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


Still more risibly unmodish was the outrageous costume imposed on Davison’s successor, Colin Baker. The actor has subsequently spoken of the garish colouring and clashing fabrics of the Sixth Doctor’s hideous, patchwork coat as epitomising the excesses of the eighties.[8] Yet this sly double condemnation, entertaining as it is, will not do: even the most ebullient of Kaffe Fassett sweaters and the most lurid print trousers from International Baggyz did not come close to the screeching chromatic dissonance of the Sixth Doctor’s outfit. Moreover, even if we accept that the brash use of colour and patterned fabric is somehow representative of the moment, the (exquisite) traditional cutting of Baker’s fitted coat is absolutely at odds with the contemporary male silhouette, which comprised exaggeratedly broad shoulders, loose sleeves and low button stance. While the series’ popularity in the later 1970s attests the extent to which Doctor Who could be independent of contemporary fashion, there were limits, and this costume’s affront to any current definition of cool was a spectacular own goal for the series. Baker’s costume perfectly distilled the ways in which love of Doctor Who was growing to be incommensurate with any hope of gaining street credibility for those of us who were teenage fans in the mid 1980s.

While it would be unfair to suggest that Colin Baker’s or Peter Davison’s costumes contributed significantly to the ultimate demise of Classic Who in 1989, they certainly helped to brand the series as silly children’s programming rather than serious drama, and to affirm the sense that Doctor Who had become a camp caricature of itself. This was further confirmed by Sylvester McCoy’s outfit as the Seventh Doctor and Paul McGann’s as the Eighth, since both seemed to conflate aspects of their predecessors’ dress styles in largely uninteresting ways. In McGann’s case this self-reference could at least be justified by the fact that his sole outing in 1996, almost seven years after the classic series ended, was an attempt to distil the Doctor Who heritage and repackage it for a new, U.S. audience. Much play was made in the McGann TV pilot of the Doctor’s being essentially British. However, in the era of Blur, Oasis and Suede, the effete, sub-Merchant-Ivory vision of Britishness embodied in McGann’s velvet frock coat, brocade waistcoat and flowing locks clearly did not resonate with viewers — nor, consequently, with the Fox network, which declined to pick the series up.

Paul McGann has been as open as Colin Baker about the frustrations of having his Doctor Who costume imposed on him, saying more than once that he would have preferred something more contemporary. Tellingly, both Baker and McGann have at various stages sought to have their Doctors’ sartorial images altered in packaging and other materials relating to the licensed Doctor Who audio dramas produced by Big Finish (1999 –). In Baker’s case this entailed changing his existent costume to monochrome blue, while in McGann’s it resulted in a much more radical makeover. Still more tellingly, when Christopher Eccleston was cast in 2004 as the star of the revival he was quick to say in interview that his Doctor would not be as foppishly dressed as predecessors.[9] As it turned out, this was an understatement: Eccleston’s dress and grooming entirely overturned Doctor Who precedent. His was the first incarnation since Pertwee’s to fit in sartorially with contemporary trends, with the important difference that the Ninth Doctor’s style was urban casual rather than boutique chic — cropped hair, battered vintage U-boat commander’s jacket, dark t-shirt and straight-cut black trousers, and heavy boots.

In terms of behaviour, Eccleston’s Doctor proved to be as volatile as the most highly strung of his predecessors. However, the costume served to contain this rather than amplify this, ensuring that it was the Doctor’s cool, not his capacity for manic intensity, that was telegraphed most strongly in the saturation-level publicity materials for the new series. Eccleston’s costume was also the least optically assertive since Patrick Troughton’s, ensuring that for perhaps the first time ever the Doctor could blend in with a crowd on a present-day street. Again, it is probably excessive to suggest that Eccleston’s look played a central role in securing the new Doctor Who’s future, but there is no doubt that it was a crucial marker of distantiation from the decline of the classic series. In and of themselves street styles, whether worn by the Doctor or Rose, could not make Doctor Who popular, but the exclusion of counter-modish foppery in the Doctor’s costume meant that at least the new series was avoiding the missteps of the abortive McGann pilot.

