If it wasn’t for a case of crossed wires, one of Doctor Who’s most iconic accoutrements might never have been. We’re talking, of course, about the Fourth Doctor’s impossibly long—and woefully impractical—striped scarf, which he claimed he received from one Madame Nostradamus. The real-life provenance of the garment, though a mite less fanciful, is equally intriguing. Commissioned by BBC costume designer James Acheson in 1974 for Tom Baker’s portrayal of the fictional Timelord, the scarf was designed to finish off the freshly regenerated Doctor’s “bohemian look,” modeled after that of a fin-de-siècle student in Paris. The final 12-foot product, however, was a happy accident—the result of a freelance knitter not realizing she didn’t have to use all the wool she had been given.
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“The multicoloured scarf came about after Jim bought a wagonload of wool,” Baker recalls in the Guardian. “He gave it to a woman [Begonia Pope] who was so excited at being asked to work for Doctor Who that she started knitting it and just didn’t stop. When we went to her room, it was so full of scarf, we couldn’t get in. She offered to cut it up, but Jim wanted to keep it.”
The scarf got “longer and longer and more operatic” with each subsequent series, according to Baker.
As the scarf began to lose both stretch and stripes after extended use, the costume department created “stunt doubles” with subtle differences in length, color, and patterning. Other designers later took over and the scarf got “longer and longer and more operatic” with each subsequent series, according to Baker.
For the the 1980 episode “The Leisure Hive,” costume head June Hudson devised a new scarf for the Doctor using thicker chenille yarn and a burgundy palette. Baker wore the scarf, his longest to date, as he battled vampires, Marshmen, and the villainous Master for the rest of his seven-year tenure.
More than 30 years later—Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary on Saturday—the scarf continues to be a touchstone for fans of the show. Licensed replicas, made from 100 percent acrylic, are readily available online. If fidelity’s your bag, you can also knit your own using the original wool. (The ability to time travel, however, isn’t guaranteed.)