Detective stories

Detective stories

Whether in novels or films from Hollywood's Golden Age, the great classic stories often strike us with the elegance of their characters. But if there is one genre that gives classic clothing its letters of nobility, and confers it a special value, it is the detective novel or film.

Whether we refer to Colonel Mustard, Mrs Peacock or Mr Green (or Reverend Green, in the original and British version of the Cluedo game), they are usually pictured as wearing dinner jackets or tuxedos rather than streetwear outfits. The crime scene fascinates us more as we enter villas, smoking rooms, winter gardens or libraries. White-collar criminals murdering ladies wearing satin and gangster in gaiters, are the silhouettes we like to imagine while evoking the literary and cinematographic universe revolving around what we would usually despise as sordid news of murder.

It would be too simple to restrict the collective imaginary of detective fiction to old-school productions or publications. Let us declare first that the whodunit is not dead ! Brand new productions, whether recent adaptations of Christie’s books by Kenneth Branagh, or the film saga Knives Out, with Daniel Craig as Detective Blanc, prove that elegance once again has to do with criminals and vigilantes. Why? Perhaps because the drama behind closed doors seduces us with velvet gloves, and a detective investigation, although devoted to shattering the social world of appearances, delivers the most exquisite surface.

The elegance of a detective

In town as in the countryside, the character of the detective often displays an elegance worthy of the events he encounters, aware of the dress code every occasion requires. 

On the small screen, the most significant adaptation of Agatha Christie's world-known detective is without a doubt ITV series : David Suchet takes the lead as Hercule Poirot between 1989 and 2013, for the greatest pleasure of its public — lovers of detective fiction and sartorial elegance.

Shooting of an episode of the Hercule Poirot series with David Suchet, on a London street, 2009

Stiff collars, round collars and shirts of white poplin, classic jackets with impressive lapels, bow ties… these compose the everyday routine of the detective who never forgets his handkerchief. He even deliberately buttons his balmoral boots, a personal trademark of elegance - both refined and self-conscious (the outfit mimics the man) ! A monocle and a flower in his buttonhole, these are the final details of the Belgian detective’s persona. Although it seems that Poirot  may win the prize for most elegant detective, let us mention our special pleasure : Alfred Hitchcock’s complete filmography, constituting an essential reference.

Alfred Hitchcock and the casting of The Rope

Leisure destinations and holiday spots conjure all sorts of dangers as portrayed in some of the greatest detective stories : Christie’s Death on the Nile, Murder in Mesopotamia, The Crime of the Orient Express, but also Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief or The Man Who Knew Too Much. Frequent stays on the French or Italian Riviera, or on the Mediterranean islands allow Hercule Poirot to display the most extravagantly European wardrobe, with his many linen suits, which would make any sartorialist assembly green with envy. This holiday and summery elegance is not only a clue revealing old-fashioned detective fiction, since it is also symbolized by Daniel Craig’s superb linen suit in the recent movie Glass Onion.

Another clue of the detective’s elegance is none other than the black-tie. Socialite evening parties reveal perfect opportunities for murders and crimes of all genres, under the most dangerously delicious sartorial pretext. And no detective worthy of its role would give up such an occasion to put on his best tuxedo. 

Agatha Christie’s novel Thirteen for Dinner, picture by Weldon Trench for The American Magazine (March 1933). This white tie version of Hercule Poirot is one of the very first illustrations of the famous detective. 

Aesthetics and intellect

Elegance in detective fiction not only depicts social status and historical eras, but also reveals intellectual disposition used to solve crimes and mysteries.

Detectives’ obsession with order, discipline and symmetry shows us another similarity with how most elegant people think (no doubt many of you know what I am talking about). Hercule Poirot’s stylistic mannerism and his personal assertions compose around him a perfectly elegant universe, in which his “little grey cells” reveal anomalies in the most brilliant way. The detective’s home is carefully organized, and is in itself a metaphor for his intellectual genius. With no complacency or carelessness ; the “world’s greatest detective” rarely welcomes visitors without a velvet jacket.

On the other hand, the absence of elegance can be related to a symbolic representation of a singular exceptional intelligence, as shown in the character Sherlock Holmes. His mind, always on the edge, contrasts with his appearance. Sherlock oscillates between intellectual elegance, and sartorial negligence ; yet, the mind takes precedence over the outfit. And if Lieutenant Columbo may seem, from our perspective, neglected, in his eternal raincoat, this very picturesque character only enables us to appreciate even more the way he jokes around, making masks fall with his friendly impertinence. 