Eccleston’s streetwise costume made the Doctor quietly cool again, but with his two successors the idea of fashion has become more thoroughly entwined with the hero’s identity than ever. While the series achieved huge success in the first year of its revival, it was arguably not until the debut of the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) that the character himself once again became a mainstream popular icon, and a youth icon at that. Indeed, the term rock star seems applicable in two ways: meta-narratively, because of Tennant’s meteoric rise to the status of national treasure, and visually, since the Tenth Doctor’s look—product-laden quiff, skinny-fit suit, narrow rectangular specs, and Converse sneakers—was straight out of the post-Britpop alternative rock scene. The Tenth Doctor even had a line in “Gridlock” (2007) claiming that his dashing polo coat was a gift from Janis Joplin — a far cry from the Fourth Doctor’s comparable claim in “The Ark in Space” (1975) that his absurdly long scarf was knitted by Madame Nostradamus.

If it was hard to reconcile the Doctor’s appearance with contemporary dress during the vigentennial Doctor Who celebrations in 1983, then it is conversely true that as the fiftieth anniversary approaches it is hard to imagine New Who ever again being wholly independent of notions of fashion. In this regard Tennant’s shadow still looms long, colouring expectations of subsequent Doctors’ dress and inflecting its role within the Who brand. In 2009 the unveiling of Matt Smith’s gawky “boffin” (or “geography teacher”) look for the Eleventh Doctor led to rehearsal of anxieties among fashion pundits that Doctor Who was unwisely turning its back on the accessible look sported by Tennant.[10] These fears proved unfounded, for Smith’s style has been absorbed into fashion discourse as nerdy chic, with palpable results. Advertising strategies for purveyors of Harris Tweed, and reports of rapidly climbing sales, clearly attest the influence of Smith’s costume choice.[11] And in spite of all the scripted jokes at the expense of the Doctor’s belief that bow ties are cool, it seems that his misunderstanding only holds good within the diegesis. In the last three years fashion pundits and other commentators have repeatedly claimed that the bow tie is “back,” and in some cases this return to favour is directly associated with the Eleventh Doctor.[12]

At the time of writing, anticipation over the costume choice for the Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi, is riding high. Interestingly, the Radio Times reported in mid October that Capaldi is out with the “wardrobe stylist” looking for outfits.[13] The choice of the term stylist, whether an editorial misnomer for designer or not, is strongly indicative of the way in which the Doctor’s “fab gear” has been discursively shifted out of the pocket universe of costume and back into the cosmos of fashion.












While it would be unfair to suggest that Colin Baker’s costume contributed significantly to the ultimate demise of Classic Who in 1989, it certainly helped to brand the series as silly children’s programming rather than serious drama, and to affirm the sense that Doctor Who had become a camp caricature of itself











           NOTES            

[8] “Trials and Tribulations,” feature accompanying Doctor Who: Trial of Time Lord, writ. Robert Holmes et al, dir. Nicholas Mallett et al, BBC 2008, DVD.

[9] “Doctor Who Press Pack – Phase One,” BBC Press Office: Press Releases, May 10, 2005, accessed October 31, 2013, 

[10] “The fashion police on Doctor Who’s new outfit,” BBC News Magazine, July 21, 2009, accessed October 31, 2013, 

[11] Simone Knox, “The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Time Lord: Doctor Who and the Relationships between British and North American Television,” in Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 115-116; “Doctor Who Matt Smith boosts sales of Harris Tweed,” The Mirror, October 13, 2013, accessed October 31, 2013, 

[12] “Thanks to Doctor Who, bow ties are back. But will good taste and chivalry follow?,” The Telegraph, June 22, 2012, accessed October 31, 2013