Tuesday, 8 December 2009

"Beau Brummel always said I looked better in a cloak…"


I can’t say I’m desperately well-dressed, but I do like clothes, and therefore I like that the Doctor likes clothes. It’s unsurprising clothes are important to the character; given his variants, it’s natural that the outfits he wears define and differentiate his incarnations.

I’m not aware of any major discussion of the Doctors’ costumes, but as a visually-minded person I tend to notice elements of ‘visual continuity’ as much as I do the regular kind. It’s not ordinarily something I’d think about in a conscious way, but I can’t help inadvertently mentally cataloguing Hartnell’s different cravats or Colin’s waistcoats – it’s just part of the way my minds works, so it’s an aspect of the character I find interesting. What’s really got me thinking about clothes is Matt Smith’s costume. At first, I was immediately relieved that something old fashioned had been chosen (as opposed to, say, a ‘yoof’ hoodie uniform or regulation-trendy skinny jeans) – the Doctor’s costume has always been such a signifier of his unconventionality that I still feel cheated by Eccleston’s outfit.

Since it was initially revealed, it’s become more and more apparent how trendy Smith’s costume is – but I don’t think it really matters. It’s fashionable in terms of a specific Topman/i-D demographic, so in fact it’s quite clever of the production team to have smuggled in an ‘old fashioned’ costume under the auspices of what is currently fashionable. I imagine the ‘old fashionedness’ will outlast the trendiness; in future, people’ll probably only see its student/professor contrast, rather than the preppy/tweedy trends it’s derived from.

It is strange how very ‘on-trend’ it is; the All Saints work boots, the jacket, the bowtie – you can’t get away from models dressed exactly like that in every magazine going. In fact, when the costume was released, The Guardian (yes, yes, I’m such a bleeding heart liberal; it’s okay, I didn’t buy it) did a little satirical piece introduced with the line ‘Here is the latest Burberry model…,’ going on to cite the look’s overall trendiness – or rather, berate the costume designers for such blatant box-ticking, saying that the Doctor should be above such things (a concern I find pretty funny coming from a mainstream newspaper).

As I say, the costume will likely become so ubiquitous it’ll surpass the styles it’s mirroring (it already feels very familiar), though I am ambivalent about the decision to make it so close to current trends. (As opposed to, say, the Fifth Doctor’s outfit alluding to the 80s Brideshead thing, rather than completely lifting a style.) It does make it harder to judge objectively, too; I really like it, but is that partly because it’s fashionable, you’re exposed to similar things everywhere at the moment, so it just seems ‘right’? No matter, in purely DW terms, it works – the fusty tweediness, yes; the boots have a good strong Pertwee/Tom precedent, but, being laced, are also different enough, and give the whole thing a bit of edge, contrasting with the Troughton-like bowtie (sort of skinhead-cum-academian). Nice range of textures, too – presumably a high definition consideration, or am I reading too much into this?! Good to see something other than a white shirt, anyway. (Hilariously, The Sun (and, no, I definitely didn’t buy that) did an spread rather desperately trying to make out that the costume includes elements of every single of the previous Doctors’ outfits, including the Seventh Doctor’s white shirt (which is hardly a defining element of his look anyway)… Even though Smith’s is clearly not white in the picture they’d published. Ah, The Sun. Bastion of accuracy.)

I love the Doctors’ costumes, actually – all of them. I’m really pleased that the Eleventh Doctor’s been given a look – potential Hoxton wankerishness aside – that chimes with his predecessors’ eccentricities rather more than the Ninth or Tenth do. The way the Doctor dresses really does mean such a lot within the programme, as shorthand for his ‘otherness,’ not just as an alien, but as a TV hero. With the exception of the Ninth’s, each costume very plainly states that this isn’t a character who’s going to function in exactly the way you’d expect.

The First Doctor’s outfit is, rightly, the most straightforward, and, although it’s easy to consider them broadly similar (check trousers, black jacket) the Second’s is a deceptively clever variation on it. It manages to be an anarchic subversion of the original ‘Edwardian’ silhouette, whilst also maintaining enough continuity to not be alienating. Similarly, the Third Doctor’s initial, season seven costume is another fairly minor twist on the same basic approach (interesting though that Pertwee favoured a plain Nehru jacket) – still Edwardian, black jacket, just dressier, with the addition of an opera cape. Capes are fab; all kudos to Pertwee for pulling that look off. Especially in his later costumes, when he obviously had the run of the costume department, he should look awful (coloured ruffled shirts, velvet jackets, AND checked Inverness cloaks?!), but he does actually look pretty cool.

In fact, it’s impressive that somehow he avoids looking like a total ponce, perhaps because he’s often quite dour and plays the role very straight. I guess, to an extent, his style is akin to Matt Smith’s in that it chimes with general tendencies of the period – frills and velvet and so on. (At least he avoided flares.) I’m not sure about the bouffant (although at least it’s kind of unique and doesn’t date as readily as other contemporaneous 70s dos; the 70s did no-one any favours), but I’d like to be able to stride around like that when I’m 55. (Martial arts might also be a bonus, then.)

