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Sherlock Holmes style: The mystery of the modern dandy

It doesn't take a master sleuth to deduce that men's wear is having a Victorian moment.

Guy Ritchie's edgy film take on Arthur Conan Doyle's detective hero, is just the most recent reminder that late-19th century attire - with its frock coats, waistcoats, plaids, tweeds, suspenders, pocket watches and cravats - has had more incarnations than Professor Moriarty, Holmes's arch-enemy and a master of disguise. Right now, the look has an air of disreputable dandy.

Consider Alexander McQueen's fall/winter 2009 show, which saw models stomping down the runway in tailored topcoats accessorized with fingerless gloves and weapon-like canes - not exactly the kind of men you'd want to encounter in a dark alley. The lineup was rounded out with plaid suits over Henley shirts and long leather aprons suggestive of high-fashion metalworkers.

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Both gritty and refined, today's Holmesian aesthetic is rooted in costume but light on drama. The point is not to project a time-warped ensemble so much as a multi-layered one.

The recent work of Philip Sparks, whose frock coats and jodhpur pants are made with a coated fabric from Limonta, an Italian mill dating to 1893, is a case in point. The Canadian designer didn't have Sherlock Holmes in mind when he designed them, but, as he has with all his collections, he did tip his hat to history in the process.

"I don't think you can always go and pull the period pieces and wear them the way they are," says Sparks, who also has a penchant for plaid. "I think the proportions have to change to make it work for today."

James Bassil, the Montreal-based editor for AskMen.com, says he's had his eye on this industrial evolution for a while now. "It's formal but it works for men who don't want to look too starchy or deliberate … This is a style that retains its masculinity."

He also points out, though, that most men are unlikely to overhaul their closets because they watched Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law cavort on screen for two hours in tweed pants and suspenders. "It wouldn't occur to most guys to apply [that look]directly to their own wardrobes, but this kind of widespread moment does make things like waistcoats and sideburns and steampunk more acceptable."

The trend toward traditional also presents a golden opportunity for labels with a reputation for craftsmanship to highlight their way with tailoring and details. For fall 2010, for instance, the revered Scottish brand Harris Tweed will officially debut its Hamish jacket, which is aimed at gents in their 30s. "We have had young people asking us for something more updated," director Lydia Walton says by phone from England. "We also found that young people would take the classic jacket and funk it up themselves with skinny jeans and elongated shoes; the contrast with the tweed seems to do a lot for them."

As Toronto designer Ken Chow sees it, accessories are an easy way to integrate a historical reference into contemporary ensembles. The washed-lambskin bibs and vests from his most recent collection, for example, marry elegance with edge. "I wanted to do something dressed up but I didn't want it to be too loud, so I wondered what would happen if I deconstructed a shirt and used it as the accent piece."

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Not one to subscribe to fads, Chow says that men should be wary of adopting any look from head to toe. "If dandyism is a big thing, you have to add something else to make it modern. If you don't, you might as well be living back in the 1800s."

On location

It would have been around the same time that the fictional Sherlock Holmes sleuthed his way through London that the first bricks were being stacked at Toronto's historic Victoria University. Needless to say, we couldn't have picked a better backdrop for our own dapper detective.

Part of the University of Toronto's sprawling downtown campus, Victoria University is an ivy-covered oasis situated between leafy Queen's Park and the glittering shops of Bloor Street West. Originally founded as Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, Ont. in 1836, it received royal assent in 1841 and saw its name changed to honour Queen Victoria. The school moved to its current locale in 1890 after it joined the University of Toronto. In addition to boasting an impressive number of notable grads, including filmmaker Norman Jewison, author Margaret Atwood and Nobel laureate Lester B. Pearson, the school is also home to some outstanding architecture, from the Romanesque Old Vic building to Gothic-influenced Burwash Hall to Edwardian-era Annesley Hall, Canada's first all-female residence.

This year, Victoria will be celebrating its 175th anniversary with a series of celebrations and lectures kicking off Oct. 13 and extending though Oct. 16, 2011.

For more information, visit www.vicu.utoronto.ca.

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-Tiyana Grulovic

Fashion direction and styling by Tiyana Grulovic; Styling assistant, Laura Serra; Grooming, Jackie Shawn for Tresemme (Judy Inc.)

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