Wednesday 8th October saw the release of the trailer for the upcoming BBC Sherlock special (official video here), which if you are on Twitter or Tumblr you were probably aware of as the Sherlock fandom gloriously erupted into speculations, analysis and ‘squeeing’ over every detail. One particular line from the trailer caught attention and that was Watson handing Holmes a deerstalker hat and saying, ‘You’re Sherlock Holmes, wear the damn hat.’ Oh, what a line! So many things to deduce from it! But of course, first and foremost, the one that everybody understands: Sherlock Holmes and the deerstalker hat are inseparable. BBC Sherlock have generally made efforts to keep Cumberbatch’s modern look away from the deerstalker and so far he has only donned it once, ‘by accident’, which is then photographed by paparazzi and plastered all over the newspapers, much to Sherlock’s annoyance. The reason BBC Sherlock make such a big deal of the hat is for two reasons (well, there are probably many more but I’ll spare you):
Firstly, the deerstalker hat and Sherlock Holmes go hand in hand. In Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives, Amanda J. Field writes a chapter on Sherlock Holmes in advertising and refers to the image of Holmes as a form of branding (some examples given later). Anywhere a magnifying glass, a deerstalker hat and a pipe are together, Sherlock Holmes is identified. In almost every period adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, the deerstalker appears as a trusted sidekick, as part of the scenery as hansom cabs, smoky London scene and perhaps even Watson himself. The writers of BBC Sherlock made a very purposeful decision to exclude the hat because it would not fit with the modernisation of Holmes. The deerstalker is no where near as common today and they wanted to carve the series out as distinct from other Sherlock Holmes adaptations.
The second reason why BBC Sherlock may be avoiding the deerstalker is that it is not canonical. Despite the fact that thousands of adaptations have been created over the years since Holmes’ publication, the deerstalker is not in the canon. That is to say, it is never described in the stories. It does however appear a few times in the illustrations, drawn by Sidney Paget, and it first appeared in the Boscombe Valley Mystery in October 1891. The rumour is that Paget simply liked wearing the hat himself, such as in the picture of him below, and he decided to draw Holmes wearing one.
The hat, much like the curved pipe, has persisted through adaptations and not through the canon. Famous figures like William Gillette, who acted as Holmes on stage a record 1300 times, based their look upon the illustrations found within The Strand Magazine and in turn were seen and photographed wearing the deerstalker hat and so the icon of the hat became associated with Holmes and with the late-19th century.
This iconography has carried on and almost all associated images of Holmes contain the famous and uncanonical hat. So much so that advertisers regularly use the deerstalker to infer Holmes, even when the character in question is not even human.
Both advertisements here (from the Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest, Portsmouth) use the deerstalker as an identifier of Sherlock Holmes. On the left, not only is there a Sherlock Holmes figure in the form of a man smoking a pipe, there is also a Sherlock Holmes bee, who has deduced for the man that he should be smoking Yello-Bole pipes, a honey-treated pipe. I love this advert even more because as every good Sherlockian knows, Holmes retired to become a bee-keeper in Sussex and so bees are canonical, though perhaps not deerstalking-wearing bees. On the other side we have what look like beaded figures and the words ‘Come on in, Sleuths’. Again, two of the figures are wearing deerstalkers and one is holding a magnifying glass – they are Sherlock Holmes type figures and are there to do some sleuthing, examining the quality of the sheets. To put on the deerstalker is to take on the characteristics of Sherlock Holmes – it implies a certain amount of observation, logic, deduction, and clear conclusions; but of course there is no magic in the hat itself, only in the brain underneath it.