The quote forming the first part of my title comes from “The War Machines,” a serial that aired between late June and mid July 1966, at a moment when an enduring myth of British cool was in the making. Later that same July, England was to win the World Cup at Wembley; the Fab Four were within a few weeks of embarking on their third and last U.S. tour, and on the King’s Road and in Soho a youth-oriented fashion revolution was fermenting around the hip clothing boutiques now inextricably linked with the name Carnaby Street.[1]  The quote itself is a compliment paid to the First Doctor (William Hartnell) by one of the incidental characters in “The War Machines,” a with-it young woman called Kitty, who’s surprised to encounter the old man in her nightclub, the Inferno. She goes on to remark insouciantly: “It isn’t everyday we get the over-twenties in this place.”  The levity of the exchange shouldn’t obscure the small but significant way in which this encounter served to reorient Doctor Who. Apart from fleeting reference to the musical tastes of the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) in “An Unearthly Child,” this was the first moment in which contemporary youth trends were substantively acknowledged within the series. It was also the beginning of a curious, uneven relationship between the Doctor’s costume style and contemporary fashion, which by the fiftieth anniversary year seems to have again cycled to a place where the retro-oddities of the Doctor’s clothing can be understood as “fab.” It is this changing relationship between the Doctor’s costumes and fashion that forms the main subject of this brief essay, though discussion of this topic necessarily involves reference also to the Doctor’s companions.

By way of framing the wildly veering fortunes of the Doctor’s encounters with contemporary fashion, we must return to 1966, the moment of Doctor Who’s first major rejuvenation, which was to have far reaching consequences. As of early Spring the series had a new producer, Innes Lloyd, who apparently wanted to modernise Doctor Who, and updated it in ways that would be more likely to engage a young adult (as opposed to juvenile/family) audience.[2] In the course of the next two seasons Lloyd moved Who’s generic affiliation firmly into the domain of horror, which by the mid sixties was increasingly a genre associated with teens. He also introduced the principle that the Doctor could not only change his appearance but also grow more youthful as he did so: in October 1966 the crustily professorial, snowy haired first Doctor was replaced by a younger, impishly irreverent figure (Patrick Troughton) with a Beatle-like mop of black hair. Yet before all these tonal and visceral changes, the first step in the updating of Who took place in “The War Machines” — and more specifically within the fictional Inferno club. It was here that a new crew for the TARDIS was formed: Kitty’s friend Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), a tall, imposing blonde, became the Doctor’s new female companion, and another of the club’s patrons, the cockney sailor Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), his new male sidekick. Ben diverged markedly from previous male companions in that he was working- rather than middle class. By the same token Polly differed from previous female companions in being assertively feminine, trendy and sexy: she stood in especially stark contrast to her predecessor, the child-like, diminutive, and sartorially “neuter” Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane).

One long-term effect of Polly’s introduction was that the Doctor’s female companions became the primary locus of fashion in Doctor Who. Through the companions, contemporary fashions have been a key part of Classic and New Who’s visual character for all but a few years from the later seventies to the early eighties – though modishness was perhaps most strongly evident from 1966 to 1974. Miniskirts and later hot pants were endemic to the wardrobes of late sixties and early seventies companions from Polly to Jo Grant (Katy Manning); Zoe Herriot (Wendy Padbury) and her replacement, Liz Shaw (Caroline John) wore striking “space age” outfits in the years up to 1970, and in the new decade Jo’s wardrobe was dominated by hippie-inflected boutique garments, most notably from Biba.[3] Keen awareness of contemporary youth trends returned in the late eighties via the street styles sported by Ace (Sophie Aldred), at a moment when the series was again undergoing significant revision under the shadow of threatened termination.[4] In New Who all but one of the female companions have been fashion-forward: as Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) had her zip-tops, tees and parkas from Punkyfish and Diesel, so Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) has her fishtail frocks, floral print skirts and linen field jackets from outfitters such as Pins and Needles, Vaudeville and Burlesque and the seemingly ever-cool Barbour.

Doctor Who companions are not only for the most part rooted in the “now” but are almost always young, and from Rose (if not Ace) onwards, they have also been meant as identification figures for younger female viewers. For all these reasons women companions are more readily associated with contemporary fashion than the supposedly timeless, alien Doctor, who has more often than not been played by middle-aged actors.  Yet it is worth remembering that the dress of the Doctors of the sixties and early seventies as strongly echoed contemporary trends as anything worn by their companions. If the First Doctor was, so to speak, grandfathered into newly emerging retro tastes via Kitty’s praise of his “fab gear,” the next two Doctors were from their first appearance related to youth trends or subcultures. The Second Doctor’s Beatles bowl-cut and scruffy, ill-fitting parody of his predecessor’s dapper Edwardian attire clearly aligned him with beatnik rejection of convention, while the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), with his bouffant hair, ruffled shirts and richly coloured velvet jackets, was unmistakably a product of the late sixties “Peacock Revolution” in menswear.[5] It is also quite possible to connect Tom Baker’s earliest costumes, like Troughton’s, with the hippies’ subversive appropriation of past dress styles; the mid-seventies Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe has suggested that Baker’s was the “Woodstock” counterpart to Pertwee’s “Swingin’ London” Doctor.[6]

