Let's say you had never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. (That's likely not the case for anyone reading this, but stay with me...) Someone shows you a picture of:
Oh sure, you get some hits that look like Inspector Clouseau, or maybe Sam Spade, but without using the words "Sherlock" or "Holmes," you will get plenty of images that are immediately recognizable as Arthur Conan Doyle's character. The magnifying glass may be missing, or the pipe, but the deerstalker will almost always be present.
So where does this iconic image of Holmes come from? Most Sherlockians will already be saying, perhaps out loud, "C'mon! Give me a hard question!" Others, though, slightly less knowledgeable about Holmes, may guess Basil Rathbone as the source. Still others may assume that Conan Doyle must have mentioned the deerstalker and the pipe. Well, the answer is a little complex, as it turns out.
First, the deerstalker: if you look at several of the Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied the original publication of the Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, you will see a few examples of the deerstalker cap. There's this one:
And these (you don't often see that coat with the hood):
And a handful of other illustrations showing Mr. Holmes in a deerstalker cap. He only wears it when he's outdoors, of course. He doesn't sit around the flat at 221B, wearing a deerstalker cap. It's part of his traveling outfit occasionally.
Fast-forward a few years to a time after Arthur Conan Doyle had "killed off" his creation at the Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem." ACD needed a bit more income, so he decided to take Holmes to the stage, and the role went to an actor named William Gillette. It was Gillette who introduced the curved stemmed pipe, which is often a calabash pipe. It looks like this:
A few decades later, Basil Rathbone, who became the most popular actor to play Holmes for quite some time, adopted the deerstalker and the curved pipe as well, and the image was forever after associated with Sherlock Holmes, and indeed, became synonymous with the generic "detective" look. (Interestingly enough, Rathbone wore a completely different style of hat in many of his films. Still, pictures of Rathbone in the deerstalker, with a calabash pipe in his mouth, abound on the internet.)
Will Benedict Cumberbatch's trademark coat and scarf look ever supplant the iconic deerstalker cap? Or Jonny Lee Miller's slightly messier Bohemian scarf and jacket look? It's doubtful, since even Sherlock has played with the image of the deerstalker, with the hat originally appearing as gag wherein Sherlock tries to hide his face from paparazzi, and grabs the deerstalker by chance. As John Watson says on that show: "It's not a deerstalker any more...it's a Sherlock Holmes hat. You're this far from famous."
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.