Doctor Who: Respect The Scarf

On Tom Baker's Birthday, Tony Fyler talks fashion – and a little bit more.

Have you noticed that whenever a new Doctor is announced, nobody ever wonders ‘Will there be a long white wig and a frock coat?’ No-one ever asks ‘Will there be ruffled shirts and capes again?’ or ‘Will the decorative celery make a comeback?’ Sadly for Matt Smith devotees, no-one will ever ask ‘Will Fezzes be cool again?’

Yeah, you’ve noticed how no-one ever says any of that. Because you’ve also noticed that the one costume question they always ask is ‘Ooh, will the new Doctor wear the floppy hat and the long scarf?’ Commentators can’t help themselves, truly – it’s 35 years since Tom Baker handed in his Tardis key, but his image, stamped onto the consciousness of the audience over the length of practically any two other Doctors, is still that of the iconic, archetypal Doctor – the wandering alien, never quite right, but always right at home. The Bohemian who walks into disaster and saves as many people as he can.

Why is that? Why has the Tom Baker outfit become so much a part of people’s understanding of what the quintessential Doctor is?

Is it simply that Tom Baker was in the role for so long? Seven years in a single role that was already a national icon is more than enough to make an audience aware of what to expect from and associate with a particular character, so even though the fundamental nature of the character is to change and change utterly, there could well be a nagging sense of the Baker Doctor as ‘the real Doctor’ – the one who’s inside, directing the persona, and who’s just dying to get its neck back into a witty piece of knitwear. So yes, arguably, that could be part of the appeal.

Is it something to do with the outfit itself – something about the look of Aristide Bruant in the Henri Toulouse-Lautrec posters which closely resemble and were said by costume designer James Acheson to be an unconscious inspiration for the Fourth Doctor’s outfit? There’s a sense of sweeping authority in the posters of Bruant, certainly, giving the look of a man you would not necessarily like to cross, but who could walk into any room and assume command. But it’s probably a mistake to treat the Bruant image as the direct inspiration for the look – while Bruant is wrapped in a cloak more akin to Pertwee’s, if you look at the whole of the Fourth Doctor’s look, much of it is based on what has gone before, and has a relatively establishment, British feel. The shoes are either leather dress shoes or boots. The trousers are generally check in neutral colours, much like those of the first two Doctors. There’s a waistcoat, usually also in tweedy checks. There’s even often a cravat – not exactly a frilly shirt, but still a note of the dandy beneath the three-quarter length coat. As an outfit without the hat and coat, it’s all just a little lacklustre, though topping if off with Tom Baker’s unsettling mouthful of teeth, his twinkling eyes and that mop of unruly curls instinctively draws the focus away from its moderate blandness.

Even the hat is a part-time addition – there are plenty of adventures in which the Fourth Doctor goes hatless, and arguably, when you have a head covered in the bouncy misrule of Tom Baker’s 70s hair, there’s a degree  to which sticking a hat on is not so much gilding the lily as locking it away unseen in the dark.

So we come back to the scarf. The senseless, accidentally long, additional neck furniture. It was, much like Bruant’s neckwarmer in the Lautrec posters, only supposed to be a normal scarf, but the Production Team sent a generosity of wool to the woman charged with knitting it, more to give her a freedom of choice than anything else. And, unsure as to what they wanted, she simply used it all, creating the iconic never-ending article that became somehow symbolic of the Fourth Doctor – and arguably the Doctor as a whole.

There can be little doubt that the scarf defines the Fourth Doctor’s look, and tells us something about his personality. Without it, as we’ve said, his overall look is really rather pedestrian and a little privileged – a Victorian or Edwardian gentleman with an unusual hat for the period. But the scarf draws the eye…and draws it… and draws it. It’s a statement of intense difference, woven in wool. I might look like you, it says, and dress like you, but this scarf, you know…this scarf is me. It’s the wild, impulsive, alien wrongness of me. Respect the scarf. In a punchier storytelling age, long scarves would be cool. ‘I wear it, and I don’t care – that’s why it’s cool.’

So are we saying that the essence of the eternal Doctor, the thing everyone always comes back to after all these years, is all down to the accidental genius of an overlong accessory?

You might say that. The argument is certainly there to be made. But no, we’re not saying that. Not here.

Why is the Tom Baker look so iconic? Why, 35 years later, does it continue to define the Doctor in the public imagination? Why does that silhouette still feel intrinsically right?

There are, I’d suggest, two reasons. Firstly, many of the people who now get to ask questions about the new Doctors when they’re announced are of an age where Tom Baker was their Doctor, the one who warmed their Saturday nights and kept them safe behind their sofas. And that image, that silhouette, is what their Doctor looked like – the mad, goggle-eyed, grinning Bohemian with the unlikely scarf trailing behind.

But far more important in the equation is Tom Baker himself. Every Doctor does something new with the role, with the life they’re given as the runaway Time Lord, but Tom Baker embodied the role. Taking care of the character, always investing it with nuance, even beating some scripts into shape and terrifying writers to make the Doctor better, to make him more playable by Tom Baker in a way that seared that version of TV’s Hamlet onto the consciousness of the nations where the show was seen. Tom Baker could be many things – moody, argumentative, even cold to some companion-actors, but what you got on screen was rarely if ever less than brilliant in terms of the portrayal of the central character. When it comes to bedding a character into the national psyche, Tom Baker was tireless. When it came to making bold choices, he rarely seemed afraid – check out his reaction to leaving Leela behind in The Invasion of Time, his explosion when he finds Sarah-Jane has been allowed to go off with Kettlewell in Robot, his comic delivery throughout much of Robots of Death, his railing at the Cybermen in Revenge of the Cybermen, his laughter at Harry Sullivan being an imbecile in the same episode – and a hundred more instances of an actor both at home in a role and always seeing the way to stretch it into something new and bright and exciting.

Why, after 35 years, do people still ask about the scarf?

Because it was wrapped around the neck of Tom Baker, that’s why – and no-one as yet has worked as hard, or anything like as long, on embodying the Doctor in our public consciousness.

Respect the scarf, absolutely. But respect Tom Baker more.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at
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