This updated article was first posted in July 2013. It comes from Den of Geek UK.
Luther returned to BBC One over the New Year, and didn’t he look cool as he stalked around London’s streets like a man with a grudge against a bus? That’s not just because he’s played by Idris Elba and your mind has subconsciously associated him with the cool job of piloting giant robots in Pacific Rim, oh no. It’s because, like all the best detectives, he’s wearing a cool coat.
The coat has become the shorthand for the detective, not only telling you a lot about the copper wearing it but about the era they’re wearing it in. So, in a not at all blatant rip-off of the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects let’s chart the TV detective’s beat across our screens by looking at their most iconic outerwear…
The Trench Coat – Dragnet and beyond
The first TV detectives were poured from the same tobacco-stained mold of pulp P.Is, leading to the creation of the likes Peter Gunn, Martin Kane, Dragnet’s Joe Friday, and other investigators who might crease a smile of nostalgia on your granddad’s face. They were no-nonsense slabs of man-concrete who existed on a diet of red meat, cigarettes, and resentment. Fitting to their personalities, they wore no-nonsense clothing: suits, hats, and the now-cliché trench coat.
A timeless wardrobe mainstay worn across the decades by sleuths of all ages, sexes, and nationalities, the authoritarian allure of the trench means it’s become the coat of choice for detectives, and no wonder. It’s waterproof, so a perp’s blood and tears will just run off in a dramatically timed rainstorm, but it’s also form-flattering, being able to conceal anything from a pistol to alcoholism, and all while still keeping the wearer looking professional.
Sure, the flasher briefly tried to co-opt it in the seventies, but not even frantically wagging genitals can detract from the iconic status of the trench, and to this day it remains the cliché clothing for many a copper.
The Raincoat – Columbo
Without a doubt the greatest detective of the twentieth century – and we’ll tell our dad on you if you disagree – Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo was the shambling pantomime horse concealing a Sherlock in both the front and rear. He was a reel-to-reel supercomputer of deduction disguised as a scruffy teddy bear – at one point a nun even gives him money, thinking him homeless – and the raincoat was pivotal in that masquerade.
His crumpled sack of a coat was the perfect camouflage. Detectives of the Dragnet era had a stony confidence about them that intimidated suspects but Columbo made himself look and act like the kind of shambling Clouseau. It allowed the murderer to drop their guard, pour a drink, get sloppy with the facts, while we armchair detectives at home shouted WE KNOW YOU DID IT GEORGE HAMILTON SO DON’T SIT THERE LIKE A SMUG PLANK OF FRESHLY VARNISHED WOOD!
While it’s Falk’s wonderfully pitched performance that makes Columbo the man we all love, there’d be something missing from the character if he didn’t have his raincoat, even though it’s microwave-dry in Los Angeles.
The Leather Jacket – Bergerac
The eighties was the decade of the smart-casual copper, when the fustiness of the trench coat was shrugged off. In Miami Vice, Crockett and Tubbs were rolling up their suit sleeves, while four thousand miles away in the marginally less tropical climate of Jersey, Jim Bergerac, the cop with the sexiest squint this side of Calais, was leaning on his Triumph Roadster like the coolest divorced dad at the school gates. When not romancing women by the ferry-load or sharing a chuckle with loveable anthropomorphic grandfather clock Charlie Hungerford, he was chasing scientists threatening to release a nerve gas or catching a monkey infected with hemorrhagic fever. There are no longer any deadly monkeys in Jersey – just like with St. Patrick and the snakes, Bergerac chased them all into the sea.
Here and in the US policing had suddenly become energetic, and characters like Bergerac needed appropriate attire. Something casual enough for an after-hours tour around Jersey’s famed German Underground Hospital with a lady friend, but smart enough to pair with a tie for that Monday morning bollocking in the office. The answer: leather. The jacket that lets you work, rest, and play. Like a Mars bar with pockets.
Bergerac was a cool cat and leather was the coolest fabric known to science, thanks to Henry Winkler’s Nobel Prize-winning research into the “Fonzie Effect” a decade earlier. It was a match made in St. Helier. And judging by the number of different jackets he wore, Bergerac must’ve got a job lot of them.
The Gadget Coat – Inspector Gadget
Unless you’re old enough to remember Inch High Private Eye (one day, Jack Black will play him and we’ll all shudder…), your first brush with animated law was probably Inspector Gadget, a terrifying tale of a police officer critically injured in the line of duty and surgically gutted into a Frankensteinian broom cupboard of techno-gimmickry.
Though we’ve already covered the trench coat, it would be remiss not to single out Inspector Gadget’s coat, simply because it inflated at the pull of a button, turning the walking Swiss Army knife into a one-man bouncy castle. And yet, he never had to remove his shoes before activating it. So much for respecting the law…
The Lab Coat – Diagnosis Murder
The nineties was the golden age of the amateur sleuth; when any eager busybody could stroll up to a group of officers standing around chalk outline and cheerily shout “Need a hand?” And often the police would oblige in a way that suggested the stranger had just won a competition to solve a crime. For people like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, catching criminals became a pastime you fitted in between your day job and your home life, like a college course or an affair with a colleague. But no one achieved the delightful absurdity of Dr. Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder.
Judgment-free chum of the hungover student and the terminally unemployed, Diagnosis Murder starred Dick Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan, that rare breed of MD who’d give you a cheery wink as he administered your lumbar puncture. But it wasn’t enough that Sloane was healing the sick all day. He also enjoyed spending quality time with his detective son by solving crimes so ridiculous that they sound like plots pulled from the bin in the Hollyoaks writers room. Alien abductions! Gangster doppelgangers! Deadly blind dates! He even had time to invest in a BBQ restaurant.