Of these costumes, it’s the little variations that I particularly like (something there’s been less and less of as the marketing of the show has become more controlled and canny); for example, I really like the white version of the First Doctor’s astrakhan hat, and his Panama, and he looks particularly great when he wears his cloak and little wire-framed glasses (like the Fifth and Tenth Doctors in their brainy specs). I must also be one of the few people who actually loves the Second Doctor’s early ‘stovepipe’ hat (or, more accurately, according to DWM, a Paris Beau, Capotain, or bird-catcher’s hat – not as catchy, though), partly because of its bizarreness, but probably also as it was so short-lived and only few picture exist of it (perhaps I’d be less keen if it had become totally ubiquitous). Even tiny variations like the Second Doctor’s fur coat or cloak, down to his woolly hat in Fury from the Deep, are representative of the series’ earlier off-the-cuff production, in a way that wouldn’t really happen later on.

The Fourth Doctor’s various costumes are odd, really, because no-one looks beyond his almost cartoon-like features, hat, and scarf; the costume itself just isn’t that defining – consider, no-one ever really describes him as being Victorian in appearance, even though during season thirteen, that’s exactly what his outfit is like. I’m not so keen on the initial short jacket, though I love his cardigan and straggling necktie. Baker’s costume is great in terms of its variability; it gives the character a richness, not to mention a realism, and, pleasingly, especially early on, really looks like he’s been raiding a charity shop. Lots of detail too – cravats, neckties, the TARDIS key as a pendant, high waisted trousers, different hats and coats. Lovely. I’m less keen on the simpler coat and open-necked shirt of seasons sixteen and seventeen, but the variation is nice.

I’m also a big fan (again, one of few?) of his stylised season eighteen look – interesting though that John Nathan-Turner initially wanted a completely new look; wonder what they were considering? It is fairly ridiculous – and take it as read that the question marks are hideous – but it works as a reinvention of an existing look. The massiveness of the Russian army-style greatcoat looks great on Tom (nice green patterned lining, too!), and the red shoes and argyle socks/burgundy boots is a nice variation.

The Fifth Doctor’s costume, on the other hand, I absolutely loathe, for a variety of reasons. More so even than the Sixth’s. It’s the first time a Doctor wears a single unchanging costume, which is just a terrible idea (at least Tennant’s, though essentially the same, has some variation). I’m not sold on the ‘sporting motif’ thing anyway (a polo outfit would’ve been better), but it’s so flimsy and badly made (especially those pyjama bottoms! And the jacket doesn’t even appear to be lined); the whole thing looks like a fancy dress version, not the real thing! Actually, having said that, purely from the point of view of the design, it works (in the DWM strip it’s quite effective). It’s just that in practise the red and beige is horrible, and as an Edwardian cricketing outfit, it’s so patently inaccurate; I hate that it’s someone’s contrived idea of that concept (a frock coat… with a cricket jumper), when they could have done some research and put him in a more believable jumper and stripy blazer combo. His Panama hat is quite good though – if underused. The high-waisted trousers, shirtsleeves and braces look of Planet of Fire is an improvement, too.

I really do think the Fifth Doctor’s outfit trumps the Sixth’s as worst ever. The Sixth's, I’ve come to like if you view it as a magician’s outfit, and in its brashness creates a nice tension with Colin Baker’s difficult persona. In fact, I like it more the more ridiculous it gets (ie, the starry necktie/metallic purple-striped waistcoat combo from Terror of the Vervoids). The problem with it, though a little more substantial-looking than its predecessor, is it’s so obviously a designed whole, like it was bought as an off-the-peg outfit. If it looked like various thrown-together items, that’d at least make more sense.

The other thing is that no-one ever reacts realistically to it. In a physical sense, there’s no reason why he couldn’t turn up in The Godfather or a kitchen sink kind of scenario in his patchwork coat – as long as people reacted realistically to it. Personally, I think that’d make it easier to swallow; as it is, with most incidental characters not even mentioning it, it damages suspension of belief – it feels like the show is being dishonest to us. Even if it happened everywhere he went (which actually couldn’t be a worse running gag than series four’s, ‘We’re not married!’), at least that’d add a veneer of realism, knowing that the people he meets are thinking the same as the audience. In fairness, it is probably true of all the Doctors’ outfits that people seldom react realistically to them, but this is most apparent when it comes to the Sixth. It does seem the production team realised it didn’t function in a realistic sense, but then shot themselves in the foot by trying to ignore that, rather than acknowledge it. (…His cloak in Revelation looks great though.)