However, it was during Tom Baker’s incumbency that Doctor Who’s engagement with fashion started to wane. This applied not only to the Doctor’s costumes but also those of his companions. In 1975 and 1976 Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) wore outfits that were striking but idiosyncratic rather than fashionable. Often, harking back to the First Doctor’s pre-Polly companions, they were somewhat juvenile, the most infamous example being the “Andy Pandy” striped dungarees that Sladen wore in her final screened serial, “The Hand of Fear” (1976).  This shift away from contemporary fashion reached its apogee in the period 1978 to 1981, with the emergence of a new, flamboyant costume idiom, epitomised by the wardrobe of the Doctor’s Time Lady companion, Romana. As played by the statuesque Mary Tamm, Romana dressed in a style that was not necessarily dissonant with contemporary dress, but primarily evoked old Hollywood glamour. In her quirky second incarnation (Lalla Ward), Romana developed an eye-catching, eclectic personal style that equalled the Doctor’s in its distinctiveness.[7] During these years, the benchmark for contemporaneity in Doctor Who was displaced from the real world to the generic arena of current science-fiction fantasy. Costumes in Seasons 16 to 18 of Doctor Who mirrored the new exuberance of design in American sci-fi television and films made after Star Wars (1977), and in Doctor Who’s new, more adult stable mate at the BBC, Blake’s 7 (1978-81). If the Doctor and Romana were cool, it was not because their dress was “groovily” in keeping with the youth styles of the disco years, but because they embodied the imaginative possibilities of a genre that had exponentially increased mainstream appeal.

As twentieth anniversary celebrations approached in 1983 it was becoming hard to think of Doctor Who and fashion as remotely related terms — and equally hard to think of Who as remotely cool. “The Five Doctors” (1983) celebrated a national institution, and unfortunately, as is often the fate of those things that become institutionalised, Doctor Who seemed at best quaint and at worst embarrassingly rigid and out-dated. This was true even within the generic context, where the reassuring conformities of the Star Trek franchise were starting to establish a new sci-fi norm. While youth trends, and specifically the rehabilitated mini-skirt, were aggressively (not to say exploitatively) reintroduced in 1983 and 1984 in costuming for Nyssa of Traken (Sarah Sutton) and Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) was dressed in ways that made him seem not only unfashionable but also faintly absurd. The stick of celery weirdly stuck to his lapel, the scarlet question marks on his shirt collar and braces, and the striped trousers incongruously integrated into his cricketing attire were easy targets for ridicule, the trousers in particular begging for comparison with Arthur Dent’s (intentionally) naff pyjamas in the sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981).

Piers D. Britton 
“Oh, I Dig Your Fab Gear!”: Costume, Fashion and the Doctor – A Brief History

Miniskirts and later hot pants were endemic to the wardrobes of late sixties and early seventies companions from Polly to Jo Grant ... Zoe Herriot and Liz Shaw wore striking space age outfits in the years up to 1970, and in the new decade Jo’s wardrobe was dominated by hippie-inflected boutique garments from Biba


[1] See inter alia Sonia Ashmore, “‘I think they’re all mad’: Shopping in Swinging London,” in Swinging Sixties: Fashion in London and Beyond 1955-1970, eds. C. Breward, D. Gilbert & J. Lister (London: V&A Publications, 2006) 58-77 and Jennifer Harris, Sarah Hyde and Greg Smith, 1966 and All That: Design and the Consumer in Britain 1960-1969 (London: Trefoil Books, 1986), 53-57.

[2] On Innes Lloyd’s goals as producer, see David J. Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker, Doctor Who: The Sixties (London: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), 62, 66-8, 95; and idem, The Handbook: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Production of Doctor Who (Prestatyn: Telos Publishing, 2005), 235-236.

[3] “Doctor who? The Time Lord’s companions from the 60s and 70s have their say,” The Guardian, September 27, 2013, accessed October 31, 2013; see also the entry on a pair of Biba shoes, V&A Search the Collections, accessed October 31, 2013, 

[4] See Piers Britton and Simon Barker, Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 157.

[5] Geoffrey Aquilana Ross, The Day of the Peacock: Style for Men 1963-1973 (London: V&A Publications, 2011).

[6] Telephone conversation with the author, 1995.

[7] Britton and Barker, pp. 157-163.