The not-so-much-sartorial-enthusiast detective Columbo (Peter Falk, with Richard Kiley), 1974  

“Nemesis oblige”, criminals are not to be outdone ; and the most significant criminals are not the ones contradicting the detective, but are the ones diverting all his moral values. In a twist of irony, the murderer is often not the local delinquent, or the vagabond everyone puts the blame on, but the more elusive white-collar criminal. 

Clothes at the heart of the investigation

In detective literature, an outfit or a suit represents cultural and social status, while raising doubts and suspicions in the mind of the viewer. In a detective story in which everything stands as a clue, even clothes are not an exception.

A jacket, a pair of trousers, a cufflink, a cane or a hat, far from only enclosing a clothing and social dimension, can become the most relevant of all objects and be used as clues, as the case in Conan Doyle’s novels or short stories, staging Sherlock Holme’s extraordinary and physiognomic inductions. The detective of Baker Street manages to reconstitute a biography through clothes and accessories. For example, in the incredible scene at the beginning of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the detective is able to define the personality of the unknown visitor who left without his cane. This discovery makes one of the most elementary accessories from the British wardrobe a witness for a character’s habits :

“As to the adjectives, I said, if I remember right, amiable, unambitious, and absent-minded. It is my experience that it is only an amiable man in this world who receives testimonials, only an unambitious one who abandons a London career for the country, and only an absent-minded one who leaves his stick and not his visiting-card after waiting an hour in your room.

- And the dog?

- Has been in the habit of carrying this stick behind his master. Being a heavy stick the dog has held it tightly by the middle, and the marks of his teeth are very plainly visible. The dog’s jaw, as shown in the space between these marks, is too broad in my opinion for a terrier and not broad enough for a mastiff.”

John Barrymore and Roland Young in the movie Sherlock Holmes by Albert Parker, 1922

Disguise : between virtuosity and metamorphosis

Sherlock Holmes’ adventures also display a special attitude towards clothes : the detective’s disguises are indeed one of the detective stories’ most essential elements. But Arsène Lupin, “the man with a thousand disguises”, stands without a doubt as the most talented character of such a category. From the worn out overcoat to the most exquisite black tie, his transformation, from one man into another, reveals a fascinating journey throughout society. Lupin indeed embodies the character of the man of many twists, both aristocrat and commoner. Clothes can in fact be used as a disguise more than as a costume, but they also represent a complex web of social conventions between which the well-known thief affirms his singularity. 

White tie version of Arsène Lupin, by George Morehead for an american edition, 1910 

Beyond appearances : a sartorial ethic? 

The suit, refined and of sober style, forms a simplified image if not a collective imagery. Arsène Lupin indeed is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Having a look is all we need to recognize his trademark. And, as we are talking about sartorialism, let us mention the “Lupin” loafer by Aubercy, whose design reflects the well-known symbol of the gentleman-robber : his mask !

Giving a fictional character his overall appearance is often the illustrator or the costume designer’s role. Maurice Leblanc’s hero we have just talked about was given his famous and immediately identifiable appearance by the artist Léo Fontan : smooth hair, separated in a middle line, cuffs, top hat and an eye glass. Umberto Eco, in his book De Superman au surhomme, casts light upon the collective dimension of such an image :

“Traditional image of the lord in black tie and top hat, eyeglass and white gloves, who, with a nearly imperceptible gesture, steals, here a diamond, there a priceless pearl necklace, there again a cursed emerald… The rest is only about parties, balls, kissing hands, and tambour doors in front of famous hotels”

We are not only referring to appearance, but also to revelation. This sartorial ritual of preparation and dressing up does not only reflect a love for elegance, but also a clear awareness of a specific way to live in the world that is ours. Hercule Poirot’s famous mustache is not just a clue revealing a proven know-how, but also displays the consequence of a daily care, an everyday engagement. The detective story crystalizes not only the different dimensions one would attribute to the sartorial conception of clothing and refinement (a fascination for an elegant imaginary) but also a rigorous aestheticism. One’s clothing also reveals the significations hidden behind a jacket, a cane, or a mask.

Symbols, social class or collective images all merge into this mysterious universe which is detective fiction. The only thing that remains clear is the paradox of appearance or clothing which reveals as much as it conceals… 

All conclusions made by a cinephile, a book lover or a sartorialist, who knows ?

Cover picture : Alfred Hitchcock and George Sanders, advertisement for Rebecca, 1940