I know a lot of people dislike the Seventh Doctor’s costume, too, but I have quite a soft spot for it, perhaps cos I find the pullover a lot easier to ignore than the shirt collar question marks (although, coincidentally, I did just come across a load of rehearsal photos from Ghost Light where McCoy is without the jumper and it does look a billion times better). It’s a bit too bright and light to start with, but I do like how genuinely dishevelled it is. Interesting too that it’s much later than any of the others – I wonder if this was commented on at the time? It’s quite thirties in style, and the tie, as opposed to cravat or bowtie, is quite modern. I read that it was meant to look normal from a distance and then stranger close up, which I think works – the paisley overload, lapel watch, etc. And how cool are the two-tone brogues? His TVM costume is interesting as a variation, though I agree with what McCoy said at the time about it being ‘an American idea of an English gentleman’. I prefer his white linen suit from the NAs though; it bugs me that we’ll never get to see that in real life. The godawful montaged effort on the cover of The Shadow of the Scourge audio doesn’t count.

As for the Eighth Doctor: there really isn’t much to say. A lazy Edwardian default, but made a bit Byronic, to mix in some sex appeal. Fine, whatever. The Ninth, however: as I say, I’m ambivalent. As a one-off, I like it for how unusual it is, I’m just glad it didn’t set a precedent. Now we’ve had a suited Doctor and are about to get a tweed-clad one at least the Ninth’s leather has become a variation rather than a new precedent for 'modern' Doctors’ outfits. It does sort of work – the hard-wearing traveller thing – but I just wish he wore a shirt or sailor jumper (and completed the U-boat captain look) rather than those horrible Next tops. I suppose at least they avoided the frock coat silhouette – unlike the TVM – which there has been far too much of up to this point, to the extent that it’s become a shorthand default for the Doctor’s eccentricity, and as such, stopped meaning anything (cf any spoof you care to mention, and David Morrissey’s ‘next’ Doctor outfit – which made it immediately apparent that he wasn’t a real Doctor, as it’s just too by-numbers).

The Tenth is a bit Next too. Bad times. I remember being so relieved when pictures of his costume were released, but now it does seem rather banal and safe – and not just through overexposure. Apart from anything else, the world and his wife wear Converse All-Stars! Probably up to and including Amazonian Indians. They just don’t have the hip edge they’re presumably meant to inject. Also, like the Fifth and Sixth Doctors’ it looks a bit too obviously run up by the costume department, rather than being a real tailored suit (and coat). The coat I kind of like, but is a bit too contrivedly ‘iconic’; long, for flapping in dramatic breezes, etc…

I don’t know quite what to feel about the blue suit either. I tend to like the atypical variations, so there’s something to be said for it for that reason, but – though it’s unusual, again that feels like a slightly cynical stab at automatic ‘Doctorishness’. It’s a bit too bright. In fact, Tennant’s just a bit too clean and perfect, really. Bit too modern. Especially his hair; trying a bit too hard to be cool. At least Smith’s hair is kind of inexplicable already, so it can’t really date. (On the subject of hair, Troughton wins hands-down for coolest do – though Hartnell’s wig is pretty inspired, as it’s the most atypical element of his costume as a whole.)

I sort of wish they’d made more of the ‘punk with a hint of rockabilly’ thing from Tooth and Claw, given the Tenth Doctor a bit more edge (what, Elvis quiff, signet rings, tattoos, eyeliner?). Having said that, his quiff in The Idiot’s Lantern looked a bit rubbish. Edginess isn’t something you could really say comes naturally to David Tennant.

So, what have we learnt? I’m not sure. But I enjoyed talking about it! While I’m at it, I always see costumes in films that make me think, Aha, that’d be great for a (hypothetical) Doctor: particularly Toshiro Mifune’s white suit and flat cap in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog; the short, 1930s wide-shouldered checked jackets from Brighton Rock; James Dean’s simple jumper and chinos with a watch on his trousers from East of Eden (which is strangely iconic); or even Paterson Joseph’s steampunk gentlemen from the BBC’s Neverwhere, with half-bleached and half-dreaded hair. That’d be a bit of a departure, but it’d be ace. Think of how many numerous options for doing something unprecedented there are. Better still, regenerate him into a woman and let the fun really begin!


  1. Great article and very well thought out. It struck me much later that having the Doctor wear leather in the 21st Century was a rather risky decision, but I never see anyone else bring it up (and I'm hardly going to google search 'Doctor Who leather). I agree on Tennant's look being far too safe. Smith's look is very interesting as from the waist up it's stuffy but the rolled up trousers and tall combat boots are totally punk rock.

  2. Hey, thank you very much for commenting. The Doctors' costumes have always been a matter of fascination for me, so it's good to know someone else appreciated this!

  3. I think a future Doctor should be based around argyle. Argyle is cool.

  4. We-ell, if that's your bag, the Fourth Doctor wore at least argyle socks in season 18. Maybe even underpants, too, who knows...