Detective fashion

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 5, 2013

I’m hardly an expert on fashion, either modern or historical. But I have given some thought to how it relates to the great detectives of my book, particularly after receiving one remarkable comment on the cover from a good friend: “Wait a second — I’m looking at their ties!  Holy crap — the first guy looks like 1820 – 1830s.  Then a civil-war era guy — then a 1880s – 1890s guy — then the last one from the 1930s or 40s?  Wow — quite the time range.”

This was one of those moments that remind you people how much people can surprise you, even after you’ve known them for years. I have no idea where it came from, but he just nailed it, without any background about the book’s content, from these photos alone:

Portraits from front cover of Brilliant Deduction

Right to left: Vidocq (prominent in the 1820s); Allan Pinkerton (prominent around the Civil War); William Burns (prominent in the 1890s); Ellis Parker (prominent c. 1930)

For my part, I hadn’t even consciously intended to arrange these portraits in a chronological order, or even realized that I had done so. Still, the discovery that four at least of the great detectives were very much men of their time in terms of style made quite a bit of sense upon thinking about it.

For one thing, the majority of these guys were not exactly what you would call the avant-garde. Though many were pioneers in their profession, in most other ways they tended to be stocky, undemonstrative, down to earth working men, not much given to personal extravagance. Even the second generation Pinkertons, though aristocratic in financial terms and probably in political attitudes, otherwise leave the impression of plainspeaking tradesmen with negligible affinity for refined culture. William and Robert may have visited exclusive London tailors, but probably had little concern for whether or not the details of their suits were in vogue.

The greatest exception may have been Vidocq—I get a sense of Pollaky as a fairly cultured gentleman, but further details are in his case are, as ever, elusive—though he, too, presumably adopted very simple and ordinary styles at least some of the time. Because, per the second reason that this stylistic conformity makes sense, even for relatively famous figures in their day a detective is probably going to want to blend in with the mainstream of society around him in as many ways as practical.

Vidocq took this to extremes with his penchant for outright disguises, which he used to blend in with not only the mainstream (such that one existed in early 19th century Paris) but with any and every other subculture he found reason to infiltrate. For his successors, though, the same general principle held even if they mostly eschewed dressing up in costume. Looking as ordinary and unremarkable as possible still allowed them to avoid notice during observation, and approach a broad cross-section of society without immediately identifying themselves as outsiders. The basic convention of detectives as plain-clothes officers, rather than a uniformed branch, still serves the same purpose today.

Fashion includes both sartorial components and personal grooming choices, as well, but I suspect that the great detectives probably stuck with convention there also. Two were clean-shaven (aside from splendid sideburns), and they were also the two earliest, Vidocq and Whicher. I’m not an expert, but if one assumes that America’s presidents have generally reflected their era’s prevailing standards of mens’ personal appearance, one can note that beards seemed to come in right around the time Lincoln famously adopted one (and a no-moustache beard, as also worn by Allan Pinkerton for a time, at that), and then gradually give way to moustaches, which made their last appearance with William Burns’s contemporary and onetime boss Theodore Roosevelt. (Ellis Parker kept his neat moustache through the 1930s, but then Parker, with his corncob pipe and rumpled look, generally left an impression of having selectively ignored contemporary fashion since the early years of the 20th century.)

As a final note, the great detectives’ most famous fictional peer, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, seems to stand out a bit more from his era; some of this is a result of the popular visual icon we have glued onto the character thanks to William Gillette, but part of that is also the demand of practicality. An early drawing of Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle’s father actually depicted a much more furry face:

Scanned from "The Doyle Diary" by Michael Baker

Scanned from “The Doyle Diary” by Michael Baker

But, of course, as those familiar with the work of the master will realize, this would not do as subsequent stories gave Holmes a facility and enthusiasm for disguise on par with Vidocq. And, obviously, having a real beard or moustache considerably limits one’s options for creating false identities. Thus did Sherlock Holmes, in the interests of blending in, have to stand out in one small way.

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