Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  November 18, 2014

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die

The Museum of London’s latest exhibition, Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, opened on 17 October and is proving to be very popular!

In addition to a general introduction to the exhibition (which you can find at the Museum of London’s website), and before you come and see the exhibition for yourself, I thought I would highlight a couple of interesting costume artefacts I had the pleasure of working with: a chemisette and detachable cuffs, c. 1910 and a pair of black leather boots, c. 1895. Although these items were donated to the Museum of London over thirty years ago, this is the first time they have been seen by the public.

These items are included in a section of the exhibition that explores the analytical mind of Sherlock Holmes; despite the hard work, choosing items for this exhibition was exhilarating. As for most sections, we looked to the original stories, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) to guide us. For example, in The Case of Identity (1892) Sherlock Holmes is able to identify a woman as a typist by marks left on her sleeve hem from a typewriter. After reading this passage, we spent nearly two weeks in the costume store looking at every late Victorian/Edwardian woman’s sleeve. After reviewing hundreds of sleeves, we finally found a chemisette and a pair of cuffs with intriguing stains; a blue stain along the sleeve hem of the chemisette and a splatter of ink on the cuffs.

Although there is no provenance on either the chemisette or cuffs, these items were donated with many other blouses, collars and cuffs, all from c. 1910 and all worn by the same woman. Most of the items are day wear and have similar wear marks or stains. While we may never know how these items became damaged, it is hard not to wonder ‘What would Sherlock do?’ and speculate that the wearer performed a repetitive task, while resting her forearms and wrists on a hard surface—perhaps even a desk job. In the exhibition we’ve displayed the chemisette and cuffs with magnifying glasses positioned in a way to enhance the view of the ink stains. As we don’t know what caused the damage, we let the viewer make their deductions.

The second item was also discovered in the collection after we reviewed the original text. The inspiration came not from one story, but from a few in which Sherlock Holmes relies on shoe prints left in the mud or wear marks on the soles of a pair of shoes for information; we looked at the soles of every pair of shoes and boots in the collection from the late 19th century to c.1910. The task was monumental, but also exciting, and, in the end, we found a full range of wear: from new shoes to footwear so badly worn that there was hardly a sole left! We narrowed down the list to a pair of c. 1895 boots, with soles that make a unique imprint. Sherlock Holmes most certainly would have known that the imprint was from a screw in the heel, used to attach ice skates.

While developing an exhibition on Sherlock Holmes ended up being far more challenging than many of us originally thought, we had a great deal of fun letting the original stories lead the way. After all, the work that curators do on a day-to-day basis when studying artefacts is not too dissimilar to the way Sherlock Holmes ‘reads’ an object with clues and marks that may otherwise be overlooked.

Tim Long, Curator at Museum of London

  • Sherlock Holmes exhibition poster Caption: Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. © Museum of London
  • Underblouse, c.1910 v2 Caption: Chemisette, c. 1910 © Museum of London
  • Underblouse, c.1910 Caption: Oblique view of chemisette, c. 1910 © Museum of London
  • Underblouse, c.1910 v3 Caption: Detail of right sleeve of chemisette showing stain © Museum of London
  • Cuffs c.1910 Caption: Detachable cuffs with stains, c. 1910 © Museum of London
  • Boots with screws in heel Caption: Women’s boots, c. 1895 © Museum of London
  • Boot with screw in heel Caption: Detail of heel showing screw © Museum of London
  • Boot imprint Caption: Imprint of sole of boot © Museum of London