Sleeves, Knees, and Boot-Laces

This afternoon, I was so glad to virtually catch "Getting to Know Amber Butchart and Alison Matthews David" presented by the Fashion Studies Alliance! Both women have been working in the fascinating intersection of fashion history and forensic science.

On the subject of her upcoming exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum, Exhibit A, Alison mentioned Sherlock Holmes' frequent reliance on footprints in his crime-solving.

This reminded me of a paper I wrote for a course on the History of Fashion Through the Nineteenth Century! The prompt was to examine the role of dress in a nineteenth century novel. I suspect the paper would have gone an entirely different direction had I chosenVanity Fair or The Picture of Dorian Gray!

Sleeves, Knees, and Boot-Laces: The Role Of Dress In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The fictional character Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a British detective renowned for his talents in logic and deduction. He was the protagonist of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of twelve cases published together as a novel in 1892. However, they were first published individually in The Strand Magazine throughout 1891 and 1892, accompanied by illustrations by Sidney Paget. The stories are generally set in Great Britain throughout 1882 and 1890, told from the viewpoint of Dr. Watson, who recorded the adventures of Holmes in the first-person. This paper will examine the different roles of dress in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, including as sources for clues, as clues themselves, for disguise and impersonation, and for utility. In the context of this paper, dress can be defined as all clothing and accessories, regardless of fashionability. As they are contemporary, Paget’s illustrations are occasionally referenced.

In “A Case of Identity,” it was established how Holmes systematically analyzed and gathered clues from dress. Watson described to Holmes his impression of the ensemble of Miss Mary Sutherland (Figure 1), noting that she wore a dark brown dress with purple plush at the sleeves and collar, a black beaded jacket, grey gloves, and a grey, broad-brimmed feathered hat (37). Holmes’s response eloquently summarized the significance he placed in dress, saying “I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves … or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace” (37). He went on to explain what Watson had overlooked: impressions in the plush of her sleeves typical of a typewriterist, indents on her nose from wearing “pince-nez” glasses, a fresh ink-stain on her glove, and that her boots were mismatched and only half-fastened (37). While Watson focused most on the colors of Sutherland’s ensemble, Holmes’s observations about her boots and ink-stained-glove lead him to deduce that she left home in a hurry.

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes took even greater care to explain to Watson his process of deductive reasoning - based on a lost felt hat (Figure 2). Watson described the hat as black, hard, and “of the usual round shape,” with a discolored red silk lining, being generally cracked and dusty (84). There were discolored spots throughout the hat, which Watson observed were smeared with ink in attempt to hide them - but he was unable to make any inferences about the owner of the hat (84). Holmes, however, made plenty. He appreciated that the hat, in its original condition, would have been very expensive, but that it appeared then to be three years old - therefore, he deduced that the man had been well-off, but came upon hard times about three years ago (84). Furthermore, that he attempted to cover the stained felt proved that he maintained his self-respect (84). In addition, he analyzed the type of dust covering the hat, and further deduced that the man’s wife must have stopped brushing the hat, meaning that she had lost her affection for him (84). Clearly no detail of the hat was too small for Holmes.

The previous two examples served as exercises by Holmes for Watson, but Holmes also employed his methods of deduction from dress when solving mysteries. In “A Case of Identity,” Holmes explained to Watson that the first place he observed on a woman’s dress was her sleeves, while on a man, it was the knees of his trousers (37). This technique was utilized in the case of “The Red-Headed League.” Holmes suspected a man of attempting to burrow an underground tunnel into a bank. When he met the suspect face-to-face, his observation proved his suspicion - the knees of his trousers were “worn, wrinkled, and stained” (29). Another example of clues extracted from dress was in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” When Holmes discovered sets of footprints linked to a murder investigation, he called upon a maid to bring him the boots the deceased wore at the time of his death. Using the murdered man’s boots, he was able to rule out his footprints against those of the murderer.

For Sherlock Holmes, garments were not only great sources for gathering clues, but commonly served as clues themselves. More than once, Holmes was confronted by a man’s coat at the scene of the crime: once left behind at a murder-scene in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” and again in a disappearance case in “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” In “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”, the wedding dress of a disappeared bride was discovered in water, with a helpful note found in the pocket (127). A particularly odd example of dress as a clue came from “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” A governess named Violet Hunter sought Holmes’s advice regarding some strange requests made by employer. One such request was that she wear an electric-blue dress that was obviously previously worn (152). The man would sometimes have her change into the blue dress, and then ask her to perform odd tasks in front of a window while wearing the dress (153). In combination with other clues, Holmes concluded that Miss Hunter’s employer had deceived her into impersonating his daughter, who in reality was being kept prisoner (156). In these cases, articles of dress were main exhibits, and had great bearing on Holmes’s ability to solve the mysteries.

