the part of Holmes. Perhaps, like your friend comically wearing a vintage t-shirt of a band that they actually hate, Sherlock is wearing the deerstalker ironically and the deerstalker is his own version of “normcore.”

The Paget drawings don’t only depict him in a deerstalker, of course, and in fact, the first illustration of him wearing the deerstalker cap does feature Holmes and Watson headed out to the countryside in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” This was the fourth Holmes story published ever and in the illustrations for other stories, in addition to a deerstalker, he is often wearing a top hat, or no hat at all. To be clear: he is never wearing two hats at once. He's not that eccentric.

The 1980s Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes is probably the best on-screen adaption in its attempt to mimic the Paget drawings specifically, and in a lot of the more memorable scenes, Holmes is wearing a top hat. In fact, last year’s Victorian Sherlock reveal  featured Cumberbatch in a top hat. Still, top hat or no, the deerstalker remained (and remains) the way so many of us think of what the character should look like. The first widely-regarded performance of Sherlock Holmes on stage was by an American actor named William Gillette in 1899, who, of course wore the deerstalker. Following this, arguably the most famous Holmes of all time—Basil Rathbone—wore the deerstalker extensively in his adventures onscreen as Holmes. But here’s the weird thing about Rathbone wearing the hat: just like Sherlock most of the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes stories are “out of time,” meaning the stories don’t take place in the Victorian era, but instead, in the 1940’s! True, there are a few Rathbone adaptations which are “true” to the original time period, but the vast majority of his films (along with Nigel Bruce’s Watson) are anachronistic and made even more anachronistic by the presence of a deerstalker on his head!

So, why does Holmes wear the hat? Perhaps it’s because he always has because a time paradox somehow saw Sherlock Holmes giving himself the hat at some point from the past from the future. Perhaps his parents were killed by deer when he was very young and he’s forever on the lookout to avenge their murders, just like Batman.

Maybe he just thinks it’s cool.

What’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes “look?” 

Tags: tv, sherlock holmes, bbc, benedict cumberbatch, books-and-comics, sherlock

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About the Author
Ryan Britt

Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can't Read and Other Geeky Truths, forthcoming from Plume (Penguin) Books on 11.24.15. He's written for The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Awl, VICE Motherboard, Clarkesworld Magazine, and is a consulting editor for Story Magazine. He lives in New York City.

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