He wasn’t the first doctor to nab wrongdoers – Quincy was banging on the doors of city hall back in the ’70s, and these days medical professionals solving crimes are ten a cadaver – but none of them did it with the – well how do we put this? – the joie de vivre of Dr. Sloan in his lab coat.
The Suede Jacket – Crime Traveller
If you’re a child of the nineties, then your most powerful memory of Anthony Horowitz’s short-lived cult classic Crime Traveller won’t be the time-traveling desk, but the fact that week after week Michael French wore the same camel-colored suede coat, like a charity shop Time Lord.
Some detectives show they’re mavericks with reckless action in the face of conventional authority or excessive brutality against the criminals they catch. Not for Jeff Slade. He cemented his status as rebel using the aesthetic power of suede. While everyone else in the police station had the professional decency to wear a suit, Slade was clearly the sort of bloke who’d seen too many episodes of The Rockford Files as a kid. That suede jacket may as well have had a big hand giving the finger embroidered on it for all the aggravation he caused his boss.
The Duffle Coat – Jonathan Creek
The proliferation of the amateur sleuth inadvertently began the trend of the “oddball” being brought in to assist in investigations, the loveably quirky outsiders who the police sneer at over their coffee cups. The Monks and Mentalists of the world.
Jonathan Creek and his Duffle coat were one of the first, and to this day represent the epitome of informal investigation chic. Like Columbo, Creek wore his coat in all weathers as he used his magician’s mind to solve crimes that bordered on a level of planning and lunacy usually reserved for military ground invasions. In the latest (but sadly far from greatest) special, he even brought the coat out from mothballs with a reverence that suggested it was more than a piece of clothing. It was a woolen alter-ego.
No coat more keenly sums up the notion of the oddball outsider than the Duffle. It’s an incongruous bulky beast that fits you with all the tailoring of a body bag, reducing the wearer to a cozy androgyny, but there’s also something proudly British and reassuring about it. It’s the coat of Paddington Bear and Field Marshall Montgomery. A coat that says, “I’ve got my sandwiches and a flask of tea, and I’m ready for anything the world throws at me.” Even if what’s being thrown at you are alien skeletons made of mercury.
The Leather Jacket Returns – Law & Order SVU and beyond
You’ll have noticed from this list that when it comes to the signature coat, female detectives aren’t as well catered for as men, despite the fact they’ve been cuffing criminals for just as long. Is it because writers don’t want to be thought of as defining a policewoman by what she wears? Or is it that they’ve a different article of clothing in common? Knitwear perhaps. Certainly, Cagney & Lacey and Sarah Lund are united by a shared enthusiasm for trendy sheep shearings.
Trench coat aside, there’s never truly been iconic outerwear for any female detective across the years. However, these days the tailored leather jacket has become the sartorial shorthand for the police detective packing a gun and two X chromosomes: tough, fashionable, and versatile. The kind of clothing that’s as at home in a warehouse shootout as an ersatz Irish pub in New York.
Notable jacketeers include Olivia Benson in Law & Order: SVU, Calleigh Duquesne in CSI Miami, Sandra Pullman in New Tricks, Kate Beckett in Castle… in fact, the list goes on and on for so long that you start to marvel at the mooing masses of cattle that must have been bulldozed into the slaughterhouse in order to keep our cops stylish. Bergerac would be proud.
The Belstaff – Sherlock
Think Sherlock Holmes and your brain immediately clicks on a mental JPEG of Sidney Paget’s illustrations: the Inverness Coat capped with the tweed punctuation mark of a Deerstalker. They’re synonymous with the Great Detective but they’re also incredibly dated, especially as crime in the 21st century becomes more sexxxy. Yes, three x’s sexy, that’s how sexy. Murders these days have to look as exciting as a September Vogue spread, so our detectives have to GQ it up a bit, too.
Enter Benedict Cumberbatch, with cheekbones sculpted by glacial erosion and a gaze cold enough to make a freezer shit ice cubes in fear. Gone is the Inverness, replaced with a Belstaff overcoat so trendy that it actually gets its own specific shots. Probably even has its own trailer. It speaks of the man wearing it too – practical, unostentatious, and yet undeniably cool.
Whether Sherlock‘s running down London’s streets or silhouetted on the windy moors, the Belstaff creates a lovely flappy effect. And as we know, the more flappy the coat is, the more heroic you look (I call it the 10th Doctor Rule). For 21st-century Sherlock, the coat has become the equivalent of the cape, embodying all the iconic and heroic connotations that brings with it.
Orange Cagoule – Broadchurch
Fashions change, but TV’s always shown that whatever they wear, cops are more than just robots programmed to handcuff wrong ‘uns. And nothing says, “I’m not a robot” like the cagoule. Nothing. The cagoule is the Voight-Kampff test of clothing.
Step forward, Broadchurch‘s DS Ellie Miller (played by Queen Olivia Colman), whose orange cag is a coat that embodies the pragmatism of being a working mum and the unglamorous nature of being a member of the police.
Like all TV detectives have had to, Miller has to cope with the friction between professional and private lives, trying to prevent one bleeding into the other. Does any coat better embody the existential angst over balancing career and family better than a person-shaped piece of man-made fabric? I think not. And though by the end, work and family have blended disastrously, at least she keeps the chilly sea air at bay. Perhaps the cagoule is the modern successor to the trench coat after all.
Can’t quite see Luther in one though, can you?