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The Inverness cape is a form of weatherproof outercoat. It is notable for being sleeveless, the arms emerging from armholes beneath a cape. It has become associated with the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
The garment began as the Inverness coat, an outer-coat with sleeves covered by a long cape, reaching the length of the sleeve.[i] By the 1870s, the cape was divided in two, and a small "capelet"-like "wing" on each side was sewn into the side seams, not taken across the back. In the 1880s, the sleeves were removed entirely, and the armholes were cut away beneath the cape to form the Inverness cape.
The fronts of the coat may be finished in either of two styles: in one, the more formal, the topcoat is finished with short lapels and the capes are set back behind them. In another style, there are no lapels. A simple fall collar with a tall stand is used, the capes buttoning across. These were also favoured for less formal wear, particularly by coachmen and cab drivers, who needed free movement of their arms. Indeed, this style is usually called a "coachman's cape."
Even though a wide variety of coats, overcoats, and rain gear are worn with Highland dress to deal with inclement weather, the Inverness cape has come to be almost universally adopted for rainy weather by pipe bands the world over, and many other kilt wearers also find it to be the preferable garment for such conditions. Unlike most raincoats or other conventional overcoats, the Inverness cape has no sleeves. Instead, it has wide-cut armholes in the sides to accommodate the arms. This enables the wearer to access a sporran without unbuttoning and opening up the cape. The opening in the side is covered by a short cape, which can be buttoned up in the front.
In popular culture
Arguably the most famous example in fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes is often associated with the Inverness cape. In the Holmes novels, Holmes is described as wearing an Ulster. Holmes's distinctive look, which was usually complemented with a deerstalker cap and a calabash pipe, is a composite of images, originally credited to illustrator Sidney Paget. But as adapted to the stage by the actor-playwright William Gillette, Holmes did not wear a cape-coat at all, and the origin of the calabash pipe is something of a mystery, although it might have had something to do with Gillette's introduction of a full-bend briar pipe for his performances. Paget had depicted Holmes as smoking straight pipes, exclusively.
Be that as it might, the cape-coat, the deerstalker, and the calabash pipe were already associated with Holmes by the 1930s, chiefly in the United States, but the image became definitive with the first two films in which Basil Rathbone appeared on-screen as Holmes, produced for 20th-Century Fox in 1939.[ii]
The Inverness cape is a water-repellent garment. The commonly held image of the cape as worn by Holmes is one made of tweed, specifically in a grey houndstooth pattern. However, more modest capes, made of nylon or twill-weave fabrics and usually black in colour, are commonly used by members of pipe bands.
Still worn in the United Kingdom, the Inverness cape is often made of heavy Harris tweed of plaid and checked designs. It is usually worn for country wear. Lighter weight black cape-coats are more associated with formal evening attire.
Steampunk fashion has revived the wearing of the Inverness cape to a limited extent.
- In comparison, the Ulster coat is similar, but the cape of an Ulster reaches only to the elbows.
- In the Holmes short stories that were published in The Strand Magazine, Paget had depicted Holmes wearing a plaid Ulster, paired with a Bowler, not the deerstalker, in "The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Blue Carbuncle." In the text of "Silver Blaze" and "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Holmes is not described as wearing an Inverness but a "long grey travelling cloak" depicted by Paget as an overcoat with a hood.