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Dressing the Detective and His Friends (posted 04-22-2014)

Costume designer Jennifer Ables talks about creating a wardrobe designed to set a moment in time for Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.  

From the outset the goal has been to pay homage to the source material and classic images we associate with the character Sherlock Holmes. Luckily, as is somewhat common with Victorian literature, Arthur Conan Doyle had an illustrator to augment his work. Sidney Paget created more than 350 drawings for the Sherlock Holmes series and is responsible for several iconic items including Sherlock's deerstalker hat and caped coat. 

A selection of Sidney Paget's illustrations for the Sherlock Holmes series.

After familiarizing myself with the Paget images, I dug into the script to get a feel for the vibe of the piece and the elements of the story. The best costuming is all about storytelling. How can I make specific clothing choices that best communicate this story to the audience? An important clue is in the subtitle “The Final Adventure.” The script is a blend of two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories, one of which was published late in the series. These writings span the period from 1881-1914, which was a busy time in fashion history. Menswear only shows subtle changes over these years but women’s clothing changes dramatically, so it’s up to our female characters to firmly root us in time. 

The 1880s—the time in which Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock movies are set—are the bustle period.  But with our play being “The Final Adventure,” along with other signifiers such as Watson already being married and no longer living with Sherlock in his flat on Baker St., we landed between 1900-1904 as the time in which to set the wardrobe. In costume history terms this era is known as the Edwardian period, and the clothing from this period is absolutely beautiful. Plus, it’s a little sexier, a little more body conscious, and a lot more flexible for actresses who are a big part of the physical action.

Once I confirmed with Kevin that I was on the right track I started researching like crazy. I mostly use my iPad (terribly convenient) and build a database of hundreds of images of every type of person in our play. What did a policeman look like in 1904? A priest? A doctor? A maid? etc. From those images I start to find elements that remind me of the characters on the page and then I start sketching (also on my iPad-you can take it anywhere!), pulling from the research and adding details of my own. Once I get everything sketched there’s another check in with Kevin to get his feedback. From there I make adjustments, start thinking about color and looking for fabric. 

Then voila! Painted drawings. And yes, painted on the iPad. (I mean, there’s an undo button. Terrible blobby brush stroke in the wrong place? No problem. It’s gone in the blink of an eye.) 

Costume renderings by Jennifer Ables.

I’m a fan of Sherlock Holmes. He’s clever and entertaining and his heart is in the right place. There have been so many wonderful Holmes iterations over the last 100 years, up to and including the two modern television shows currently on air. Ours isn’t a modern retelling, but we in Team Costumes are working on some Easter Eggs from other versions to hide in plain sight on the costumes. All the tried and true Sherlock fans can test their powers of deduction during their visit to DTC!