Dress played a crucial role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by way of disguise and impersonation. Holmes himself was a master of disguise, and used dress as a tool to hide his identity. For example, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes disguised himself as a clergyman (Figure 3). In addition to taking on an amiable disposition, his “broad black hat, his baggy trousers, [and] his white tie” helped him embody the role (11). However, Holmes was not the only one to utilize this tool. In the very same tale, Holmes himself was fooled by Irene Adler, disguised in “male costume” (14). In the tale of “A Case Of Identity,” Holmes discovered that the step-father of Miss Mary Sutherland courted her, disguised as a man of his own invention, called “Mr. Hosmer Angel.” He had disguised his voice with a whisper, his face with tinted glasses and fake facial hair, and of course, his body with unfamiliar clothes (37). Clearly, in the world of Sherlock Holmes, dress was an incredibly important for successful a disguise.

Not all mentions of clothing served as clues or puzzles, but rather were simply objects of daily life and necessity. For example, in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” when the owner of the lost hat came to collect it from Holmes, he arrived wearing a Scotch bonnet (86). As a poor man, presumably the bonnet was his only alternative headgear. As Miss Sutherland recounted her mystery to Holmes in “A Case of Identity,” she mentioned owning a purple plush ball gown that had never been out of the drawer (35). In mourning, Miss Helen Stoner of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” wore all black with a veil when she met with Holmes (95). Holmes and Watson were described as donning ulster-coats and cravats when embarking out on a cold, December night (87). On return to their hotel room in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Watson described Holmes taking off his coat and waistcoat and putting on a blue dressing-gown (76). It can’t be said whether Doyle’s color choices were symbolic or meaningful. All the same, such casual mentions of dress provide the modern-day reader with some insight into nineteenth-century life.

Matters of dress were far from trivial in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. On the contrary, they proved time and time again to be invaluable resources in Holmes’s investigations. As it was explained in “A Case Of Identity” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes systematically made deductions and inferences based on a person’s dress - particularly how the activities of the wearer could be revealed by details on their clothing. Therefore, Holmes could use his superior reasoning skills to discover incriminating information about criminal suspects based on their dress. Observing the knees of a pair of trousers helped Holmes solve the mystery of “The Red-Headed League,” and in doing so, catch a notorious criminal. In addition, Holmes was confronted many times by garments that were clues themselves, such as a man’s coat left at a murder scene in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” Given that, Holmes was a master of manipulating dress to disguise his identity or impersonate another. He disguised himself several times in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, including not only in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but also in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” and “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.” However, Holmes himself was not the only one to use dress for disguise - so did villains like “Mr. Hosmer Angel” in “A Case of Identity.”

During his investigations, Holmes had many tools at his disposal, yet none were as ubiquitous as dress. Among many other interests, Holmes also studied chemistry, kept archives of newspapers, and even claimed to have contributed to the literature about types of tattoos and tobacco (20, 51). As impressive as that certainly was, those tools were utilized sparingly throughout the twelve cases of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In contrast, dress was apparent all through the cases, each embodying at least one of the roles I outlined in this paper: as a source for clues, as a clue itself, for disguise and impersonation, and simply for utility. The stories were narrated by Dr. Watson, and as such, he was only able to share with readers what Holmes explained to him out loud. However, experiencing the world through the eyes of Sherlock Holmes would have undoubtedly been very different. One can only imagine the overwhelming amount of observations Holmes silently processed regarding the dress of every individual he encountered - systematically scouring through women’s sleeves, men’s knees, and looking for issues hanging from boot-laces.

Figure 1. Miss Sutherland’s ensemble. Sidney Paget, 1891, The Strand Magazine.

Illustration for Arthur Conan Doyle's “A Case Of Identity.”

Figure 2. Sherlock Holmes analyzing a lost hat. Sidney Paget, 1892, The Strand Magazine. Illustration for Arthur Conan Doyle's “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

Figure 3. Sherlock Holmes disguised as a clergyman. Sidney Paget, 1891, The Strand Magazine. Illustration for Arthur Conan Doyle's “A Scandal in Bohemia.”


Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. London, England: George Newnes Ltd., 1892.

"Doyle, Arthur Conan (1859-1930)." In Major 21st-Century Writers, edited by Tracey Matthews and Tracey Watson. Vol. 2. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2005. Gale eBooks